The U.S. War Against Asia
by William P. Meyers

Note: This is a work in progress, and one I am not likely to finish (short of receiving a grant or an offer from a larger publisher) for some time. Everything posted here should be considered a draft. [Main Page, U.S. War Against Asia]

The U.S. Bullies Japan in the 1850's

The opening skirmishes in the United States of America’s war against Asia took place in Japan. While they have been portrayed as minor incidents in most histories, they had major effects. The success of these military acts encouraged leaders of the USA to continue on a military course that would lead to over a century of nearly continuous warfare. Millions of Asians, both civilians and soldiers, would die as a direct result of military action. The modernization of Japan that resulted from its need to defend itself from the United States would result in a Japanese war policy that hurt other Asian nations more than it ultimately hurt the USA.

Japan had remained relatively isolated from the world since its failed invasion of Korea under Hideyoshi in the late 16th century. Hideyoshi had also begun a policy against Christian missionaries, but he kept trade open with Macao and the Philippines. His successor, Ieyasu, allowed trade with the Dutch and English as well as with the Portuguese and Spanish. Relations with Europeans continued to disintegrate; the English had warned the Japanese about the predatory nature of the Spanish and Portuguese, and vice-versa. In 1637 a decree forbade Japanese to leave Japan and established the death penalty for Portuguese landing in Japan. Tested, that decree was put into effect. Trading, however, did not end. The Dutch were allowed to trade, but only at Nagasaki. Some trade also continued with China. [Storry p. 52-64].

Japan turned inward, but over the next two centuries pressures built in the outside world that became increasingly hard to ignore. Great Britain became master of the seas and her ships we increasingly seen off shore surveying Japanese coasts and associated islands. The Russians moved into Siberia and Alaska and tried, unsuccessfully, to establish relations with Japan. China increasingly came under the influence of the European powers. The US took its Pacific coast territories. Meanwhile the Dutch were allowed to continue to trade at Nagasaki; some knowledge of the greater world seeped into Japan.

American ships came close to the shores of Japan because that was the quickest route from the Pacific coast to China. American seamen who were stranded in Japan were transported to Nagasaki for repatriation on Dutch vessels. In the United State commercial interests put pressure on the government to establish relations with Japan.

Around 1846 Commodore Biddle was sent to negotiate with the Japanese, who refused to receive him officially [Storry p. 86]. In 1849 Commander Glynn entered Nagasaki harbor, demanding that twelve American seamen be turned over to him, and they were [Oxford p. 579]. But when Commander Matthew Calbraith Perry was sent in 1853, the American government was more confident. Franklin Pierce was President of the United States and Jefferson Davis was his Secretary of War. Perry's instructions amounted to: don’t take no for an answer; force used with discretion is forgivable [Storry p. 86].

On July 8, 1853 a squadron of 4 war ships, two steamships and two sail ships, anchored in Tokyo Bay. This itself was an act of aggression as the U.S. government and Perry well knew that Nagasaki was the place to tactfully begin diplomatic relations. Perry left a letter for the emperor from President Fillmore, saying he would return for an answer the following year. Before leaving he purposefully sailed further up Tokyo bay, in defiance of the Japanese.

Perry’s war ships were not the only worry of the Japanese. It should be recalled that in that era Russia was already considered a great power; America was not. A Russian fleet under the command of Admiral Putyatin had arrived in Nagasaki in the month following Perry’s first visit and remained there for three months. The Admiral returned in January 1854.

In addition the Shogun died soon after Perry’s first visit. Bureaucrats were in charge, and they canvassed the leaders of the country. The power of the Americans and Russians was obvious. Japan was not equipped to defend itself. They hoped the Americans would take no for an answer, but they prepared themselves to make concessions if necessary. They feared they would be made a colony or tributary. Some had already concluded that Japan would have to modernize in order to be able to resist the power of the Europeans.

When Perry returned in February 1854 the Japanese said, in effect, no thank you. But Perry insisted, made threats, and planned to capture the island of Okinawa to use as a base. Japanese officials decided limited relations were the best stalling tactic that the Americans would accept. On March 31, 1854 a treaty was signed in Yokohama that became known as the treaty of Kanagawa. The United States of America was given the right to use the ports of Hakodate and Shimoda. Almost immediately the British entered Nagasaki with their own demands. In October 1854 they were given the right to trade at Nagasaki and Hakodate. By then Great Britain and Russia were opposed to each other in the Crimean War. Nevertheless the Russians were able to attain a treaty that divided the Kurile Islands with the Japanese and opened all three of the already-opened ports to Russia.

The Dutch, who had already traded with the Japanese for centuries, were asked to sell the Japanese modern ships. They sent a steamship to Nagasaki that began teaching the Japanese navigation and modern naval warfare. The Dutch helped the Japanese to establish modern ship building yards as well. [Storry, p. 87-92].

In 1856 the first American diplomat, Townsend Harris, arrived in Japan. It was time for both nations to pretend warmth towards each other. The Americans were still colonizing the western United States and developing their industrial muscle. A civil war in the U.S. was about to absorb the bulk of her military energies. In Japan the consensus was building that only by imitating the Europeans could the Japanese maintain their freedom and independence. Luckily for the Japanese there were more valuable and vulnerable pickings in Asia for the United States of America to pluck.

See also:

notes on Commodore Perry and the Opening of Japan
Japan's Relations with the U.S. and Europe before 1860
Remember the Wyoming! [November 4, 2008]
On Not Going to War: The U.S., China, and Japan [November 8, 2008]

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