(Friday Night History) Katakura Kita: Builder

A saihai, a historic Japanese command baton.

This and more is made possible by readers like you. Support my work via Patreon at bit.ly/2lVqvv2, send a 1-time donation here: bit.ly/2lQfdZ8 , or buy my new novel #GreyDawn via bit.ly/greydawnebook! Thank you!

This is a topic I’ve written about in a prior Friday Night History– from December 2019– but my skill with this, as well as the characteristics of this feature itself, have changed. So I figured, why not try my hand at a rewrite? Hopefully, this will lend itself well, both to conforming to my current standard as well as to being the raw material for a later podcast episode.


If the history you write isn’t inclusive of women and their role and agency in society, it is incomplete. So-called Great Men, and men in general, are not the only driving forces in the myriad events of the past. The common picture of ruling clans in Warring States Japan all too easily falls into the same old Great Man tropes. But if we make a point of including and centering the women of these clans in our appreciation of how that wild and often unpredictable era played out, our picture of them will only be better rounded and more complete. Women are often erased, but are not invisible. With this in mind, let’s talk about Katakura Kita. If we’re to understand the house of Date in the 16th and 17th centuries and appreciate why it was able to survive an era where many of its peers did not, she is one of the women that we have to include in our consideration. This isn’t the “Date Masamune springs fully formed from the peak of Mount Yudono” show.

Born in 1538, Kita was a child of the vassal band serving the house of Date, which was then headquartered at Yonezawa Castle in Dewa Province– modern day Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture. Her father, Oniniwa Yoshinao (1513-1586, also known as Oniniwa Sagetsusai), was a noted Date military commander, and when Kita was very young, he divorced his wife Motozawa Nao. Nao went on to remarry Katakura Kageshige, a Shinto priest turned warrior. Because she followed her mother after the divorce, Kita is surnamed Katakura. Katakura Kagetsuna (1557-1615, also known as Katakura Kojuro), Kita’s half-brother 19 years her junior, was born in 1557. As with many elder siblings throughout Japanese history, Kita shared in the responsibility of childcare and early education for Kagetsuna.

Now, remember: Warring States era is not a name that’s applied for nothing. In those days, it was very common to know how to use a weapon, because the time could very well come where one would be expected to use it. You do need all hands on deck when the country’s been fighting itself since the 1470s. And as the daughter of two very prominent and somewhat wealthy warrior vassal families in the Date clan service, Kita knew how to fight. She could throw a punch, she could swing a sword, she could shoulder a halberd, as I recall, she knew how to handle a musket, and given what comes up later in our story, we can reasonably assume she was also familiar with military engineering. Yet even in times of civil war, as the daughter of a high ranking vassal family, one doesn’t just learn to fight. So, Kita was also educated broadly in the arts, was an accomplished poet, and read the Chinese and Japanese classics. Kita brought all of this to bear in helping with her half-brother’s upbringing. 

In several installments of Friday Night History I’ve talked about Date Masamune’s succession to Date headship in the late 16th century, as well as the politics motivating his mother Mogami Yoshi’s desire to exert control over the succession arrangement in the family to benefit her birth family, which was another powerful clan in Dewa. Lady Yoshi’s political motivations were known to her husband, Date Terumune, from the beginning. So, in the interest of guiding the young Masamune’s early education, and also protecting him, Terumune had to choose an appropriate woman as a surrogate mother. Terumune chose Kita. With a measure of sass and a keen ear for the clan’s politics, and she was educated enough, experienced enough, dangerous enough, and unorthodox enough that she got Terumune’s attention. Some sources claim that she wasn’t actually Masamune’s wetnurse, because she was unmarried and had not been pregnant, but lactation can be induced in people who aren’t pregnant, so I don’t know if this is necessarily the case. But whatever the case, Kita was attendant, teacher, guardian to the young Bontenmaru, who would grow up to become Masamune. She was the first to teach him how to read and write, though her role was later supplanted by the abbot Kosai Soitsu, who was invited to the north by Terumune to further instruct his son. But Kita also taught Masamune how to fight. In 1575, her half-brother Kagetsuna became Masamune’s page– and because she had a hand in Kagetsuna’s education, I see this as further reinforcing Kita’s influence on Masamune’s education and early development.

While Kita’s role in the Date clan’s daily life changed as Masamune grew older, she remained a powerful presence in guiding and shaping its affairs. The 1590s saw her in Kyoto as an attendant to Tamura Mego, Masamune’s wife, after Toyotomi Hideyoshi– then the de facto ruler of Japan– summoned all daimyo to send their families to reside as hostages in his court at Jurakudai. While she was in Kyoto, Kita was often in the presence of Hideyoshi. It bears noting that Masamune had a bad habit of pissing Hideyoshi off. When they met, Masamune had deliberately dragged his feet on responding to Hideyoshi’s summons and request for Masamune to pledge fealty. Later, Masamune was accused of treason– a charge that may have actually been true– and only his smooth talking in the heat of the moment saved him. But the thing is, Hideyoshi got a kick out of Kita! He thought she was funny and clever as hell, and he even called her Shonagon as a mark of his praise. Shonagon– which some of you might recognize as part of the courtly nickname of the 11th century diarist Sei Shonagon, was the title of a high counselor to the Emperor– it’d be like being called Chief of Staff or Aide de Camp or something of that sort. In the end, it was because of Kita’s regular politicking that the Date clan was saved from Hideyoshi’s wrath– in Masamune’s absence, she took action many times to keep Hideyoshi happy and keep his attention away from potentially destroying, impoverishing, or reassigning the family. When Masamune finally got wind of how without consultation she was regularly making decisions he considered rightfully his, he wasn’t happy. But I think it a sign of her influence and their shared history that rather than executing her, he had her simply sent back north to live in semi-retirement in her brother Kagetsuna’s castle. By that point, having risen in the Date vassal ranks, he was warden of Sanuma Castle. When he received ownership of Shiroishi Castle (in modern day Shiroishi, Miyagi Prefecture) in 1602, he brought Kita along. Shiroishi, formerly known as Masuoka Castle, had been a possession of the nearby rival Uesugi clan. Date forces took it at gunpoint during the climactic Sekigahara Campaign of 1600. This is where Kita’s background in military engineering is particularly visible. She took a walk around the castle’s outer works with her brother, and pointed out the gaps in its defensive architecture, urging her brother to close the gaps if he wanted to be serious about the castle as a viable piece of military architecture rather than a decoration. This was the castle at which the delegates of northern Honshu clans convened to form and lead the Northern Alliance during the Boshin War of 1868-1869. Partially dismantled in the years after the Boshin War, Shiroishi Castle, which I saw in 2005, is now partially reconstructed, along the lines of Kita’s suggestions to Kagetsuna.

