Monday, March 1, 2010

Commodore Perry, Japan, and Hypocrisy

Reading in detail about Commodore Perry's mission to Japan in 1853 and 1854, I could not help but be struck by the astonishing level of hypocrisy in the account. Perhaps this is because Commodore Perry and the Opening of Japan was written by a minister, Francis L. Hawks, but more likely it simply and accurately reflects ruling class Amerian attitudes of that day.

The United States already had an extensive trade with China, and its whaling ships regularly operated in the seas around Japan. The U.S. had first been extended to the Pacific Ocean in the aftermath of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. You'll recall that Napoleon Bonaparte claimed France owned extensive lands that were in fact the sovereign tribal lands of native American Indians. He sold this dubious title to the United States, led by slaver President Thomas Jefferson, for $15,000,000. The Oregon area was disputed by Spain, Russia, and Great Britain, but by1818 the U.S. had the upper hand and in 1846 the current border was settled by treaty, again without input from the Indians.

The war of aggression against Mexico starting in 1846 was largely designed by U.S. expansionists to get California and the port of San Francisco. American colonists moved rapidly into California, where their new government raised taxes on land just long enough to force most Mexican landholders to sell their holding.

Racism against the Asiatic peoples known as American Indians of course carried over to Euro-American attitudes towards Asians in China and Japan. But another matter that looms behind the Perry expedition is slavery. In the 1850s the U.S. nation practiced slavery, although slavery had been banned in the British Empire.

So if you believe the constant protestations by Perry and his gang that his expedition was about extending the "friendship" of the United States to the nation of Japan, you are naive.

The Japanese were not naive. They had already had considerable experience with the Christian and European meanings of friendship. They had closed off Japan to almost all intercourse with Europeans since the 1600s, in self-defense. Even their traditional trading partner, China, was allowed to trade only at the port of Nagasaki. The one European power the Japanese traded with was the Netherlands. But the Japanese government used the Dutch (also confined to Nagasaki) not so much for physical trade as to keep up on world events. When Perry came knocking at their door they knew about the United States, and they knew about the history of Europeans colonizing Asia. They also knew about many of the inventions of the West, like steam engines, although they had prohibited their actual importation. They had translators that read or spoke Dutch, Chinese, English, and probably other foreign languages. They knew the U.S. had successfully rebelled against Great Britain, and that Franklin Pierce was its President.

And they knew about the First Opium War. The government of China had made opium illegal for the obvious reasons. British (and also some American traders) had insisted on their right to profit from selling opium into China, and the British government defeated the Chinese in 1842, just ten years before the Perry expedition. In the aftermath of the Opium War the U.S. signed a rather one-sided treaty with China, one of the Unequal Treaties, the Treaty of Wanxia of 1844.

While protesting friendship on his mission to Japan (commanding a battle fleet capable of flattening Tokyo), Perry presents the U.S. treaty with China as a model of the sort of treaty the U.S. wants with China.

Even the summaries of the treaty sparring in the book can be tedious, but both sides knew what was really going on. The Japanese certainly knew about the imposition of the Unequal Treaties on China after the Opium War, and certainly had a copy of the treaty. Matthew Perry pretended the Japanese did not know, but he knew they knew. He kept threatening to send for more ships (with more cannon, and soldiers) if the Japanese would not make a treaty. The Japanese said they understood the need of the U.S. to take on coal (the petroleum of that era), water and food, and wanted to allow it at Nagasaki. Perry, representing American merchants and industrialists, wanted free trade, the right to trade anything anywhere. Politely, no one mentioned opium.

The Japanese were not in a position to defend themselves and their way of life, and knew it. They signed the Treaty of Kanagawa with the U.S., and soon signed similar treaties with the European powers. Within a decade the rulers of Japan had decided that to defend themselves they needed to rapidly modernize, at whatever cost to their traditional ways.

In the 1850's Japan looked to some Americans like the next California, a place that could be grabbed, where the native peoples could be put on reservations and left to die.

By 1900 the Japanese were ready to withstand an attack from the imperialist powers. They expanded their vision. They would eventually free all of Asia from colonial slavery to Germany, France, Russia, Britain, the U.S. and the Netherlands.

And that really angered the U.S. ruling class and its global allies.


  1. Hypocrisy have been the root of many problems in different countries.

  2. "They would eventually free all of Asia from colonial slavery to Germany, France, Russia, Britain, the U.S. and the Netherlands"

    And thereby trading one tyrant for another. Ask the Chinese about how well that worked out. Or the Koreans. Hell, anyone.

  3. I agree there is usually little to be gained in trading one tyrant for another. But after the Japanese were defeated in Asia by the United States, Burma was able to keep the independence granted by Japan. The Dutch were unable to reassert control of Indonesia. Vietnam, however, was reoccupied by the French and later South Vietnam had to fight a bloody war of liberation against the United States. Korea, promised independence, was divided by the U.S. and Russia, and remains divided to this day.