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Monday, July 28, 2003


Commodore Perry's legacy of curiosity

150 years ago a 'powerful squadron' met an inquisitive people

NEW YORK -- In the sesquicentennial of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry's visit to Japan, I am happy to imagine that I must be one of the few owners of the original edition of his report: "Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, Performed in the Years 1852, 1853, and 1854, under the Command of Commodore M.C. Perry, United States Navy."

The 624-page book, published in 1857 by D. Appleton and Company with "numerous illustrations," is a reminder of the kind of loving bookmaking once taken for granted in this country. It is heavy, sturdy and beautifully designed.

It is a magnificent narrative graced with keen observation and empathy. One incident described, in particular, has fascinated me ever since an American businessman kindly sold the book to me "for one-third of its market value." It is the encounter between Perry, "the Old Bruin," then 60, and Yoshida Shoin, the young nationalist, then 23.

Simply put, Shoin, an ardent advocate of sonno joi (upholding the emperor and expelling the aliens), asked Perry to take him out of Japan. Perry, fully aware that any Japanese caught doing that was put to death, refused. When informed that Shoin, along with his coschemer Kaneko Jutaro, was duly arrested and imprisoned, he did his best "to impress upon the authorities how trifling he esteemed the offence" and, indeed, he was able to leave the country with "an assurance from the authorities . . . that he need not apprehend a serious termination."

There was, of course, no way for the American naval officer to know Shoin's eventual fate and fame. Shoin met the "serious termination" of beheading, but not until five years after Perry left Japan -- not, in fact, until a year after he died. And, during those five short years, which he spent either in prison or under house arrest, Shoin became such an inspirational promoter of nationalism that he would continue to be revered long after the notion of "expelling the aliens" became a quaint episode in history.

The encounter between the two men, told in a mere five pages of the "Narrative," fascinates. This is largely because Perry and his men, who provided its compiler, Francis L. Hawks, with their journals and reports, knew how to remember vivid details and write them down. Here is a passage describing the way the officers of the squadron strolling in Shimoda came across Shoin and Kaneko:

"They seemed to be approaching as if stealthily, and as though desirous of seeking an opportunity of speaking. . . . On being accosted, the Japanese were observed to be men of some position and rank, as each wore the two swords characteristic of distinction, and were dressed in wide but short trowsers [sic] of rich silk brocade. Their manners showed the usual courtly refinement of the better classes, but . . . [t]hey cast their eyes stealthily about, as if to assure themselves that none of their countrymen were at hand to observe their proceedings, and then approaching one of the officers and pretending to admire his watch-chain, slipped within the breast of his coat a folded paper."

It may be recalled that Japan during the Edo Period was, like Soviet Russia and Communist China, a country of informers.

The folded paper was a letter written in classical Chinese. Samuel Wells Williams, "the interpreter of the squadron" and later a Yale professor, translated it -- "a literal translation" that did not skimp on the letter's elaborate self-deprecation and highfalutin metaphors. (We know this because Shoin kept a copy.) It was a plea that the two men be taken "on board the [American] ships as they go out to sea" so that they may "thus visit around in the five great continents." It was accompanied by a note saying they would attempt to approach the ships the following night.

They did, with great difficulty -- they used a small fishing boat and there was a "heavy swell in the harbor" -- but Perry had to "firmly but kindly" turn down their plea. He knew the "eccentric and sanguinary code of Japanese law." But he was in the midst of subtle, difficult negotiations with the Japanese government and any breach of "honor" would have ruined them. Also, he had to consider the possibility that the two Japanese might be a decoy, a ruse. Nonetheless, Hawks clearly reflected the sentiments of Perry and his men when he added:

"The event was full of interest, as indicative of the intense desire for information on the part of two educated Japanese, who were ready to brave the rigid laws of the country, and to risk even death for the sake of adding to their knowledge. The Japanese are undoubtedly an inquiring people, and would gladly welcome an opportunity for the expansion of their moral and intellectual faculties. . . . In this disposition of the people of Japan, what a field of speculation and, it may be added, what a prospect full of hope opens for the future of that interesting country!"

We know that Perry's expedition was conceived on the heels of the U.S.-Mexican War for which John O'Sullivan, in effect, formulated "the right of our manifest destiny." It was gunboat diplomacy, pure and simple. For, although President Millard Fillmore assured "His Imperial Majesty, The Emperor of Japan" that "[t]he Constitution and laws of the United States forbid all interference with the religious or political concerns of other nations," he was careful to note that his emissary, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, was "an officer of the highest rank in the navy of the United States" and commanded "a powerful squadron."

We also know that the very "disposition of the people of Japan" that Perry and his men so admired eventually led to Pearl Harbor, of which the American poet Robinson Jeffers wrote:

The war that we have carefully for years provoked

Catches us unprepared, amazed and indignant.

For that matter, is it a kind of irony, so common in world history, that Japan, which the U.S. severely punished for its wars of aggression, willingly took part in another such war -- one initiated by the U.S. -- exactly 150 years after Perry's visit?

Why did the die-hard nationalist Yoshida Shoin, who, as he himself attested, intoned every day "the reasons for loathing the aliens," make a desperate attempt to leave for alien lands? Because Shoin, like many nationalists of the day, determined that for Japan to defend itself from advanced countries, it had to acquire the technological wherewithal from them. They knew perfectly well what those advanced nations were doing -- scandalized and scared, for example, by the Opium War.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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