The United Kingdom and the opening of Japan (1854-1869)

March 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Anglo-Japanese relations started in 1600 with the arrival in Japan of William Adams, an adventurer who quickly became an advisor for the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Using this position of influence, he helped develop a trade between the two countries. But with the change of policy towards foreigners, the British were forced to close their commercial base in Hirado in 1623.

Relationships between Japan and the United Kingdom only resumed more than two centuries later in 1854 with the Treaty of Friendship. This followed the arrival of Commodore Perry and his “Black Ships” the year before. Perry was an envoy from US president Fillmore and had been entrusted with the diplomatic mission of opening trade with Japan. To achieve that with an openly hostile Japanese government, he resorted to threatening the authorities of bombarding Edo if they did not meet his demands. The Japanese, realising the power of the American fleet, agreed. From that point on, all the European nations strived to obtain treaties of commerce with Japan. And in 1858, the British got a real Treaty of Amity and Commerce, one of those unequal treaties that gave Japan a semi-colonial status. It granted the British the right to have a representative in Edo, and the opening of Hakodate, Nagasaki, Kanagawa and Hyogo and their surroundings to all British subjects.

However, troubles arrived and soon, British ambassadors were forced to travel accompanied by soldiers since the attempted assassination of Rutherford Alcock in June 1861. A similar attempt occured the year after and caused the delegation to move away from Edo and back to Yokohama where foreigners were more common and generally accepted. And yet again in 1868, a building of the British legation recently built in Edo was burnt to the ground. This was the work of the partisans of the “sonno-joi” movement, meaning “restore the Emperor, expel the barbarian”, supported by emperor Komei. Violence escalated with the Namamugi incident in 1863 during which a British man was killed and which triggered the Anglo-Satsuma war. Satsuma was the large province in the south of Japan and its daimyo (feudal lord) was the most powerful vassal of the emperor. The town of Kagoshima was bombarded and Satsuma eventually agreed to pay reparations to the British (25.000 £ (about 15.000.000 £ today)). A year later, in 1864, came the Shimonoseki incident : Japanese supporters of the sonno-joi movement attacked an American ship but were met by an international fleet of British, French, Dutch and American vessels which fought them back. More than 100 people died. The shogun sent an expedition against these supporters of the emperor so that they be punished. The leaders of the attack were beheaded.

The civil war in Japan (or Boshin War)

Quickly, the worsening political situation in Japan forced the imperial forces to cooperate with the British and strong ties emerged between Britain and the opponents of the shogun, whereas France for instance chose to remain on the shogun’s side until he was effectively brought down. The British got involved at the end of the civil war after the emperor called for the end of the neutrality of foreign powers. And although most nations, such as France and the USA, still chose not to participate in the war the United Kingdom, which had begun to develop these bonds with the imperial court, took the side of the already winning emperor. Thus the short-lived Franco-Japanese Republic of Ezo (Hokkaido) was crushed by an Anglo-Japanese force, putting an end to the war between the emperor and the shogun retainers.

This choice to get strongly involved with the emperor provided Britain with great advantages after these events. British ambassador Sir Harry Parkes obtained an influencial position in the Meiji government. And therefore the United Kingdom eventually managed to build stable relations with Japan as would two powers which could benefit from each other. And new treaties and alliances were signed until 1923, when American pressure triggered a new change of policy.

Sir Harry Parkes, British representantive in Japan from 1865 to 1883


Sources :

A Diplomat In Japan, Ernest Satow

The British Arms : North China and Japan, David Field Rennie


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