(Friday Night History) The Shove Heard ‘Round the World, Part 3

This is Part 3 of “The Shove Heard Round the World,” the story of the US Navy’s slapdash gunboat diplomacy in 1846 Japan and its aftermath. To read Part 2, click here.

(Pictured: USS Vincennes and USS Columbus in Japan, July 1846. Print by John Eastley. PD)

Commodore James Biddle’s slapdash attempt at gunboat diplomacy in the summer of 1846 failed. It was hampered especially by the fact that neither the US personnel nor the Japanese officials had anything in common for communication beyond a mutually tenuous grasp of Dutch and classical Chinese. After a polite but awkward encounter that went nowhere substantive and included Biddle getting shoved, the little flotilla left Japan empty-handed and the ships went their separate ways. Now, their experience would inform later missions– Glynn’s in 1849, Perry’s in 1853-54– but that was not all. It prompted a wave of discussion on military reform and naval design that was well underway by the time Japan was “opened” in 1853. Long story short, to say simply that Perry “opened” Japan without rounding out our appreciation of how much innovation, adaptation of foreign technology, awareness of world trends, and action to be ready for them was already underway in Japan in response to foreign incursion by the time Perry showed up, is to do a disservice to the facts.


This– the Shogunate officials in Uraga in the aftermath of Biddle’s visit– is where our story begins today.


That the US warships had the technological edge, especially in firepower, was beyond doubt. As ocean-going vessels they were also bigger than anything in Japan at the time. And of course, the Japanese authorities knew this, and sought solutions about how to face the challenges of foreign incursions that were only increasing, including at Uraga, at the entrance of Tokyo Bay.


Enter the Office of the Uraga Magistrate (Uraga Bugyōsho 浦賀奉行所), an administrative entity of the Tokugawa government. That part of the shore around Uraga (part of modern Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture) was a direct holding of the shogun, and the Uraga Magistrate (Uraga Bugyō 浦賀奉行)– at times a title shared by two people, as it was after Biddle’s visit in 1846– was a position aimed at overseeing boat inspection as well as lifesaving operations at the mouth of Edo (Tokyo) Bay, established in 1720. However, as time wore on, its role increasingly and necessarily involved intercepting foreign vessels that came close to Edo Bay, and thus posed a potential national security threat to the Shogun and the seat of government. And it was vessels and personnel under the command of the Uraga Magistrate’s office that intercepted Biddle’s little flotilla. Biddle comments that the Japanese boats were able to surround his ships but posed no real threat– and the Japanese authorities were, of course, just as aware of this. The ships in service of the Uraga Magistrate were for the most part old and small in 1846. While things were successfully deescalated and Biddle did in fact leave, this, in turn, prompted Shogunate naval construction efforts that soon followed the Biddle mission.

Currier & Ives Lithograph of USS Vincennes. [Image in PD]

The tangible result of these efforts was the hybrid warship Sōshunmaru. Built on the model of a sloop– on the pattern of and on observations of the Vincennes– but modified to be a hybrid Japanese-Western warship, it was the first and foremost of Japan’s new wave of naval construction. While another school of thought emphasized coast artillery, and indeed many coast artillery batteries were built (such as Odaiba in Tokyo, which still bears the name “Odaiba” or “The Battery”) , that would only go so far. The Shogunate– during the reign of Tokugawa Ieyoshi (1793-1853, r. 1837-1853) and the Chief Councilorship of Abe Masahiro (1819-1857, in office 1843-1855)– understood that something had to be done, though the national seclusion policies were left unchanged. And so the construction of Sōshunmaru went ahead– keel laid 22 April 1849, launched 9 August 1849– under the supervision of the Uraga Magistrate. And it became one of several such hybrid sloops that were used either by the Uraga Magistrate Office or the feudal domains assigned to coast guard duty in the area (most notably the powerful Hikone domain and Aizu domain). They were in service when Commodore Perry arrived, and as I’ve noted elsewhere, the Dutch government had advised the Shogunate in advance that Perry was coming.

A far cry from the impression in some quarters that the Japanese government was entirely unprepared and entirely without military modernization projects underway on Perry’s arrival. Simultaneously, domains from as far afield as Saga, Satsuma, and Sendai all set about their own efforts at modernized shipbuilding in the interest of building their own naval capabilities to put in both their own service and to second to the shogunate as needed.

Thus, we can see that Japan was not simply a passive subject of Perry’s gunboat diplomacy, but rather had and exercised plenty of agency in facing it, despite its preparations still being inadequate. The onus is on us, the modern scholars and readers, to account for this rather than erase it.

