Stephan Matthiesen

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The Japanese Encounter with the West in the 1850s and 1860s

After 200 years of almost complete seclusion from the rest of the World, in 1853 Japan was suddenly thrown into turmoil by the appearance of Commodore Perry with his “Black ships” in Uraga, threatening military action if negociations to open the country were not started immediately. The decades to follow were probably some of the most turbulent in Japanese history, with Japan transforming from a “medieval” feudal state(1) to a modern nation that soon became one of the leading industrialized states of the World. How did this transition happen?

Prelude: The situation before 1853

Since 1600 (after the decisive battle of Sekigahara), the government of Japan had been in the hands of the Tokugawa bakufu(2), with two aspects particularly relevant to this essay: its seclusion policy, and its way of keeping the power balance between Shogun, Daimyoos and Emperor.

The seclusion policy (sakoku) was started by Tokugawa Ieyasu(3) and firmly established 1635-1641 by Tokugawa Iemitsu, with a ban of travels abroad for Japanese (“Third Prohibition decree” 1635) and the expulsion of all foreigners (1641), except for a small Dutch trading post on the artificial island of Deshima in the harbour of Nagasaki. The intention was to stabilize Japanese society by reducing foreign influence and to strengthen the Shogun by monopolizing trade. A further factor was the fear of Christianity, which – unlike the established religions Shintoo and Buddhism(4) – was politically problematic in several ways: It is “exclusive”, i.e. cannot easily coexist with other religions(5), it tends to have very active missionaries, and – at least in the minds of 17th century Europeans – it demanded political power and influence.

While the seclusion was almost complete up to the late 18th century, the arrival of the Russians at the Pacific coast, the increased Western interest in China and American whaling in the Pacific slowly eroded the seclusion. The importance of Western technology was realized early, and its impact in many scientific fields (medicine, geography, chemistry, and also economics and painting) was noticeable by the mid 18th century [Miyoshi 1994, p.8]. On the other hand, Japanese understanding of Western society seems to have been very limited, and much of it came from second hand Chinese accounts. In any case, “Dutch learning” (rangaku) was restricted to few scholars, and most parts of the Japanese society (and even the political class) had no clear idea about the Western world in 1853.

To understand the changes after 1853, we also have to look shortly at the distribution of power during the Togugawa bakufu. In the 17th century, almost all the power was centralised in the hands of the Shōgun, with the emperor only a nominal figurehead. The Daimyōs were held in check by strong controls as well as deliberate measures to kindle the traditional rivalry between the more powerful clans. However, the first half of the 18th century, particularly the Tempō period 1830-1844 saw a serious crisis of the political and economic system.

The reasons are complex, but in general the political system – which had developed out of a civil war – was no longer really appropriate for the peace situation and its changing economic requirements, and the huge and economically inactive warrior class became increasingly difficult to maintain. After the death of Shōgun Tokugawa Ienari in 1841 Mizuno Tadakuni became as Chief of the rōjū (Council of States) effectively the leader of the government and attempted a number of drastic reforms. However, these Tempō reforms largely failed. At the same time, the clans of Satsuma and Chōshū introduced very successful reforms in their domains.

For its failure to handle the crisis, the bakufu came under pressure from two sides: Firstly, the more successful Daimyōs gained reputation and power, and secondly there was a move to recognize that the Emperor was the supreme authority, while the Shōgun was only a military title – an opinion that was also prominent in the Mito branch of the Tokugawa, from which the last Shōgun Yoshinobu would emerge [Shiba 1998]. Thus the delicate power balance was seriously disturbed even before the arrival of the “Black ships”.

Western cannonboat diplomacy

When Commodore Perry arrived with his modern warships, the bakufu and its Chief of the rōjū Abe Masahiro were perfectly aware of the technological superiority of the West, and from the little information that was available about the West they also had to assume that Perry’s threat of military action was completely serious, so that there was no real alternative than to sign the Perry Convention. In the following negociations for a more comprehensive Commerce Treaty, the American consul Townsend Harris was quick to use Japanese inexperience with the West by telling the Japanese authorities that, were they not to agree to the modest requests of the benevolent Americans, the more violent British, Russian or French Navies would subdue Japan with devastating military action – a scenario that was in fact utterly unlikely [Miyoshi 1994, pp. 17-19]. Undoubtedly, the American missions were not only driven by practical considerations, but also by a feeling of superiority of the American liberal culture, and Harris was sincerely convinced of the “humanity” of his actions [Miyoshi 1994, p. 18]. The Commerce Treaty that opened several ports to foreigners was eventually signed in 1858 by Hotta Masayoshi.

