Townsend Harris: America's First Consul to Japan

Commodore Perry's expedition marked the beginning of relations between Japan and the United States. But it was Townsend Harris, who, along with his Japanese counterparts, worked to establish healthy working relations between the two newly acquainted nations. Harris is warmly remembered in Japan for the time he spent as America's first diplomat, and he is equally well remembered in New York where he played an important role in the city's history.

A Famous New Yorker

 Townsend Harris (1804-1878) was born in Sandy Hill in upstate New York in 1804. He came to New York City at a young age, and established himself as a successful merchant, working in the importation of goods from China, such as porcelain and silk. He was active in New York politics, and particularly its education system. In 1846 he became the head of the New York City Board of Education, and served as its president from 1846-1848. Townsend Harris is also remembered for helping to found the Free Academy, a college that was open for any and all New Yorkers, including immigrants and the poor. It later became what we now know as the College of the City of New York (City College).

Consul to Japan

In 1855 President Franklin Pierce appointed Townsend Harris to be America's first consul to Japan. Harris had personally lobbied for the job, owing to his experience in the China trade, and his own great interest in Japan. (In fact, he had unsuccessfully tried to join the Perry expedition.) In 1856 Harris arrived in Shimoda. There he began the long process of negotiating to establish trade relations. His first obstacle was obtaining permission to travel to Edo to deal directly with the Shogun and his advisors. He ended up spending his first fourteen months in Shimoda. That first year was sometimes difficult for Harris, he was occasionally ill, and except for the company of his interpreter Henry Heuksen, very isolated. They lived in the Gyokusenji temple, which was established as the first American consulate. When he wasn't busy in negotiations, Harris passed his time in Shimoda taking long walks through the countryside, planting potatoes, caring for his cherry trees, and raising poultry and pigs. He was very impressed by the Japanese he met, and he relished meeting people from all walks of life. Despite his disappointment at the long negotiations, he was remembered for keeping his cool, and for always keeping in mind that the officials with whom he was negotiating were themselves in a very difficult situation. Harris's writings indicate that he had great respect for the Japanese and their culture and that he genuinely enjoyed his time in Shimoda. He took his mission very seriously and he hoped that posterity - both American and Japanese - would remember his work well. When he raised the stars and stripes at Shimoda he said, "God grant that the future generations may not have cause to regret the hour I arrived."

The Story of Okichi-san

Harris was serious and intelligent, yet always amiable. It is said that a few wild indiscretions in his youth may have led him to later become a strict teetotaler. But unlike some Westerners arriving in Japan at the time, Harris was never overly moralistic in his judgment of Japanese culture. It is interesting, then, that a legend has grown up around Harris concerning a relationship with a Japanese geisha named Okichi-san. According to the popular story, Harris was involved in a love affair with a beautiful geisha who, in a "Madame Butterfly" like tragedy, eventually killed herself. Actually, most historians now agree that this story is not true. There was, in fact, a woman named Okichi who lived in Shimoda and who may have worked at Harris's residence. But it seems that the legend of a love affair was just that. Still, the story has taken on a life of its own and has become very popular on both sides of the Pacific. In 1958 a movie made by legendary director John Huston had none other than John Wayne playing Harris to Eiko Ando's Okichi in the big-screen Hollywood movie called The Barbarian and the Geisha.

Negotiation of the Treaty

In November of 1857 Harris was finally given permission to travel to Edo. Displaying an American flag (hand-made in Shimoda), his official cortege made the trip of some two hundred miles. The road ahead was cleared by authorities, and it was not until they approached the outskirts of Edo, that huge crowds of people turned out to greet the American's arrival. After attending numerous preparatory meetings, Harris finally had his official audience with the Shogun on December 7, 1857. He delivered his official letter from President Pierce and expressed his hope for good relations with Japan.

The Japanese in attendance were impressed by the American consul's performance, particularly his polite and calm demeanor in the presence of the powerful shogun. Months later, after a lot of wrangling (and considerable behind the scenes political intrigue on the Japanese side), the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Japan was finally signed on July 29, 1858. The agreement would begin trade, and open the ports of Kobe and Yokohama. Also, Americans would be allowed to reside in these ports and at Edo. Without making military threats, and through his own determination (together with the determination and personal risk-taking of many Japanese officials), Harris had succeeded in his mission to sign the treaty. Soon after, President Buchanan appointed Harris as minister to Japan. In Edo, Harris made his official residence at the Zenpuku-ji temple. He served as minister for three years. At the end of his service the Japanese government were so impressed with Harris that they wrote to the American secretary of state requesting that his length of service be extended.

His Legacy Lives On

Many of Harris's archives and belongings from his stay in Japan are kept at the library at City College in New York. Among them are his diary, official papers and the American flag that he flew at Shimoda. To this day, relations between City College and Japan remain very strong. Every year for the past 15 years, a delegation of city officials from Shimoda has visited the campus to view Harris's archives as well as to visit his grave at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. His gravesite is marked by a traditional Japanese stone lantern and a Japanese cherry tree. On Harris's tombstone are engraved words remembering that his work and the treaty he concluded "not only gave satisfaction to the American citizens, but also to Japanese citizens".

* Details of this account are in part based on the book: Yankees and Samurai, Foster Rhea Dulles, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1965.