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Sunday, July 31, 2011
Most unlikely bedfellows
Charting the course of Japan-U.S. relations — relations that now, as ever, can surprise, bewilder and baffle
Special to The Japan Times
Two mid-19th-century whalemen, an American and a Japanese, made their names immortal. Pity they never met.
They almost did. At least their paths came close to crossing.
On Jan. 3, 1841, Herman Melville boarded the whale-ship Acushnet at the port of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. He was 21, with not much going for him. His father had died bankrupt and the economy was still sunk under the market crash of 1837. The Acushnet was bound for Japan. Japan was the new horizon for American whalers, whales in the Atlantic having been hunted to near-extinction.
On Jan. 5, 1841, a 14-year-old Shikoku peasant boy named Manjiro found work on an 8-meter, square-sailed fishing boat, not equipped for the deep sea because the deep sea was strictly off limits — and had been since the 1630s, when sakoku (closed-country) became the law of the land under the Tokugawa Shogunate. To leave the country, or enter it from outside, was a capital crime. But typhoons blow regardless of laws, and a particularly vicious one swept Manjiro's helpless little craft far out to sea. A desert island offered forbidding but life-saving sanctuary. Six hand-to-mouth months later, Manjiro and four companions were rescued by — coincidences are fascinatingly anarchic — another American whaler from Fairhaven, Massachusetts.
Melville never made it to Japan — he deserted the rigors of the whale ship for lushly perilous and amorous adventure among South Pacific cannibals — but Manjiro did make it to Fairhaven, taken there by his kindly rescuer, Capt. William Whitfield. Whitfield found himself drawn to the young castaway with the quick intelligence and insatiable curiosity. A childless widower, he adopted the boy as a son — a gesture ironically symbolic of the bilateral relationship to come. He christened him John.
Melville, in his 1851 masterpiece "Moby Dick," remarked, "If that double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale-ship alone to whom the credit will be due; for already she is on the threshold."
In 1860, an American naval officer named John Brooke noted in his journal, "I am satisfied that (John Manjiro) has had more to do with the opening of Japan than any other man living." Of the two, the latter is probably the more accurate assessment — but then Brooke was looking back, not forward. When he wrote, Japan had been "open" for six years.
"Friend," they call each other now — the two democratic economic powerhouses on opposite sides of the Pacific. Tomodachi means "friend" in Japanese, and in giving that name to the vast relief operation its military launched following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the United States seemed to be saying, "We're more than just allies."
That's part spin, part plain truth. There really is a special relationship between these two nations. There is one, too, between the U.S. and Britain — based on common language, culture, values. What is the Japan-U.S. relationship based on?
Opposites. Can any two nations be more diametrically opposite? That's less true today, Japan in defeat having adopted many of the victor's ways. Clashing contraries remain all the same, as the trade friction of the 1980s and the seemingly intractable tensions over American military bases show. But they clash less harshly. If the two nations bewilder, annoy and irritate each other now, imagine the confusion attending their first acquaintance.
Whatever one was, the other was not, and vice versa. America was new, Japan old; America expansive, Japan insular; America rich, Japan poor; America big, Japan small; America individualist, Japan collective; America multiethnic, Japan proudly monocultural. America's highest ideal was freedom, Japan's obedience; the U.S. gloried in the pursuit of happiness, Japan in self-sacrifice — and so on and so on. Japan was the "land of the gods," America a "city on a hill." They seemed destined to despise each other, and sometimes did, but more often didn't. That's the wonder of Japan-U.S. relations.
They began with a rape dressed up as seduction — and accepted as such, over time. The story is familiar. Four words and it's told: Commodore Perry, Black Ships. That leaves blanks to fill in, of course, among them the inexhaustible energy of young America, scarcely comprehensible in the present old age of mankind. A new nation was bursting its seams; a huge continent was too small for it. By 1848, California was American, following a victorious war with Mexico. What next? The Pacific. To Americans of that day, the Far East was the Far West. The letter that Cmdr. Matthew Perry brought from U.S. President Millard Fillmore for the Emperor of Japan in July 1853 declared — not in so many words, but in effect: We're on our way, cooperate or else; you're either for us or against us.