All the while, within the bakufu there was a fierce power struggle between the fractions that supported a strict seclusion and the fractions that bowed to the necessities: Soon after signing the Perry convention, Abe Masahiro was replaced by Hotta Masayoshi, who in turn was quickly replaced immediately after the 1858 Treaty.

Anti-foreign feelings

There were many different reactions to this sudden establishment of foreign settlements in Japan. An anti-foreign attitude had been common during the seclusion, but now reached violent levels. The enforced opening of Japan was seen as a disregard for Japanese society. Many of the arriving foreigners were sailors or adventurous merchants who not always showed the best manners(6): One reads of brawls between drunken sailors with the local population, occasionally leading to serious injuries [McKay 1993, p.18], and in one famous incidence in 1862 the British merchant Charles L. Richardson, who had a record of violence, is killed by a Satsuma Samurai after failing to respect the tradition of giving way to a Clan procession [McKay 1993, p.30] – an incident that lead to major diplomatic problems between Britain and Japan.

Between 1860 and 1863 terror against foreigners was common, and often young samurai left their masters to become rōnin to be able to use their swords without endangering their masters. Not only for foreigners live was dangerous, even Japanese up to highest ranks (like the Tairo Ii Naosuke in 1860) were assassinated when seen as too pro-Western.

"Understand your enemy!"

For large parts of the political class it was clear that the ignorance about Western culture that had developed during the seclusion was now a serious disadvantage. Even before the signing of the Commerce Treaty in 1858, the idea to send a mission to America in order to gain first hand experience was brought up. This “First Embassy” to the United States in 1860 was soon followed by the Tokugawa Akitake mission to Europe (1862 – 1863), and later by the Iwakura mission to America and Europe (1871 – 1873).

The 1860 embassy is remarkable because it was organized in such an incompetent way that it was almost completely useless. The initial plan was to send the negociators of the Commerce Treaty, who had showed considerable interest and experience in dealing with the Americans. However, as a result of the bakufu power struggles and the replacement of Abe Masahiro by Ii Naosuke, three “uninformed and unimaginative bureaucrats” [Miyoshi 1994, p.20] were appointed to head the mission, and their main objective seemed to be to get back home as soon as possible. It is amusing to read how this group of 170 samurai, completely ignorant of language and habits in the West, and at the same time forbidden to make too close contact to foreigners, came into all sorts of unusual situations. Unfamiliar with western pillows in their hotels, some even put chamber pots under their head without realizing their proper use [Miyoshi 1994, p.33]. Their diaries and reports are to a great degree long lists of completely irrelevant details.

The later Tokugawa and Iwakura missions, on the other hand, were very different, with the participants very well prepared and eager to observe and understand American and European culture [Ohta 1990]. In their zeal not only to see the official, nice side of Western life, they also went into workers quarters and also into a London opium den, about which they noted with satisfaction that only British and Chinese, but no Japanese were found there [Ohta 1999]. Generally, they seemed impressed by the level of everyday technology (underground trains, gas lighting), but also appalled by the slums, pollution and poor working conditions for the working class.

Fascination with the West

However, it would be wrong to assume that the missions to the West were only driven by the need to learn more about the enemy. There is also clear indication that an increasing number, especially of young samurai, became fascinated by the West and were simply curious to find out more. In the unimaginative 1860 embassy, young Tamamushi Yasushige in his diary (in a section titled “not to be seen by anybody else”) praises the Americans for their friendlyness and readyness to show the Japanese everything, but complains bitterly about the Japanese officers who did not allow him to visit all the interesting places he would like to see, like schools, colleges, orphanages and charity shops [Miyoshi 1994, p.35].

A genuine interest in Western culture was certainly also a factor that lead young Chōshū and Satsuma samurai (the “Chōshū Five” and the “Satsuma Nineteen”) to leave the country illegally with the help of the Nagasaki based Scotsman Thomas Glover to study in Britain.

