Townsend Harris and Japan

Townsend Harris
Townsend Harris

Townsend Harris was born in Sandy Hill, New York, in 1804. At 14, he went to New York City, where he worked his way up from shop clerk to partner in a large company. He took a special interest in cultural and educational opportunities.

He became president of the Board of Education in New York City and, in the face of entrenched political power, pursued his dream of education for all classes of society. Harris was responsible for the foundation of the Free Academy, now the City College of New York City. In 1848 he planned and carried out a tour of the South Pacific to study the islands and their indigenous native populations.

Harris’s expertise in Asia and the Pacific did not go unnoticed in Washington, D.C. In 1854, the administration of President Franklin Pierce appointed him American consul in Ningbo (Ningpo), China. He followed this tour of duty with successful negotiations with Siam in 1856.

Meanwhile, on February 15, 1855, Commodore Matthew Perry returned to Edo (Tokyo) Bay in Japan. During his first voyage to Japan in July 1854, he had opened diplomatic negotiations with the Japanese government, promising to return the next year. A treaty was signed as a result that opened Japan.

With his diplomatic experience in the Far East, Harris was chosen as the first U.S. consul in Japan, arriving in August 1856, in Shimoda. Despite his best efforts, it was more than a year before he set foot in Edo, the capital of the shogunate (military regime). (The Japanese had two capital cities, the shogun’s and the imperial capital at Kyoto.)

Although Shogun Tokugawa Iesada had practiced delaying tactics in receiving Harris, he realized that Japan was too weak to risk a war with the United States. Preliminary discussions had already taken place at Shimoda, and negotiations continued in Edo. A treaty was finally signed in July 1858 and took effect in 1860.

The commercial treaty opened six Japanese ports to U.S. trade and allowed Americans to reside in Edo and Osaka. Later, added provisions fixed import tariffs at 5 percent and exempted Americans from Japanese laws. The forcing of the weak shogunate to sign unequal treaties with the United States and other Western nations undermined the Tokugawa Shogunate and paved the way for the Meiji Restoration.