But the story doesn’t end here.

Sōshunmaru was lost when the Uraga Magistrates’ headquarters burned in 1853. The magistrates (there were two at the time) petitioned the Shogun in August 1853 to allow for construction of new warships to replace it. And thus the Magistrate’s subordinates built Hōōmaru, keel laid 22 October 1853, launched 6 June 1854– the first entirely Western-style modern warship in Japanese service. A leader on this project was Nakajima Saburōsuke, a senior Shogunate official attached to the office of Uraga Magistrate.

Nakajima Saburōsuke (1821-1869) [Image in PD]

Nakajima and his subordinates not only completed Hōōmaru in record time, but also sailed it up the coast to Shinagawa– now Shinagawa City of Tokyo Metropolis– and showed it off to the Shogun’s senior officials, including the senior council led by Abe. This demonstrated that building western-style vessels was indeed within Japanese means, and useful for the national defense, and that it would be valuable to hire foreign specialists and buy foreign military equipment to further bolster those capabilities. It thus became one of the early vessels of the modern Shogunate Navy. To learn more about the Shogunate Navy and other American influence on its development, take a listen to my episode of the Preble Hall podcast here.

Hōōmaru underway. [Image in PD]

In turn, Nakajima and several other Uraga Magistrate Office officials were sent to Nagasaki upon the establishment of the Shogunate Naval Academy there in 1855. This academy, moved to Tsukiji in Edo, in 1859 (now roughly the site of Tsukiji Fish Market), became the forerunner of the Imperial Japanese Navy Academy, which was moved to Etajima in Hiroshima, many years later, and became in turn the forerunner of the modern Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Academy which is still at Etajima.

This, friends, is how the Japanese response to James Biddle’s slapdash diplomacy, was one current that set in motion Japanese military modernization, and all that before Perry even showed up. In short, by 1853, the Shogunate was underprepared, but not unprepared.
Again, I think it behooves us to factor that in to our appreciation of the Perry mission.

I’m Nyri and this has been Friday Night History.

Now– questions?

Sources (All Parts)

*Adachi Hiroyuki 安達裕之, “Kindai Zosen no Akebono: Shinpeimaru, Asahimaru, Hoomaru” 近代造船の曙 : 昇平丸・旭日丸・鳳凰丸. Bulletin of the Society of Naval Architects of Japan 864(0), 35-42, 2001 (accessed October 29, 2020). https://ci.nii.ac.jp/naid/110003869029
*Biddle, James, and George Bancroft. “Commodore Biddle’s Official Account of His Visit to Japan.” National Intelligencer, March 15, 1847. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers (accessed October 11, 2020). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/GT3017707156/NCNP?u=carnegielib&sid=NCNP&xid=584cb895.
*”Biddoru Raikō to Hōōmaru Kenzō (200nen 03gatsu)” 「ビッドル来航と鳳凰丸建造」(2000年03月) Yokosuka City Homepage (accessed October 11, 2020) https://www.city.yokosuka.kanagawa.jp/2120/g_info/l100004036.html
*Henson, Curtis. Commissioners and Commodores: The East India Squadron and American Diplomacy in China. (University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1982).
*Hirao Nobuko. Kurofune Zenya no Deai: Hōgei Senchō Kūpā no Raikō. (Tokyo: NHK Books, 1994), pp. 160-161, 203.
*Long, David F. Sailor-Diplomat: A Biography of Commodore James Biddle, 1783-1848. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1983)
*”Nihon wo Kaikoku e to Michibiita Tatsuyakusha! ‘Uraga Bugyosho'” 日本を開国へと導いた立役者!「浦賀奉行所」 Yokosuka City Homepage (accessed October 11, 2020) https://www.city.yokosuka.kanagawa.jp/2110/bugyousyo/top.html
*Nordhoff, Charles. Man-of-war life; a boy’s experience in the United States navy, during a voyage around the world, in a ship of the line (Cincinnati: Moore, Wilstach, Keyes, & Co., 1856), pp. 192-210. Archived at Archive.org (accessed October 11, 2020) https://archive.org/details/manofwarlifeboys00nordrich
*”Uraga Bugyō” 浦賀奉行 Kotobank.jp (accessed October 11, 2020). https://kotobank.jp/word/%E6%B5%A6%E8%B3%80%E5%A5%89%E8%A1%8C-35280
*Wainwright, Nicholas B. Commodore James Biddle and his sketch book. (Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1966), pp. 39-43. Archived at https://archive.org/details/commodorejamesbi00wain Accessed October 11, 2020.

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