Economic interests

While the arrival of foreign traders in parts upset the local economic system and sometimes lead to inflation, it became soon apparent that the new trade could also be beneficial, and some Daimyōs were soon willing to trade with the foreigners. A remarkable example is the Satsuma clan, which in 1860 was one of the most anti-foreign forces in Japan (note, e.g., its involvement in the killing of Richardson in 1862 and the closure of the Strait of Shimonoseki in 1863). However, with the political situation becoming more and more complicated, Satsuma also appreciated the help of British traders like Glover and later the British government in getting modern weapons and ships. Finally in 1866 during a visit of the British ambassador to Kagoshima, the Daimyō expresses his friendship to the British.


At the time of the Meiji Restauration 1868, the presence of foreigners in Japan was well accepted, and the earlier animosity had give way to relaxed relations with the outside World. How was this transition possible in little more than a decade? I believe that the starting point for Japan in 1853 was not as bad as it may seem at first. The Tempō crisis had left Japan decentralized, making the spread of new ideas much easier. Also, the large number of “useless” samurai in the bakufu system meant that there was a large potential of well educated men looking for a useful place in society. Similarly, the way the crisis was handled by the bakufu may not have been as bad as is often thought. True, the bakufu most of the time seemed to lack a clear aim, and much effort was wasted in power struggles, but this also meant that the opening of the courts happened a good deal slowlyer than was wished for by the Western powers, giving the Japanese time to at least partly modernize their industry before opening the country completely.

Appendix: Sequence of events related to the relation between Japan and the West

1622 Foreign trade restricted to Nagasaki and Hirado [Hall 1968, p.185]
1635 – 1641 Development of the Seclusion Policy (sakoku) under Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (1623 – 1651)
1635 “Third Prohibition Decree” bans Japanese travel outside the coastal waters [Miyoshi 1994, p.8]
1639 Expulsion of Portuguese traders [Hall 1968, p.186]
1641 Transfer of Dutch traders to Deshima (Nagasaki harbour) and of Chinese traders to some quarters of Nagasaki [Hall 1968, p.186] completes the Seclusion.
Late 18th century Russians reach the Pacific, and American start whaling around Japan, making encounters between Japanese and Russian or American ships more frequent [Reischauer 1981, p.109]. Prohibition is somewhat relaxed: shipwrecked sailors often allowed back into Japan (and sometimes questioned about their experiences abroad) [Miyoshi 1994, p.9]
1792 – 1813 Russian-Japanese encounters in Ezo (Hokkaido): Russians Laxman (1792) and Rezanov (1804) are refused entry. After some smaller Russian attacks on Japanese posts, the Russian officer V.M.Golovnin is captured and held for 2 years (1811-1813). Bakufu considers plans to colonize Hokkaido and strengthen its defences [Hall 1968, p.243]
1792 Shipwrecked Daikokuya Kōdayū, rescued by Russians and sent to Tsar Katarina’s court in St. Petersburg, returns to Japan, and has to report his experiences to the Shōgun. Regarded as potentially dangerous, he is confined to his house until his death in 1828 [Miyoshi 1994, p.9]
1825 Shogunal order that local authorities shall expel foreign ships without delay [Hall 1968, p.244]
1830 – 1844 Tempō period: the economic and political crisis leads to the Tempō reforms (1841 – 1844) by Mizuno Tadakuni, which prove disastrous, while Chōshū and Satsuma introduce successful reforms. The bakufu is weakened considerably [Hall 1968, pp.229-237]
1841 – 1845 Mizuno Tadakuni is Chief of the rōjū (Council of States) and introduces the Tempō reforms
1841 – 1851 Nakahama Manjirō (John Mung), shipwrecked in 1841 and rescued by an American whaleboat, is the first identifiable Japanese to live and be educated in the USA before his return to Japan in 1851 [Miyoshi 1994, p.9]
1845 Abe Masahiro becomes Chief of the rōjū after Mizuno Tadakuni
1845 For the first time, the bakufu order Western ships and weapons from Dutch traders
1846,1849 Visits of the Americans Biddle to Uraga (1846) and Glynn to Nagasaki (1849)
8. July 1853 Arrival of Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his “Black Ships” at Uraga
1854 Treaty of Kanagawa opens the ports of Shimodo and Hakodate to American ships
1855 Hotta Masayoshi replaces Abe Masahiro as Chief of the rōjū
29 July 1858 Commerce Treaty with the US specifiying unrestricted trade in Kanagawa (Yokohama), Nagasaki, Nīgata and Hyōgo, residence permits for foreigners in Ōsaka and Edo, and exterritoriality
Aug. 1858 Ii Naosuke becomes tairo (Regent) and takes over the government from the Chief of the rōjū Hotta Masayoshi
1858 – 1860 Ii Naosuke effectively ends the Seclusion Policy by negotiating treaties with five nations
1859 British and American Consulates established in Nagasaki
March 1860 Ii Naosuke assassinated by Mito samurai
13 Feb – 23 June 1860 First Embassy to the United States with 170 men, led by Shimmi Masaoki, Muragaki Norimasa and Oguri Tadamasa [Miyoshi 1994]
Summer 1862 Charles Lennox Richardson is killed by a Satsuma Samurai after refusing to give way to a clan procession
1862 – 1863 Tokugawa Mission: bakufu mission to visit Britain and France, headed by Tokugawa Akitake
June 1863 Five young Chōshū samurai (the Chōshū Five) escape to study in Britain
25 June 1863 Chōshū forces start to attack foreign ships in the Strait of Shimonoseki
13 Aug 1863 Kagoshima incident: British ships attack the Kagoshima (the capital of the Satsuma clan) in retaliation for the Chōshū attacks on foreign ships
5 Sept. 1864 A multinational army forces the Chōshū to surrender
April 1865 The Satsuma Nineteen leave Japan for Britain
7 March 1866 The previosly rival clans of Satsuma and Chōshū sign an alliance
June 1866 Civil war begins with Shōgunal forces invading Chōshū territory
27 July 1866 The British ambassador Harry Parkes visits Kagoshima and meets the Satsuma ruler Shimazu Saburo, beginning friendly relations
10 Jan 1867 Tokugawa Yoshinobu becomes 15th Shōgun
3 Jan 1868 Meiji restauration: Resumption of rule by Emperor Meiji
1871-1873 Iwakura Mission: Government mission to America and Europe, headed by Iwakura Tomomi