Also remaining and locally ubiquitous today is Shiroishi City’s emblem– a black castle bell– which she first suggested that her brother use as his battle flag. Kagetsuna’s descendants used it until the house of Date’s surrender in late 1868. Here it is as I saw it at Shiroishi Castle in 2005.

Kita died in 1610, at the age of 72. In a rather uncommon act for the time, Date Tadamune– Masamune’s son and heir– ordered that Kita’s lineage (as opposed to a male lineage) be continued by two of his cousins. One of them, Katakura Yoshitane, was the originator of the Aoba tradition of matagi, a style of hunting still found some places in northern Japan. Katakura Kunio, former Japanese ambassador to Iraq, is his descendant– and thus, Kita’s.

The moral of the story is this: for every outstanding Japanese warlord still revered today, there’s at least one woman like Kita who made his success possible, and likely many more. You just have to dig a little deeper to find their stories. And if you’re going to tell a well-rounded story about the past, it behooves you, and me, and everyone else, to do so.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory.

Now– questions?


  • Date Chike Kiroku Vol. 2, ed. Taira Shigemichi (Sendai: Hōbundō, 1974), pp. 434-438.
  • Kazama Kansei, “Shiroishi-jō,” pp. 125-138 of Sendaijō to Sendairyō no Shiro, Yōgai (Tokyo: Meichō Shuppan, 1982), pp. 126-127.
  • “Kessanji no Kaiki: Katakura Kojuro Kagetsuna-ko.” https://kessanji.jp/history/katakura Accessed 14 January 2021.
  • Kobayashi Seiji. Date Masamune (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 1966), pp. 108-110. 
  • “Moniwa-shi.” Harimaya.com. http://www2.harimaya.com/sengoku//html/moniwa.html Accessed 14 January 2021
  • Otokozawa Chisato, Itō Sukemasa, Yano Michisato, & Imamura Moriyuki, “Boshin Shimatsu,” pp. 41-325 of Sendai Sōsho Vol 12. (Sendai: Hōbundō, 1974), pp. 161-162.
  • “Shishou, shinboru.” Shiroishi City. https://www.city.shiroishi.miyagi.jp/soshiki/1/261.html Accessed 14 January 2021.

(Friday Night History) The Doctor and the Daimyo

(pictured: Nabeshima Naomasa in formal garb)

This episode of Friday Night History first ran on 9 December 2020. This and more is made possible by readers like you. Support my work via Patreon at bit.ly/2lVqvv2, send a 1-time donation here: bit.ly/2lQfdZ8 , or buy my new novel #GreyDawn via bit.ly/greydawnebook! Thank you!

First things first this week, kids: don’t mess with mercury, regardless of what a Civil War doctor or Daoist sage tells you. Just don’t. It’ll be a bad time.

We cool? Cool.

Alright, so. Dr. Samuel Pellman Boyer (1839-1875) was a physician in US Navy service in the 1860s. After a tour in the blockade of southern ports during the American Civil War, he aws assigned to the USS Iroquois, part of the navy’s Asiatic Squadron, based in and around East Asian waters. The timing of his appointment would bring him from the aftermath of one civil war and into the throes of another. His diary, “Diary of a Naval Surgeon: Revolt in Japan,” is one of the primary American first-person accounts of the Boshin War of 1868-1869.

Pictured: USS Iroquois at anchor.

Nabeshima Naomasa (1815-1871) was daimyo of Saga domain from 1830 to 1861. By 1868 he was in retirement but continued to exert a major influence on his domain’s affairs. Saga under his leadership had made huge strides in technological development as well as military reform. As I’ve often said here and elsewhere, you can’t fight a 19th century war with 16th century technology and command structure and expect to win. Interest in technological and military reforms was not unique in this period in the Shogunate or in any of the domains, but Saga benefited from a geographic placement no other major domain enjoyed: its territory was immediately next to Nagasaki, the one port through which legal foreign trade and interaction took place in the Edo period. Officially this was under the watchful eye of the Tokugawa Shogunate, but unofficially, the Shogunate was unable to exert much meaningful direct control– if the clans around Nagasaki adhered to Shogunate policy, it was more under the theoretical force of potential Shogunate reprisal (as in the case of the Shimabara Uprising of 1638) rather than actual overwhelming Shogunate force in the area. This left the clans of western Japan in general, and Saga in particular, in a position where they had easier acess to foreign technology and foreign experts than others in Japan who had similar aims, like the house of Date, which ruled Sendai domain in northern Honshu.

