Topic: Japan

How an event is remembered by history is often completely different from how it looked when it was happening.

As an example, consider Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry’s forcible opening of Japan to American trade in 1853. This took place just five years after the United States annexed California — by sailing into San Francisco Bay and claiming the place.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that the American approach to Japan was not going to resemble its approach to California, which was part of the continent Americans saw it as their manifest destiny to subdue, and whose vast territory was occupied at the time by about 4,000 Mexicans. But I wonder whether the Japanese of 1853 would have been so sanguine. They were already worried about the Russians nosing about Hokkaido (at that time sparsely populated with Ainu), and the Russians had even gone as far as crossing the Pacific to establish forts in California (thus the town of Sebastopol in Sonoma County). The distance between Washington, D.C. and Tokyo isn’t much greater than that between Saint Petersburg and San Francisco, and it’s less than that between London and Calcutta.

Neither the Japanese nor the Americans could have known in 1853 that America would collapse into civil war within a decade, while Japan would embark on an ambitious, unprecedented campaign of modernization. At the time, Perry’s landing may well have looked like the beginning of a process that would end with total annexation and even statehood.