Hall, John W. (1968)
Das japanische Kaiserreich. Fischer Weltgeschichte Bd. 20, Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt/Main 1968.
McKay, Alexander (1993):
Scottish Samurai. Thomas Blake Glover 1838-1911. Canongate Press, Edinburgh 1993.
Miyoshi, Masao (1994):
As We Saw Them. The First Japanese Embassy to the United States. Kodansha International Ltd., Tokyo, New York, London 1994.
Ohta, Akiko (1999):
Japanese Encounters with Victorian Britain. Talk given in Edinburgh on 31st March 1999.
Reischauer, Edwin O. (1981):
Japan. The Story of a Nation. Charles E. Tuttle Co., Tokyo 1981.
Shiba, Ryotaro (1998):
The Last Shogun. The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Kodansha International Ltd., Tokyo, New York, London 1998. (English translation of: R. Shiba: Saiga no Shogun, Bungeishunju Co. Ltd., 1967).


  1. The use of terms from European history like “feudal system” is not unproblematic, as they tend to blur vital differences between the cultures.
  2. Bakufu (lit: “tent government”) had been the generic term for warrior governments since 1192, when Yoritomo reestablished the title “Shogun” for himself. The term “bakufu” is very often translated as “shogunate”.
  3. The full names of Japanese officials are hopelessly complicated, as they not only often include various titles, but also change frequently when the person changes his place in society [Miyoshi 1994, p.1].In this essay I will use the family name and given name that a person is best known with.
  4. In fact, this was not always true: After its introduction during the Yamato era, buddhism became a wealthy and powerful political institution in the 8th century, almost comparable to the Roman Catholic Church in Europe at the same time. However, the emperor sucessfully managed to reduce the influence of Buddhist priests to a minimum simply by moving the capital to Heian (Kyooto) in 784-794, leaving the Buddhist priest and temples behind in the now unimportant Nara.
  5. A feature that put Christians in danger ever since Roman times.
  6. Furthermore, the exterritoriality of foreigners meant that it was difficult for the Japanese authorities to punish crimes commited by Westerners.

This is an essay that I write in 1999 for a "Certificate in Japanese and Japanese Studies" from Cambridge University.

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