On July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy landed his ship at Uraga Harbor, near the city of Edo – now modern-day Tokyo. It was the beginning of what would become the forced “opening” of Japan, which had successfully isolated itself from the world.
On a recent trip to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, I was forced to confront some unpleasant aspects of America’s history with Japan, up close and personal. The amazing collection if important artifacts, art, and historical documents drove home just how much involvement America has had in Japan’s history – and it all began with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s “black ships.”
For years, under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan had remained almost totally secluded from the outside world and foreign influence. In an effort to maintain peace, preserve and incubate Japanese culture, and maintain the strict caste system, the Tokugawa Shogunate had closed Japan from all outside visitors. Foreigners who became lost at sea and washed ashore would likely be executed.
Only the Dutch, who the Japanese felt had a superior knowledge of technology and medical science, and the Chinese were allowed to trade with Japan – and only by landing at the small island called Dejima.
In some ways, Waseda University is like my own little Dejima – an island where plenty of foreign exchange students can visit and meet up with Japanese, but instead of trading goods we are trading culture, ideas and conversation. Just like there are many American students studying at Waseda, and living in Tokyo in general, there are also many Waseda students who study abroad at Portland State University each year.
Perry arrived in a large black-hulled ship, and even today the term “black ships” is used to describe the use of technology and force by the west against Japan. Having been isolated from the world, Japan’s military technology was behind the times, and Perry used his superior cannons to intimidate the Japanese, threatening to fire on Edo unless he was allowed to come ashore with a letter from the American President. This was the dark beginning of what has become a long, complicated, and very close history between Japan and America.
There were always some Japanese who wanted the country to open itself up to the world, and so Japan’s relationship with America, and the west in general, has always been a complicated one. On one hand, America forced Japan to open its doors to the rest of the world, in order to benefit from trade with Asia. On the other hand, this opening of the country forced Japan to modernize, and in the process brought an end to the samurai rule. This allowed the rest of society, from farmers to merchants, to benefit from their own hard work and made Japan a “meritocracy” – a society where people advance based on merit, rather than simply by being born into a samurai family.
These days, Japanese society, much like American society, is divided between those who are more politically conservative and those who are more politically liberal. The conservatives want to preserve traditional Japanese values, and keep foreigners out, and the liberals seem largely okay with western influence. But if my tour of the Edo-Tokyo museum was any indication, this is pretty much the way it has always been – half of the country want to progress and the other half want to preserve.
What do you guys think of this? Do you think that people in America talk about similar things when discussing politics?
One Japanese girl, who is in my International Journalism class, told me about her feelings on political issues concerning America.
“Most Japanese people aren’t worried about the past,” she said. “Most of us don’t really care very much about politics, we just want to live our lives and be happy. Politicians are the ones who always want to talk about history and problems, either with America or with China.”
She mentioned China, of course, because this is another country with whom Japan has a long and complex history, full of violence, war and disagreement.
Among the things from history that many Japanese don’t want to think about are the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by America, and the consequent surrender of Japan to allied forces at the closing of WWII. What many of you may not know is that Japan’s current constitution was actually written by Americans. Even today, Japan is not allowed to engage in military action because of this constitution.
However, when I asked one scholar of Japanese history why the Japanese haven’t re-written their constitution, his answer was both quick and simple: “Because it’s a good constitution, and it has been good for the country.”
Ironically, Japan’s restrictive constitution has allowed it to focus more on developing its economy, which quickly grew into one of the world’s strongest, while America meanwhile spent billions on its military. This doesn’t mean that the wartime occupation of Japan was a good thing, of course. Many aspects of Japanese culture and entertainment were heavily censored by Americans in the time immediately following the war.
Since opening its doors to the rest of the world, Japan has always been a forward-thinking and progressive country, in contrast to its image as a place where “tradition” rules. It is a testament to this forward-thinking manner that only a few generations after America bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan enjoys many aspects of American culture, including baseball, some American films and music, and even western fashion.
However, it’s important to remember that Tokyo is an international city, full of foreigners from all over the world. I’m told that were I to venture out in the country, I’d find many more people who might not be so welcoming of western influence.
It’s also important to remember that these stories are not always one-sided; just as America forced Japan to open its doors, Japan at one time colonized and occupied Korea by force. This is another possible reason why Japanese are more willing to “forgive and forget” some of the misdeeds of the past.
The truth is that most of the people I meet are indifferent to foreigners. However, within Japanese society, there are a large number of people who feel more strongly one way or the other – most of them feel more strongly in favor of American culture. That is to say, many Japanese are curious about and interested in American culture.
One potential reason for this is that the English language is associated with success and education in Japan. Many of the best-educated Japanese begin learning English in middle school, but those who master it are truly considered to be very well educated. Even more lower-class Japanese often pay for hour-long English instruction courses each week, or visit cafes where foreigners speak to them in English while they have a cup of coffee or tea.
While I want to practice my Japanese with many of my new friends, a lot of them want to speak English with me – which usually means we have to take turns or compromise. Sometimes, it just comes down to whether or not their English is better than my Japanese. Either way, we usually end up talking about the American Presidential elections lately.
The question that I keep asking myself every day that I am in Japan is the same one that scholars have been asking themselves since the day that Commodore Perry forced Japan to open its doors to the west: Is Japan becoming too westernized, and if so, what are the consequences?
Thanks to Commodore Perry’s “black ships,” it’s a question that we can probably never really answer. However, as my walk through the Edo-Tokyo Museum reminded me, sometimes it is more important to ask ourselves the question than to be able to come up with an easy answer.