160 Years Ago: A New Yorker Lands in the Land of the Rising Sun
160 years ago Townsend Harris, a native of New York and the first U.S. Consul General to Japan, became one of the first Americans to ever set foot in Japan. He landed in Shimoda, a small town about 85 miles southwest of Edo (modern day Tokyo).
Harris’s first sight of Japan was a small island off the coast of Kagoshima Prefecture called Akuseki Shima, which he noted in his journal entry for Monday, August 18, 1856. Before arriving in Japan the most recent book about the country Harris had access to was published in 1690, a full 166 years earlier, and at the sight of Akuseki Shima he felt excited to be learning about "a people almost unknown to the world."1
After some negotiation, a temple in an area of Shimoda called Kakizaki was designated as the first U.S. Consulate. This was a temporary arrangement until a permanent location could be secured in Edo. Harris found Kakizaki to be a "small and poor fishing village, but the people are clean in person and civil in manner." He also noted that "you see none of the squalor which usually attends poverty in all parts of the world.2 He later notes that "the Japanese are a clean people. Everyone bathes every day." Although he had difficulty understanding the custom of bath houses where patrons "enter the same bathroom and there perform their ablutions in a state of perfect nudity" stating that he could "not account for so indelicate a proceeding on the part of a people so generally correct."3
When not busy negotiating with Japanese officials, Harris took pleasure in taking long walks though the countryside. It was through these walks that he gained an appreciation for the "patient industry of the Japanese," and the "charming landscapes which are well worthy the pencils of able artists."4 He also came to trust the inhabitants of his town, and requested that the guards assigned to protect him from intrusions be removed, for he had "no fears of the Shimoda people."5
It was the people of Shimoda that sewed a new flag for Harris’s trip to Edo after his original flag was torn to shreds from heavy wind. Harris was granted an audience with the Shogun because of the respect and patience he showed while dealing with government officials and the respect he earned in return. This was exemplified when the Prince of Shinano presented him a cup of tea, which the people around him explained was "a proof of friendship only given to those of exalted character and position."6
Even after returning to New York, Townsend Harris was always eager to learn of news from Japan. He died on February 25, 1878, and is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn; however the friendship he cultivated survived him. In 1986 Harris’s gravesite was refurbished with decorative stones, a stone lantern, and a sakura tree that still survives to this day, and the people of Shimoda have sent a delegation to pay their respects almost every year since.
1. Harris, Townsend, The Complete Journal of Townsend Harris, (Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1959), https://archive.org/stream/completejournalo00harr#page/n9/mode/2up, 195.↩
2. Ibid., 203.↩
3. Ibid., 252.↩
4. Ibid., 248.↩
5. Ibid., 297.↩
6. Ibid., 308.↩
We express our appreciation to the City College of New York for their cooperation in preparation for writing this article.
For more information about the accomplishments of Townsend Harris, please see our article on him celebrating the 150th anniversary of U.S. Japan relations: http://www.ny.us.emb-japan.go.jp/150th/html/nyepiE2a.htm