Calendar Features

March 2004 Feature

The Treaty of Kanagawa
Setting the Stage for Japanese-American Relations

Signature page of treaty
The signature page of the English version of the Treaty of Kanagawa, signed by Matthew Perry. (General Records of the United States Government, RG 11)

On March 31, 1854, two governments with conflicting goals, inclined to view each other's country as barbarian, found a way to sign an agreement without bloodshed. The first treaty between Japan and the United States was the meeting of an unwavering policy and an elaborately planned mission.

The United States Government was determined to take the lead in bringing Japan's two-century-old policy of self-imposed isolation to a close. The Fillmore administration sent Commodore Matthew C. Perry and a small fleet of sloops and the latest steam-powered ships to go to Edo (Tokyo) Bay to insist on a treaty that would protect the rights of American whalers, provide for coaling ports, and eventually lead to trade. What began as a treaty of friendship imposed by threat of force became the foundation for one of the world's most important bilateral relationships.

Marking the 150th anniversary of the treaty and the Japanese-American relationship, the National Archives and Records Administration will put the Treaty of Kanagawa on display in its new Special Exhibition Gallery. This is the first time in more than 35 years that all four language versions of the treaty will be on simultaneous display. In addition to the treaty itself, the display will include the State Department's copy of Fillmore's letter to the Emperor, pages from Perry's correspondence to the Secretary of the Navy, and the ratification and proclamation of the treaty by Japan and the United States.

A close look at this small display will offer visitors many surprises. For example, the very fact that the original treaty is in Dutch and Chinese as well as Japanese and English may be a revelation. Neither side negotiating the treaty could speak the other's language, and no Japanese-English dictionary existed. The Japanese had given an exclusive franchise for very limited trade to the Dutch in the 1600s and had become familiar with the Dutch language. For their part, the Americans already had a booming trade with China for decades before the opening of Japan.

The Chinese and Dutch versions were written as a means of resolving discrepancies between the Japanese and English language versions of the treaty. In 1856, when an argument arose about the conditions under which the United States could appoint a diplomatic consul, the Chinese and Dutch versions of the treaty were consulted to settle the dispute. Careful observers will note that someone has placed a mark next to the disputed clause on the English version of the treaty.

Another unexpected discovery is that there is no Japanese signature on the English language version of the treaty. Perry's letter to the Navy Secretary, also in the holdings of the Archives, offers an explanation: "It will be observed that the practice usually pursued in affixing signatures to treaties was departed from on this occasion, and for reason assigned by the Japanese, that their laws forbade the subjects of the Empire from putting their names to any document written in a foreign language." Perry's acceptance of this explanation is evidence that his determination to achieve mission objectives was tempered by a willingness to compromise on issues of custom.

Sketch of Simoda
A watercolor included in the treaty file shows Perry's vessels in the port of Simoda. (General Records of the United States Government, RG 11)

Perry achieved two of his three central objectives by improving America's access to strategic energy resources. He succeeded in getting two coaling ports for the Navy's new steamships and in protecting America's oil workers (the whalers). He did not, however, open Japan to trade. Many visitors may be surprised to learn that a nation that today is America's most important trading partner outside North America viewed the absence of a clause establishing trade as its greatest accomplishment in the negotiation of the treaty.

Perry accurately predicted that this accomplishment would be short-lived. Within two years the British, French, Russian, and Dutch followed the American lead, making their own treaties with Japan. Each demanded additional concessions, pushing Japan toward full trade. In 1858 U.S. Consul Townsend Harris at last achieved Perry's final objective: establishing a commercial treaty.

The treaties with Western nations undermined the political credibility of the Shogun (whose full title means "barbarian-subduing general"), fueling the efforts of regional lords to question and ultimately rebel against the Tokugawa regime. A new government installed under the Emperor Meiji in 1868 committed itself to the modernization of Japan and to seeking treaties with the West on more equal terms.

It is easy to see in the Treaty of Kanagawa the seeds of tensions and conflicts that figure prominently in the first century of the Japanese-American relationship. Yet in the fact that warrior/diplomats on both sides were able to put aside their cannons and swords long enough to reach this accord, we also see the potential for two cultures to find mutual understanding, and we find the roots of a peaceful strategic alliance that has lasted for more than 50 years.

Marvin Pinkert
Director of Museum Programs
National Archives and Records Administration

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