Despite Nabeshima Naomasa’s insistence on technological advances and broad reforms and modernization, he kept the domain out of entanglement in any of the political factions that dominated Japanese politics in the 1860s. This continued into the start of the Boshin War, and threatened Saga’s security– indeed, there were some in nearby Satsuma domain, one of the leaders of the new imperial army, who called for attacking Saga due to its apparent fence-sitting. Western observers referred to Naomasa himself as “Mister Facing-Both-Ways.” But the clan leadership, including the retired Naomasa and his son Naohiro, soon threw in with the new imperial faction and put its advanced military technology to work in the service of that army. By the time Dr. Boyer entered the picture, Saga– also known by the name of the old province in which it sat, Hizen– had made itself one of the central pillars of the new imperial forces. And while many other daimyo had abandoned their estates in Kyoto or had them confiscated for supposed disloyalty, the Saga estate was a focal point of lively activity for Saga men and others. And this was where Nabeshima Naomasa was, on 29 July 1868, when Samuel Pellman Boyer met him. As was customary among Americans referring to daimyo at the time, he calls Naomasa “the Prince.” 

Naomasa was no stranger to western medicine. Earlier in life, he had a role in the popularization and implementation of smallpox vaccination in late Edo Japan. Western medicine was, for a time in the 1840s, declared illegal in Shogunate territories. However, after vaccinating himself and his son at home in Saga, Naomasa took the vaccine with him on his journey to the shogun’s capital of Edo, where he had his daughter vaccinated as well, and through contacts with other domains, spread the word and helped other people from other domains get vaccinated– Sendai domain being one of the first to follow Saga’s lead. As a result, Naomasa ensured his domain was a leader in medical advances, so by 1868, he would certainly have been no stranger to western doctors and medical technology.

Joseph Heco, a Japanese interpreter and noted former castaway, brought a Saga domain official nnamed Motoyama to the US consulate at Osaka on 26 July, where Motoyama requested the aid of an American doctor in treating Naomasa. “General debility” is what Boyer’s diary records as the symptoms this official relayed. Once Boyer rounded up medical supplies, he, Heco, Motoyama, the American consul T. Scott Stewart, and a few Japanese officers, took a boat up to Kyoto, where they arrived at the Saga estate at Kyoto’s Fushimi district on the 29th at 11 AM, having passed the ruins of the Battle of Toba-Fushimi that had yet to be cleared. Upon arrival in Fushimi, Boyer and Stewart were the first Americans to enter Kyoto. They were at last summoned to Naomasa’s bedchamber at 5 PM that day and found him in bed, with a very low pulse, as well as fatigued and complaining of pains throughout his body. To quote Boyer:

“Upon examination, I found that the Prince had been maltreated. It appears that six weeks ago he was attacked with an attack of dysenteria accuta acompanied with typhoid symptoms, for which his doctor had given him large doses of mercury to such an extent as to salivate him almost to death…”

So here’s where we have to talk about mercury.

Mercury is a substance that has a long history in traditional East Asian medicine, but was also quite common in western medicine of the time as well. Calomel in particular, a mercury chloride mineral, was used medicinally in the American Civil War, though because of its negative side-effects its military use was soon restricted. So we can assume Boyer would’ve been familiar with mercury-based medication and its effects, even before he came to East Asian waters. Ironically, the medical supplies Boyer took with him to Kyoto included “blue pills,” which was one common form of calomel, the common name of mercury chloride.

Boyer diagnosed Naomasa with adynamia, or general debility, and perscribed as initial treatment “ipecacuanhae pulv comp grs iii”– three powdered grams of ipecac, a pretty powerful emetic.

The next day, some Saga officials called on Boyer in the latter’s quarters in the Saga estate and reported that Naomasa had slept well all night after his treatment. In his diary entry for the day, Boyer said

“I felt better, for to confess the truth I thought last night that he might peg out during the night, for a man with a pulse of 38 is not a very strong one.”

There were a range of medications that Boyer administered to Naomasa, but the result was that by the last time Boyer saw him on 31 July, Naomasa was markedly improved.

“Called upon him at 1 P.M. and gave his doctor final directions and then bade the Prince adieu and told him to come to Osaka as soon as his health would permit him to travel. 4 P.M. our party left homeward bound.”

In his own account of the visit, Heco notes “After breakfast we visited the Prince again and found that the medicine had had powerful effect upon him. As he felt much better, we stayed with him much longer than on the two previous occasions. He asked me many questions about foreign matters, and requested me to inform Mr. Katayama, his confidential attendant, of anything that might suggest itself to my mind as beneficial to his country.”

Nabeshima Naomasa went on to occupy several important posts in the early Meiji government, including as director of colonization for the newly annexed Hokkaido. He died in 1871 at the age of 56, and since 1933 is enshrined as a kami at Saga Shrine, in his old castle town. Samuel Pellman Boyer finished his tour of duty, went home, and died in 1875 at 36, relatively young even for the time.

But there’s an interesting postscript to this story.

In his account of the visit to treat Nabeshima Naomasa, Joseph Heco noted that on the last day in Fushimi, Boyer and the others were visited by 

“Mr. Yokoi Heshiro (afterwards Minister of State and assassinated by a band of Ronin in 1868), who came to consult the doctor and get medicine.”

Yokoi Heishirō, better known as Yokoi Shōnan, was a vassal of Kumamoto domain, one of Saga’s powerful neighbors in Kyushu. A year later, his nephew, Yokoi Daihei, became one of the first two Japanese students at the United States Naval Academy, at Annapolis, Maryland.

All of this just goes to show: history is more interconnected than we might assume. And it sometimes moves faster than we realize.

But seriously kids: don’t ingest mercury.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory

Now, questions?


