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Home » Archives » December 2006 » Why the US Should Remember its Role in Forcing Open Japan When Commemorating Pearl Harbor

Why the US Should Remember its Role in Forcing Open Japan When Commemorating Pearl Harbor

Monday, December 4, 2006 Posted: 04:05 PM JST

In a few days, the US commerates the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It has generally been described as an unprovoked "sneak attack". Celebrated writer George Feifer, author of Breaking Open Japan, begs to differ. He has written an excellent article on Commodore Perry's forced opening of Japan in 1853. This event had immense implications on history and lead straight to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. It teaches us extremely important lessons that we seem not to have learnt.

"Who cares that Japan’s opening a century and a half ago was coerced?," writes Feifer, "More of us should. The endeavor - always celebrated here as a brilliant stroke, as Commodore Matthew Perry has always been hailed (currently by the relative handful who know more than his name) as an eminent statesman for masterminding and leading the supposedly benevolent mission - was a tragedy for both countries. Its lasting damage to Japanese-American relations is bad enough, but we may now be fashioning more tribulation of a similar kind in other parts of the world. Our military might and indifference to the feelings of those who are subject to its power may be setting us up for more fruits of revenge."

Later on his article, Feifer relates the events of 1853 to events happening today: "The Commodore’s ignorance of Japan’s conditions, intentions, wishes and policies - not entirely his fault since her rulers did everything they could to mask and mis-represent them - makes another uncomfortable parallel to the 21st-century resurgence of American exceptionalism. Despite some commendable attempts at study, Perry knew precious little about the life and thoughts of the country he affected almost beyond description. Far from weakening his resolve to benefit humankind by spreading American sway, his lack of knowledge probably strengthened it. His pronouncements about America's need for bases, bases, bases abroad and her duty to beat potential enemies to the punch might have served as material for Dick Cheney’s. About Japan in particular, he was "serenely convinced," a scholar recently summarized, that he was "bringing civilization to a benighted land that lived in flagrant violation of all norms of international society." Even more than most Americans of the time, he believed we had a kind of divine right not only to teach others how to live but also to take a share of their resources."

Today it is all about oil. In the mid-nineteenth century it was all about coal. One of the main reasons to open up Japan was to get access to Japan's magnificent oil resources, which happened to lay strategically placed between China and California. At a time when sailing ships were quickly being replaced by steamships, and trade between China and the US was booming, Japan's coal was essential to American trade interests.

"Coal was Perry’s prime objective because Japan lay on the fastest (Great Circle) route from California to Shanghai, and the newfangled steamships burned huge quantities of the precious stuff. Thus the mission that was cloaked in humanitarian purpose - echoes of which sound at every contemporary presidential press conference - was essentially for furthering commercial interests dear to the Commodore. To dot the "i," he wanted Japanese coal for what, according to some Americans, God had placed it there: fueling our vessels engaged in the lucrative China trade."

The history of the Pacific, and therefore the history of the world, would have been very different if Perry had allowed Japan to open up to the world at its own pace, says Feifer:

"The history of the Pacific, a name that should have rung with irony or been changed to Bellicose during that near century of preparing for war and making it after 1853, would have been very different if Japan had been left to open on her own, in keeping with her wants and wishes - which she was doing, but unknown to Perry and other Americans. The wallop to her self-esteem by the unabashed imperialist’s naked bullying led more or less directly to more pain in Pearl Harbor. During the 88 years between those events, the Japanese never forgot their humiliation by the mighty East Asia Squadron that turned their lives upside down. The pleasure of revenge - unknown and unsuspected by Americans - swelled their jubilation in 1941, when their forces at last hit back, righteously as they saw it.

Still lacking any notion of why resentment accumulated, the reaction of most Americans these sixty-five years later to Pearl Harbor remains limited to outrage and self-pity. In Japan, however, Pearl Harbor is scarcely mentioned and Perry’s intrusion is treated as seminal. The perception gulf remains gaping. One of the most widely used Japanese high school textbooks devotes three lines to Pearl Harbor, three pages to the national metaphor of Perry’s "Black Ships" and their seemingly black intent. Ishiwara Kanji spoke for many when the intellectually accomplished general told the International War Crimes Tribunal in 1947 that Perry’s sabotage of the national integrity and exposure of the country to pitiless international grabbing were responsible for the attack on America.

One and a half centuries later, the US continues making the same mistake. Can we prevent similar results?

Keywords: book_news opinion_item

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2 comments so far post your own

1 | At 10:23pm on Dec 05 2006, Lawrence Fitzgerald wrote:
The view of the United States needing Japanese coal is distorted. During that era the clipper ships of McKay were dominating the ocean trade routes. Further, what is ignored is the fact that American sailors that found themselves shipwrecked on Japanese held islands suffered barbaric treatment. As for Japanese resentment for being forced by Perry to open her ports to trade this is distorted by the fact that the seeds of Japanese resentment were actually laid at the end of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904. The United States dictated the peace terms at Portsmouth when the Japanese indicated they wanted to extract an extraordinary amount of reparation from the Russian Czar and were restrained by Theodore Rooosevelt. This was the principle reason Roosevelt had the US Navy's "Great White Fleet" sail around the world to demonstrate the US was not a paper fleet as the Russian Black Fleet squadron had proved at the battle of Tushima Straits. After the Meiji Restoration the Satsuma clan became the power behind the Emporer and began laying the seeds for Japanese Imperialism that culminated in their attack on Pearl Harbor when they perceived their goals of achieving Asia Domination were going to be restrained once again by another Roosevelt. They have never ceased to believe theirs is the most purist ethic group in the world and that everyone else is "Gaijin [barbarians]," except for Americans who are "Tenki teki Amerikaijin [typical American enemy barbarians]."

To believe less is naive!
2 | At 08:27am on Dec 06 2006, Kjeld Duits wrote:
Bad treatment of American sailors had stopped by the time Perry arrived in Japan, and he knew that.

As Feifer's writes: "Determined to get his way, delighted when his massive guns prompted fear, Perry had come to make Japan accessible to American ships after her two and a half centuries of isolation.

Why did the splendid naval officer but bad choice as an emissary want that so badly? Partly to awaken the long-isolated Japanese to their "Christian obligation to join the family of Christendom." More than that, "savage" Japan, as the Commodore liked to call the country whose civilization surpassed his own in many ways, seemed evil to Americans. In Edo’s zeal to protect native values from threatening foreign influences, especially Christian proselytizing, it reinforced the closing with prohibitions, including against visits by westerners. It sought to exclude even shipwrecked sailors, and some crewmen of New England whalers that had run aground were mistreated, although not nearly as badly as incensed American newspapers represented.

Actually, Edo had stopped the baleful practice, as Perry well knew, even while further frightening Japanese negotiators by lecturing them about it, as if he refused to know because it would undermine his cause. The shipwrecked-sailors issue was the weapons-of-mass-destruction boondoggle of its day: although protecting them topped the government’s list of the mission’s objectives, no doubt because it had the greatest public appeal, it was largely camouflage.
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