"You know," Fillmore wrote to the Emperor Komei — who, unknown to the Americans, sat impotent in Kyoto; power resided with the shogun in Edo (soon to become Tokyo), who, unknown to himself, was rapidly losing control of events — "that the United States of America now extend from sea to sea; that the great countries of Oregon & California are parts of the United States; and that from these countries, which are rich in gold & silver & precious stones, our steamers can reach the shores of your happy land in less than 20 days ..."
Engaged mainly in trade with China, these steamers, the president continued, "must pass along the Coast of your Empire; storms & winds may cause them to be wrecked on your shores, and we ask & expect from your kindness & your greatness, kindness for our men ...
"Your Empire has a great abundance of coal; this is an article which our Steamships, in going from California to China, must use ... "
How many Japanese at the time could even imagine what steamships were? In 1851, the year "Moby Dick" was published, John Manjiro, having acquired an American education, having gone a-whaling, having made a modest fortune in the 1849 California gold rush, returned to Japan — on a whale-ship, as it happened, so Melville may have been right after all. He landed under cover of night on a beach in Okinawa, made his way to Kagoshima in the south of Kyushu, and was interrogated by the local ruler, Lord Shimazu, to whom the wonder of steam power came as an astonishing revelation. Yes, said Manjiro, the Americans had ocean-going steamships; also "land ships," which ran on iron rails.
Perry and his men laid out Japan's first "iron rails" on the beach at Yokohama. It was March, 1854, barely nine months after Perry had delivered his letter and promised — threatened rather — to return the following year. Now the Black Ships — or "Kurofune," as the Japanese called the armed vessels under Perry's command -were back.
An exchange of gifts and entertainments was preliminary to the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Amity wrested at last from a grudging, stalling but helpless Japan. Manjiro, newly dubbed a samurai, served as the shogun's interpreter — despite reservations in some quarters. "I wonder," mused one official, "if that American barbarian (Manjiro's foster-father, Whitfield) educated Manjiro as part of some scheme."
The miniature locomotive the Americans set running on those iron rails was a hit. "It was a spectacle not a little ludicrous," noted the official "Narrative of the Expedition," "to behold a dignified mandarin whirling around the circular road at the rate of 20 miles an hour (32kph), with his loose robes flying in the wind."
The Japanese were all admiration, the Americans all contempt. A staged sumo contest, meant to impress, fell flat. "From the brutal performance of these wrestlers," says the "Narrative," "the Americans turned with pride to the exhibition ... of the telegraph and the railroad. It was a happy contrast, which a higher civilization presented, to the disgusting display on the part of the Japanese officials. In place of a show of brute animal force, there was a triumphant revelation, to a partially enlightened people, of the success of science and enterprise."
The two nations stood face to face and yet did not see each other. Is it surprising? To each the other represented barbarism.
A trivial but revealing example: The Japanese "are a clean people," wrote U.S. Consul Townsend Harris, recording his first impressions upon arrival in 1856 to negotiate a trade treaty supplementary to the Peace and Amity pact. "Everyone bathes every day. ... (People) of both sexes, old and young, enter the same bathroom and there perform their ablutions in a state of perfect nudity. I cannot account for so indelicate a proceeding on the part of a people so generally correct."
Four years later, a Japanese delegation, 77 strong, Manjiro among them as chief interpreter, traveled to the U.S. to formally ratify the treaty Harris had at last succeeded in imposing. (The stalling tactics with which his Japanese interlocutors tortured him were beyond anything they had dared risk with Perry — who, unlike Harris, had been authorized to use force if necessary. One can hardly blame the Japanese; they were doing what little they could, including trying to soften Harris with a geisha mistress, to protect themselves against such treaty provisions as American-controlled tariffs and the surrender of jurisdiction over criminal proceedings involving foreigners.)
"Over the Western sea hither from Niphon come,/ Courteous, the swart-cheek'd two-sworded envoys," sang Whitman, poetically celebrating the delegation's arrival in New York. Who is "indelicate?" One Japanese delegate was shocked to observe, during a dance, that American women "were nude from shoulders to arms. ... The way men and women, both young and old, mixed in the dance, was simply insufferable to watch."