  • Boyer, Samuel Pellman. Naval Surgeon: Revolt in Japan, 1868-1869. James A. Barnes and Elinor Barnes, eds. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963), pp. 78-88.
  • “Col. Thomas Scott Stewart.” Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/136388705/thomas-scott-stewart Accessed 9 December 2020.
  • Heco, Joseph. The narrative of a Japanese: what he has seen and the people he has met in the course of the last forty years, Vol. 2. James Murdoch, ed. (Tokyo: Maruzen, 1895), pp. 118-129. https://www.loc.gov/item/52053301/ Accessed 6 December 2020.
  • Jannetta, Ann Bowman. The Vaccinators: Smallpox, Medical Knowledge, and the ‘Opening’ of Japan. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).
  • “Katsuyaku shita Hitobito.” https://www.city.saga.lg.jp/main/3857.html Accessed 6 December 2020.
  • Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Register of the commandery of the state of Pennsylvania, April 15, 1865-September 1, 1902 Brevet Lieut.-Colonel John P. Nicholson, Recorder-Compiler. (Philadelphia: Press of J.T. Palmer, 1902), p. 59. https://archive.org/details/registerofcomman18mili Accessed 6 December 2020.
  • Nabeshima, Naomasa. https://www.ndl.go.jp/portrait/e/datas/154.html Accessed 7 December 2020.
  • Onodera Eikō, “Boshin Nanboku Senso to Tohoku Seiken.” (Sendai: Kita no Mori, 2005).
  • “Saga-han no Torikumi.” https://www.city.saga.lg.jp/main/3856.html Accessed 6 December 2020.
  • “Sagara Chian.” http://www.sagarachian.jp/main/74.html Accessed 6 December 2020.
  • Swiderski, Richard M. Calomel in America: Mercurial Panacea, War, Song and Ghosts. (Boca Raton: BrownWalker Press, 2008), pp. 19-20, 186.

(Friday Night History) Japanese Veterans of the American Civil War

Image: Banner of the 1st Regiment NY Cavalry. (Public Domain)

This and more is made possible by readers like you. Support my work via Patreon at bit.ly/2lVqvv2, send a 1-time donation here: bit.ly/2lQfdZ8 , or buy my new novel #GreyDawn via bit.ly/greydawnebook! Thank you!

SALUTATIONS you fantastic denizens of the internet! The first #FridayNightHistory of 2021 is here! This week, a new mystery: the true name of “John Williams,” Japanese Veteran of the American Civil War.

Yeah, you heard right. And he’s not the only one, either.

Now– I know, I know. Ordinarily you see me talking about the Japanese aftermath of the US Civil War, in the form of people and surplus equipment from the US that ended up there during the Boshin War. But in a curious turn of events, I find myself in pursuit of the opposite: information on a Japanese veteran of the US Civil War. A friend on Twitter @DuPertweet alerted me to a tweet by @KyleMizokami, with photos of an article talking about Asian-American/Pacific Islander veterans of the US Civil War in general and Japanese vets in particular. And much to my surprise, there were two Japanese people listed there. I’m starting from one of them, and seeing how much I can reconstruct, because there really weren’t that many Japanese people outside of Japan in the timespan of the US Civil War (1861-1865).

So, what do we know about this person who American records call John Williams?

We know he arrived in New York from Japan in 1864, when he was 22. According to an article in the Hawaii Pacific Press, he was “5’1″ tall, black hair, dark complexion and a laborer. He enlisted at the 3rd District Enrollment Board, New York, on August 25, 1864, and served in the 1st Regiment New York Cavalry (Lincoln). he arrived in the US to study 10 days before he enlisted.”  He fought in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, fell ill with remittent fever, and was not able to return to his regiment in time for their discharge ceremony on 27 June 1865, being discharged on the 16th.

That’s most of what research assembled by the Japanese American Veterans Association and published in this HPP article tells us about this man. But I am of the opinion that there is likely more information out there, including his actual name, but will take further digging in Japanese and English language sources in order to find. The article references an edited US National Park Service volume, Asians and Pacific Islanders and the Civil War. So where do we begin?

Let’s start with the dates: 15 August 1864 for arrival, 25 August for enlistment, 16 June 1865 for discharge. What was going on in Japan at the time? And what were some of the major places where Japanese people were heading abroad at the time?

Summer 1864 was extremely volatile in Japan. The battle at the Kyoto imperial palace called the Forbidden Gate Incident or Hamaguri Gate Incident was 20 August, the culmination of rising tensions across the entire year between the Tokugawa Shogunate and the recalcitrant Choshu domain of western Japan. High profile political assassinations continued apace, including that of Sakuma Shozan, a noted educator and scholar of European technologies and languages, on 12 August. The following month, the Shogunate launched the First Choshu Expedition. All of this was happening against the backdrop of major political and military reforms and shakeups in both the Shogunate as well as the myriad feudal domains: the Choshu Expedition saw one of the first deployments of regiments of the modernized Shogunate Army. Some of these reforms were implemented through study in Japan of new technologies or methods through foreign literature, or through consultation of western specialists present in Japan. But just as common was the dispatching of students to Europe or the United States, in the interest of building up a cadre of Japanese experts that– with some investment of time and money in study– could help guide those reforms further. Enomoto Takeaki, who went on to fame as commander of the Shogunate Navy and later as an Imperial Japanese Navy admiral and diplomat, was one of the more notable of these students, having studied in Holland from 1862 to 1867. Takahashi Korekiyo, who began as a vassal to the house of Date and eventually rose to become Prime Minister and Finance Minister, was another– he studied in San Francisco. Yet another, of course, is our First New York Cavalry veteran, this “John Williams,” who enlisted ten days after arrival– and according to what we know, had arrived in the US for study.

Assuming this is correct, we can safely conjecture that he was either of warrior caste birth or was of the warrior caste by adoption. While some people of non-warrior caste did leave Japan in the 1860s, most who did were of warrior extraction, and their domains (or the Shogunate) paid for or arranged for their travel and study. While some domain records did not survive the Boshin War and other records did not survive the firebombings of the Second World War, we can safely assume that a Japanese person sent to New York for study who was presumably of warrior extraction would have left some kind of paper trail in Japanese, and likely more of one in English than has yet been found.

The other thing I can offer– at this point mostly as conjecture– is that his enlistment in the Union Army so soon after his arrival was not a whim, but rather was intentional. If so many Japanese people sent abroad in those years were there to acquire military and military-adjacent skills, then to me, it seems within the realm of possibility that he enlisted in order to gain hands-on knowledge of English as well as of US weapons and tactics. The US Civil War having begun in 1861, it is not a matter of the war having broken out while he was on his way to New York. He would’ve known it was underway, and thus could quite conceivably have gone from the beginning with the intention of enlistment, or with vague enough directives that would’ve allowed for his enlistment. After all, bear in mind that this is an era where information and communication traveled much more slowly, and as such there was significant room to make snap decisions without oversight.

