(Friday Night History) “No Second Thoughts”

Japanese portrait of the vessel Morrison (PD)

There’s a lot that’s made of the isolationism of Edo period Japan, and all too often I worry that the common perception is something like a hermetically sealed country. The facts suggest that this was anything but the case. Rather than total exclusion, it was very tightly controlled interaction in some very specific places, and outside of those, a lot of accidental interaction with foreigners and foreign vessels that the Shogunate couldn’t legislate away even if it wanted to. There was just too much coastline, and not a big enough military or a quick enough form of communication, to effectively do so. All the same, there was a period of time in the 19th century where the Tokugawa Shogunate attempted to keep unauthorized foreign contact at bay by way of the Order to Fire and Disperse Barbarian Ships (Ikokusen Uchiharai-rei), also called the Fire and Disperse with no Second Thoughts Order (Muninen Uchiharai-rei). In the interest of keeping things tidy, I’ll be calling it the “No Second Thoughts Order.”

The frequency of foreign ships in Japanese waters only increased over time, particularly picking up steam following the growth in number of steam vessels active in East Asian waters. There were some pretty notable cases where foreigners in Japanese waters by chance even landed on Japanese shores– far outside Nagasaki– and while this had always been the case, it only became more frequent in the 19th century. In the Otsuhama Incident of 1824 for instance, the crew of a British vessel landed at Otsuhama, in Mito domain (modern Ibaraki Prefecture) and were intercepted by local authorities. After interception, the Mito authorities learned that the men’s object was securing fresh food to ward off scurvy among some ill shipmates, and while they allowed the men to acquire what they sought, the Mito officials also put to death the people who had traded with these Englishmen. Meanwhile, far to the south in Satsuma domain, the Takarajima Incident several months later was not nearly so peaceful. Foreign sailors believed to have been British landed on Takarajima, an island in the Nansei chain off of southern Kyushu, and communicated with the local Satsuma troops that they wanted to acquire cattle for shipboard provisions. This was rejected, and the foreigners withdrew, only to return later and forcibly seize cattle, which led to a firefight. These two incidents were major precursors to a push for new laws that took a harder stance against foreign incursion.

In the interest of continuing to keep foreigners at a distance and curtailing potential future incidents like this in the future, the Tokugawa Shogunate issued the No Second Thoughts order in 1825 (Bunsei 8). This stated that without allowing foreign vessels to dock or their crews to land, they were to be fired upon and driven off without a second thought. And for seventeen years, this remained the law of the land. Not only did it complicate any foreign attempts at negotiating trade or provisioning, but it also made returning Japanese castaways home significantly more difficult of a proposition.

A notable foreign vessel to stray into Japanese waters during those seventeen years was the American merchant vessel Morrison, whose mission can give us a sense of what the receiving end of the No Second Thoughts order looked like in practice. Regardless of the No Second Thoughts Order, a group of Americans in the foreign community at Canton (modern Guangdong) organized to deliver a group of seven shipwrecked Japanese sailors back to home shores, and to use that as a suitable leverage point from which to attempt negotiations for foreign trade. Three of those men had been shipwrecked on what’s now the US west coast and made their way to China via London; the other three had been shipwrecked on Luzon and headed to China from there. Present on this cruise was a missionary and linguist named Samuel Wells Williams, who ran the Guangdong press of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

The Morrison proceeded first to Uraga, at the mouth of Edo Bay, but had scarcely been there for a day before coast defense artillery, presumably under the command of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s Uraga Magistrate office, fired warning shots at the vessel and forced its crew to return to the open ocean. Sailing south, the ship headed for Kyushu, where on the 10th it arrived at Kagoshima, in the Satsuma domain. Satsuma officials did take two of the former castaways into custody, but again, scarcely a day had gone by before coast artillery, moved into range on the night of the first day, opened fire on the second. As recounted in the 1838 narrative of the voyage:

About seven o clock on Saturday morning we observed the people on shore much excited running here and there and mustering in little groups on the eminences near the beach. Soon after we saw several strips of cloth blue and white in bars stretched from tree to tree among the stones of a grave yard. Behind the cloth were many persons assembled having flags and guns and officers on horseback were seen hastening to and fro all betokening some hostile operations. As soon as our Japanese saw the canvas bearing the arms of the prince of Satzuma they said that a messenger had probably come from the capital and that his orders were to drive us away. Our suspicions of an intended attack were strong and we accordingly began to heave in the cable and hoist the yards to the tops in such a manner as not to excite the notice of those on shore and showed the American colours. Before we made any sail the party behind the canvas battery began to fire at us with musquetry the shot falling about half way to the ship. Although there was no wind and a strong flood tide setting in we concluded it best to weigh anchor and get beyond their reach before any cannon should be brought to bear on us. In doing so we narrowly escaped getting foul of a rock towards which the tide was drifting us and were carried five or six miles farther up the bay than we had before ventured. As we came out which was very slowly and against a head wind cannon were fired at us from the opposite side but in this spacious and deep bay we had plenty of sea room in tacking to avoid the shot from both sides. The firing was continued even from the musquetry until dark and after we had passed out of the bay.

“Narrative of a Voyage of the ship Morrison, Captain David Ingersoll, to Lewchew and Japan, in July and August, 1837,” from The Calcutta Christian Observer

Its crew unwilling to risk further danger, the Morrison sailed back to Guangdong, taking with it the remaining five Japanese castaways still aboard. One of them was the now famous Yamamoto Otokichi.

Samuel Wells Williams in later life. (PD)

For the moment, it was dangerous for any westerner but the Dutch to visit Japan and attempt diplomacy by coercion or negotiation, regardless of the circumstances, to say nothing of the likely fate of those who were shipwrecked on Japanese shores. This did not forever remain the case, though. After the Qing Dynasty’s defeat in the First Opium War (1839-1842) and the geopolitical shift in the region, the threat of potential European invasion increased significantly in East Asian waters. In the interest of wanting to avoid antagonizing foreign powers and risking a potential invasion, the Shogunate– during the leadership of reform-minded Senior Councilor Abe Masahiro (1819-1857)– repealed the No Second Thoughts order in 1842. It was replaced with the Order for Provision of Firewood and Water (Shinsui Kyuuyo-rei) the same year, which stated that should a foreign vessel visit Japanese shores, its crew was not to be allowed to land, but was to be provided with firewood, water, and other provisions as needed before being sent away. This remained Shogunate policy through the foreign incursions and attempts at negotiation I’ve written about in prior weeks: the Biddle mission of 1846 to Uraga, the Glynn mission of 1849 to Nagasaki, up to the Perry mission of 1853, which forced Japan to open itself to international trade and rendered the closed country system a moot point altogether. 

And it bears noting that aboard Perry’s flagship, serving as an interpreter, was Samuel Wells Williams, veteran of the Morrison mission.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory.

Now– questions?


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