But again, without further evidence, right now this is all in the realm of conjecture. As the JAVA Research Team notes in the HPP article quoted above, it “opened research challenges to identify the first ethnic Japanese to serve in the US military.” As with them, I share the goal of finding the true names of these men that US records list as John Williams and Simon Dunn. So, what to do next? I’m not sure where to begin, but I’m looking, and my gut feeling is that we haven’t heard the last of them. I know I’ll certainly be looking– and, I am certain that in time, I will likely find something. Having studied this period since 2003, and having seen the digitization of extremely rare material and the rediscovery of physical records and photos thought previously lost (e.g. the confirmed photo of Shinsengumi trooper Saito Hajime), I know there is more out there than seems to be, in both Japanese and English. And because of how the demands of a shrinking number of tenure postings affects academe (where the best access to source material is concentrated), there is a dearth of trained scholars who can handle working across Japanese and English source material of this era and are in a position to actually do so.

But mark my words– in all probability it’s a matter of when, not if, we learn the men’s true names.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory– the beginning of a new search. Now, to work.



  • Masao Miyoshi, As We Saw Them. (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2005).
  • Ohira Kimata, Sakuma Shōzan (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 1959), p. 198.
  • Shimokuni Tōshichirō tō rirekisho. (Hakodate: n.p., 1891), p. 6. Archived at https://www2.lib.hokudai.ac.jp/cgi-bin/hoppodb/kyuki.cgi?id=0A006540000000000&page=6&lang=0 Accessed 5 January 2021.
  • JAVA Research Team (JRT). “Two Japanese Nationals Fought in US Civil War.” Hawaii Pacific Press, March 15, 2020, p. 28.
  • Richard J. Smethurst, From Foot Soldier to Finance Minister: Takahashi Korekiyo, Japan’s Keynes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 21.

(Video) #FridayNightHistory Christmas 2020 Live!

It’s the #FridayNightHistory Christmas 2020 livestream! Crossposted from the original stream on Facebook. A retrospective, a reading from Chamberlain’s Passing of the Armies, and a look at the year ahead. As ever, to support my work, sign up at http://patreon.com/riversidewings for as low as $1 a month, and consider buying some merch from http://hellaradsparrow.redbubble.com

Thank you for your support in 2020! Here’s to a healthy and safe new year and to reunion with the people and places we love and have longed for, all year long.

(Friday Night History) Ogata Kōan, Connector

This and more is made possible by readers like you. Support my work via Patreon at bit.ly/2lVqvv2, send a 1-time donation here: bit.ly/2lQfdZ8 , or buy my new novel #GreyDawn via bit.ly/greydawnebook! Thank you!

There’s a kind of person in history you might have encountered before. They’re the sort of person who seems to know everyone, seems to connect lots and lots of people who you didn’t realize had that connection, and thereby makes currents of influence, communication, inspiration a lot clearer. The history of late Edo Japan has its share of people like this, so tonight, let’s talk about Ogata Kōan, a famous Osaka based doctor and polymath.

Detail of a 1901 painting of Ogata Kōan.

Born in Ashimori (in modern day Okayama Prefecture), he was born into the samurai caste, but chose to focus his efforts on scholarship and medicine, especially Dutch medicine. Studying during the 1830s first in Edo with Japanese teachers and then in Nagasaki with a visiting Dutch physician, by 1838 he began his own career as a teacher. Ogata set up his school, Tekijuku 適塾, in Osaka.

Osaka, then as now, was one of Japan’s major cities, and was also a city under the direct control of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This was not the Shogun’s capital, but it was the nearest thing in western Japan, and the myriad feudal domains of Japan maintained some measure of presence there. A primary reason for this was that this was one of the main centers of rice brokers in Japan. Why does this matter? Because the wealth of feudal domains was measured primarily in their agricultural output in rice, but you can’t buy necessities with rice and nothing else, and a bale of rice is a pain in the ass to make change out of, don’t you think? So, the feudal domains would bring their rice to Osaka, and exchange it for paper bills. Osaka brokers significantly grew their own political power this way, too– so much so that Masuya Heiemon (Masuhei for short), the broker with whom the Date of Sendai domain were contracted, once bragged “Masuhei is Sendai!”
This meant that Osaka was a major transportation hub and a place where many people from very different places and statuses of origin had a chance of crossing paths amidst the pursuit of official or mercantile business. So it was a good place for Ogata to set up his school. And this choice of location at the crossroads of so many people from so many domains is exactly why even though his school might not necessarily be a household name, many of his students went on to very prominent roles in the fields of military leadership, government, education, literature, and more.

Some of Tekijuku’s most notable alumni include Sano Tsunetami, Ōmura Masujirō, Fukuzawa Yūkichi, Hashimoto Sanai, Ōtori Keisuke, Nagayo Sensai, Tezuka Ryōsen, Mitsukuri Shūhei, Takamatsu Ryōun, and many others. Several of these names are people who have appeared in earlier weeks’ installments of Friday Night History. We’ve heard about Sano for the past few weeks because he went on to be a key leader in the Saga domain under the leadership of Nabeshima Naomasa, in which role he later met Samuel Pellman Boyer, the topic of last week’s post. Otori Keisuke was a Shogunate Army general and later a diplomat in the Meiji government. Takamatsu Ryōun was a key figure in the founding of the Japan Red Cross. Fukuzawa Yūkichi was a journalist, entrepreneur, and educator who founded Keio University. Tezuka Ryōsen in particular is the ancestor of legendary mangaka Tezuka Osamu, whose manga about his ancestor’s life, Hidamari no Ki included scenes in the Ogata school.

I encourage you to look up each of these names and see what you can find out abut them on your own. All told, quite a lot of important people in the development of Japan from the 1850s onward.
Tekijuku’s focus was Dutch studies– Ogata was a doctor, after all. But Dutch studies encompassed more than medicine, and there was a range of topics in what we’d now call STEM that were all taught there, along with instruction on the Dutch language itself, for many of the books from which Ogata taught were not translated. Not everyone who went to Tekijuku became a doctor, but the education available at Tekijiku became instrumental in setting Ogata’s students up for later success. But learning about that shared educational experience, in what was a very small private school, can help us appreciate how he, like Osaka itself, connected people.

Ogata Kōan’s work extended beyond instruction, of course. He was still a practicing doctor, and some of his fame to this day is also in his work on inoculations against smallpox. Again, we’ve covered this in prior weeks– Nabeshima Naomasa and Ogata Kōan’s circles had significant overlap for many years. He was also a translator of Dutch works into Japanese, and an author of original works including the first Japanese book on pathology, Byōgaku Tsūron. If you’re able to read kanbun, the National Diet Library has a scanned copy here: https://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/995413 Near the end of his life, he even became an official physician to Tokugawa Iemochi, 14th shogun, as well as serving as official physician of the Shogunate Army’s infantry barracks in Edo. Ogata’s career was cut short upon his death from tuberculosis in 1863, but his impact on Japan, through his students, continued for many decades.

Tekijuku as it stands today.

Oh, and the old building of Tekijuku, the Ogata school, is still in Osaka today. But the school grew into something much bigger: it is a forerunner of today’s Osaka University, which maintains an archive of documents and other materials pertaining to Tekijuku: https://www.tekijuku.osaka-u.ac.jp/ja

I’m Nyri and this has been a connective #FridayNightHistory!

Now– questions?


  • Fukuzawa Yukichi. The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa. Translated by Eiichi Kiyooka. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966).
  • Ann Bowman Jannetta. The Vaccinators: Smallpox, Medical Knowledge, and the ‘Opening’ of Japan. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).
  • “Koan Ogata 1901.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Koan_Ogata_1901.jpg Accecssed 17 December 2020.
  • Marius Jansen. Sakamoto Ryoma in the Meiji Restoration. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994) p. 18. 
  • Miyagi Kenshi Vol. 2 (Sendai: Hōbundō, 1966), p. 674.
  • Miyoshi Masao. As We Saw Them. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2005.
  • “Shozo Shiryo no Shokai” 所蔵資料の紹介 Osaka Daigaku Tekijuku Kinen Sentaa https://www.tekijuku.osaka-u.ac.jp/ja/center/introduction Accessed 17 December 2020
  • “Tekijuku no Gaikan” 適塾の外観 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tekijuku_06.jpg Accessed 17 December 2020

(Friday Night History) The Long and Surprising Afterlife of Edo Period Robots

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So there’s this word automata, or in singular, automaton: “a mechanism that is relatively self-operating,” says Merriam-Webster. Not the computerized robots of today, but can the word “robot” be applied? Yes. The equivalent term in Japanese is karakuri ningyō. Karakuri is an old term that refers to a mechanism, especially involving pneumatics or clockwork, while ningyō is the word for puppet. Robots are ubiquitous in industry today, including in Japan, but these karakuri ningyō were some of the earliest of Japanese robots.

Tanaka Hisashige, born in Kurume on the island of Kyushu in 1799, was one of the foremost builders of karakuri ningyō in the late Edo period. Kurume was a castle town, the capital of the eponymous Kurume domain, ruled by the house of Arima. Bear in mind that Hisashige wasn’t the inventor of this type of automata, but merely one of its greatest engineers before the modern era. Why am I telling you this? Because it’s more relevant than you might think it is, to something you might take for granted as (for lack of a better term) “brand name background noise,” part of life in the modern world. Edo period robots have a long and surprising afterlife.

Hisashige in old age

Hisashige’s family were artisans, whose hereditary trade was in tortoiseshell craftsmanship, but he himself was more interested in the karakuri ningyō he saw in places like shrine festivals, and by his 20s, was making his own. Moving to the Kyoto-Osaka area in the 1830s (first to Osaka and then to Kyoto) he studied Dutch studies, as well as astronomy under the courtly Tsuchimikado family, who ran the court’s Ministry of Divination. Throughout this time, he constantly sought to improve his technical skill and broaden his scientific knowledge, and put these to work in technological innovation. Far from just working in automata, Hisashige was also the builder of clocks, compact lanterns, and even Japan’s first steam-engine train in 1853. But in the wake of the Perry mission of 1853-1854, there was a rising tide of violent xenophobia, and so Sano Tsunetami, vassal to Nabeshima Naomasa of Saga domain, invited Hisashige relocate to Saga for safety, and to come work for his lord, who was a proponent of western military and other technologies. Interestingly, considering this, Nabeshima Naomasa was later also one of the first feudal lords to pursue and accept western-style medical intervention, being treated by the US Navy doctor Samuel Pellman Boyer, who was also therefore the first American to enter Kyoto, visiting Naomasa in the latter’s official estate in Kyoto. But that visit and treatment wasn’t for several further years, so let’s stay on task with Hisashige and the invitation to come apply his broad technical and scientific learning in service to the forward-thinking house of Nabeshima. 

A depiction of Ryofu-maru underway.

While in Saga service, Hisashige attended the Shogunate Naval Academy at Dejima, in nearby Nagasaki. The academy was shuttered and relocated following a realignment of Shogunate priorities in 1859, but the learning acquired at the academy from mostly Dutch and some American instructors (including the famed John M. Brooke, later famous for his role in the construction of CSS Virginia) would stand Saga domain in general and Tanaka Hisashige in particular, in good stead. As the major domain in the area, some of the academy’s assets were sold or otherwise handed over to Saga control when the shogunate moved its naval education to Tsukiji, in Edo.

After the academy’s closure, Hisashige worked at the Saga domain’s shipyard at Naval Station Mietsu (in modern-day Saga City). One of the station’s most notable ships was Ryōfu-maru, whose keel was laid in 1863 and which was completed in 1865. It wasn’t the first western-style warship in Japanese service, nor was it the first steamship in Japanese service, but it was one of the first Japanese-built steam warships. The rivets used in its construction were a small but important advancement in Japanese technological capability, and some are still unearthed on the site of the old shipyard.

Hisashige also had a hand in casting cutting-edge cannons for Saga domain. Saga put this technological edge in naval power and artillery to practical use several years later, when its troops were part of the imperial forces during the Boshin War of 1868-1869. Saga artillery batteries rather notably saw action against the forces of the Northern Alliance, including at the siege of Aizu late that autumn.

Period photo of a Saga domain artillery piece used during the Boshin War.

Moving to Tokyo– now the imperial capital– in 1871, Hisashige founded a company in 1875 to continue work on technological innovation, especially in producing and refining telegraph instruments. He  died in 1881 in Tokyo, and his adopted son Tanaka Daikichi– who changed his name to Tanaka Hisashige II– took over the family business. The younger Hisashige would move the company’s facility to Shibaura to a 10,000 square meter site in 1882. Shibaura is part of present-day Minato, Tokyo.

But like I said at the beginning of our story this week, independent of steam warships or automata, there’s a part of this story that may surprise you, something that’s a part of the background of life in the 21st century.

Hisashige’s company, after a later merger with Tokyo Electric, still exists.

With the “To” from one and the “Shiba” from the other combined, it’s called Toshiba.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory.

Now, questions?


(Friday Night History) The Moustache of Destiny

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They’re a variant of sideburns, and one of the quintessential forms of 19th century masculine facial hair grooming. Most famously worn by people like General Ambrose Burnside (from whom comes the term “sideburns”), they remain very visually distinctive. They used to be very common in some places, alongside facial hair in general– for example, in the 19th century US Navy, it was more uncommon to see naval officers without facial hair. After the Boshin War (1868-1869) and the birth of the modern Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, this sort of splendiferous facial hair also spread in popularity among officers, who had studied alongside Prussians, French, and Americans who sported similar grooming styles.

Muttonchops usually had limits.

Which brings me to this man.

Nagaoka Gaishi (1858-1933) isn’t exactly one of the best known Japanese military figures of the last 150 years.  Born in 1858 in Choshu domain, one of the victorious clans of the Boshin War, he was well positioned to take advantage of the prosperity and success enjoyed by former Choshu clansmen in the Imperial Army after the war. He saw service in the First Sino-Japanese War at the battlefront and as Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff during the Russo-Japanese War. He was also commander of a couple of infantry divisions over the course of his career, most notably the 13th, based in Niigata on the Sea of Japan coast.  After ending active service and transferring to reserve status, he also served a stint in the House of Representatives, and was ennobled as a count  (hakushaku). Nagaoka died in April 1933.

Okay, so what’s the deal with the Muttonchops of Destiny here?

Nagaoka might be termed the father of Japanese aviation, particularly military aviation. He was a senior Army officer when airplanes were brand new, and after seeing their application in war during the First World War, understood their importance to the future of military operations. He headed the Imperial Aviation Association, was active as judge in early Japanese aviation competitions, spent time in Europe taking notes on military aircraft and aviation from British and French pilots, oversaw the reception of foreign aviators like the American pilot Art Smith (pictured below), and even offered his own residence as a temporary office for the Tokyo-Osaka airmail service following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

As a proponent of a very new technology and a highly visible public figure involved in them, Nagaoka also sought to spread the word as broadly as possible. Part of this involved writing books and pamphlets meant to spread the word about aviation. Some of them can be found in digitized form in the National Diet Library’s collection. The 1918 Nihon Hikō Seisaku (Japanese Aviation Policy) https://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/924020 and the 1923 Hikōki to Teitō Fukkō (Aircraft and the Imperial Capital’s Revitalization)  https://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/922671 were written as arguments for national- and capital-level policy and public planning as related to aviation, while the richly illustrated 1928 Hikōki no Hanashi (A Story About Aircraft) can be found here:  https://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/1717318 was written for school-aged readers. But there was a much more practical way he could spread the word about aviation: he grew out his muttonchops, already long during later days of his Army career, in the shape of a propeller. According to a website run by his descendants, Nagaoka’s moustache was 70cm at its longest!

I mean really. I think this is a case of “message received,” don’t you:

Nagaoka and his muttonchops are commemorated in a bronze bust in Joetsu, Niigata, on the site of the old 13th Division commander’s residence.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory.

Now– questions?


On This Day…

On this day in 1868, the house of Nanbu won its final battle, the Battle of Noheji, in modern-day Noheji, Aomori.

Latest Friday Night History blogpost, on the Election of 1869, needs an edit– it’s been a long week for all of us, including me, and I made some errors that a watchful regular reader caught in the Twitter thread version. It’ll be up soon, though. Thank you for your support, friends.

Remember, if you’d like to support the Friday Night History threads and podcast, as well as the rest of my work, sign up today at http://patreon.com/riversidewings

(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.

(Friday Night History) The Shove Heard ‘Round the World, Part 2

This is “The Shove Heard ‘Round the World,” Part 2 of an extarordinary story (here’s part 1) of an American naval officer who thought he could “wing it” in international diplomacy with isolationist Japan. Last week, in the summer of 1846, having scored an unequal treaty with China, and hearing of the outbreak of war with Mexico, Commodore James Biddle thought he could go to Japan (and go straight to Edo to avoid attracting the ire from the Dutch), snag a different treaty with Japan, and then smoothly pivot and head across the Pacific to join the war. Easy, right?

Well, no.

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

Here’s the thing: Japan was no stranger to the increasing presence of international ships in its waters, especially whalers. With the development and expansion of steam vessels, this only increased: Dutch, French, British, Russian, and American vessels all wound up in Japanese waters with increasing frequency. The isolation policy hadn’t fundamentally changed since the 17th century, although there had been some relaxing of restrictions pertaining to the import of European books. Even if they came from the countries whose entry into Japan was barred, the knowledge within was still of use. This became the backbone of what was called rangaku, Dutch studies– although despite the name, “Dutch Studies” could refer to the study of any European language, technology, medicine, or discipline.

All the same, by the early to mid 19th century, the ships weren’t going away, and there were a range of opinions as to how to deal with them. Some, like the powerful Mito domain of eastern Japan, advocated for the armed repulsion of any foreign vessel on sight. Others, like the Ōtsuki family– powerful scholars and doctors serving the house of Date in northern Japan– argued for a limited opening of Japan to foreign trade, particularly in the north, with an eye toward better understanding Russia. Indeed, eventually, Sendai under the house of Date became the first clan in Japan to include a Russian studies curriculum in its domain school, the school where its samurai were trained.

Commodore James Biddle. Image in PD.

So with all of this understood, what it boils down to is that foreign vessels, foreign ideas, foreign weapons of the 1840s were not strange otherworldy magical things to Japan. And this informed how the Shogunate responded, shortly after Biddle’s little flotilla– the warships Columbus and Vincennes– arrived at Uraga, at the entrance of what’s now Tokyo Bay, on 20 July 1846.
And by “shortly,” I mean they saw these ships coming, and there was an officer who came aboard before the American warships even reached their anchorage.

As Biddle reported to SECNAV Bancroft:

“Before reaching the anchorage an officer, with a Dutch interpreter, came on board. He inquired what was my object in coming to Japan. I answered that I came as a friend, to ascertain whether Japan had, like China, opened her ports to foreign trade and, if she had, to fix by treaty the conditions on which American vessels should trade with Japan. He requested me to commit this answer to writing, and I gave him a written paper, a copy of which is herewith transmitted. He informed me that any supplies I might require would be furnished by the Government. To my inquiry whether I would be allowed to go on shore, he replied in the negative. He objected to our boats passing between this ship and the Vincennes; but, as I insisted upon it, he yielded.”

Quite the entrance.

The week that followed saw the American sailors receiving Japanese visitors aboard both vessels. Both crews took soundings of the waters around their anchorage, and passed unrestricted from one ship to the other, but were shadowed by Shogunate patrol craft that kept a tight cordon, as well as troops of Oshi and Kawagoe domains, which kept watch from the adjoining shoreline.

Both Biddle’s official report and Charles Nordhoff’s later memoir note that quite a few Japanese regularly visited the two American warships, and that the interactions were on the whole, amicable. Shogunate officials also regularly visited, continuing discussions with Biddle while the latter’s letter traveled up Shogunate channels; despite their firm refusal to let the Americans actually land, they were amenable to supplying the ships with fresh water and other needed provisions.

On the 27th, an answer finally arrived from what Biddle calls “the Emperor,” but was in fact the Shogun. The emissary came with an entourage of eight people including an interpreter. Initially, he wanted them to come aboard, but eventually agreed to come aboard the Shogunate vessel that had drawn up alongside Columbus. But on trying to board, one of the guards on the Japanese vessel misinterpreted Biddle’s intentions, and shoved him back into the Columbus’ launch , drawing his own sword.

A short, sharp crisis ensued. Biddle returned to Columbus, calling for the man to be punished. Japanese officials followed, working out the nature of the misunderstanding and how to punish the man who’d drawn his sword. Ultimately, the problem at its root was exacerbated by neither side having a language in common other than a mutually tenuous grasp of Dutch. With this in mind, Ranald MacDonald’s work in English language instruction had an outsized influence in smoothing future US-Japanese diplomatic interactions.

The shove aside, the Shogunate’s message (as quoted by Biddle) was this:

“According to the Japanese laws, the Japanese may not trade, except with the Dutch and Chinese. It will not be allowed that America make a treaty with Japan or trade with her, as the same is not allowed with any other nation. Concerning strange lands, all things are fixed at Nagasaki, but not here in the bay; therefore you must depart as quick as possible and not come any more in Japan.”

Chastened, Biddle told the Shogunate officials that having ascertained that Japan was not interested in trade, he would withdraw as soon as he could make sail. So, having taken on fresh provisions, and with a tow from Japanese rowboats, the flotilla sailed from Edo Bay on the 29th. Charles Nordhoff recollects that

“Accordingly the anchor was weighed, the sails set, and two long hawsers passed over the bows to the waiting boatmen, who, fastening to these, and to each others’ craft when the hawsers would no longer reach them, soon towed us to the entrance of the bay, when, taking the breeze, the boats cast off, and, amid waving of fans and hats, we bade good-by to Japan.”

Vincennes remained on station in East Asia with Columbus, with Biddle aboard, headed east to join the war. There was no treaty, but there were plenty of reports, first of which was Biddle’s official account sent to Secretary of the Navy Bancroft is dated 31 July. Accounts of this abortive, slapdash attempt at gunboat diplomacy that ended with a shove would influence later US attempts: I talked recently about James Glynn’s 1849 mission to Japan, and the 1853 mission of Matthew C. Perry is renowned worldwide, for better and worse. Both men benefited from the unlikely influenece of Ranald MacDonald, and both were aware of the events of the Biddle mission, seeking to scrupulously avoid the same mistakes (neither commander let himself be in a position where he could get shoved), and especially by use of increasing amounts of naval firepower to compel compliance.

USS Vincennes and an American officer as depicted by a Japanese artist. Image in PD.

But Biddle’s visit had an impact in Japan, too, in ways he likely didn’t anticipate. And for that, you’ll have to wait until next week’s episode.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory. Now– questions?

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