Blue Ribbon Campaign

People of my generation were very much fascinated by the news coming from Japan. What made a great impression on us, along the finesse art of love of the geisha or samurai warriors' skill of wielding exotic swords, as seen for example in Akira Kurosawa's films, was more and more news and pictures of Japan's growing economic power. The sphere of information about the Japanese economic revolution from the beginning had a taste of scandal or sensation: there was coming a power that was selling supercomputers at bargain prices and state-of-art electronics by its weight! What was even more sensational, it happened in the country that was reputed to manufacture nothing better than second-rate bicycles and umbrellas. In those times the whole industrialized world was seeing Japan as a miracle. And a miracle it was, since not so long before Japan suffered its greatest military disaster, and yet accomplished an incredible economical and social development. For the second time in her modern history.

It was not until thirty years later that I had an opportunity to visit Japan. Several days after the arrival in Yokohama we set out to the Bay of Tokyo. Stretched some thirty miles from the north to the south and twenty-three miles from the west to the east, it played a tremendous role in the history of Japan, as it neighboured the main centres of the political power. As we sailed towards the gates to the open ocean, I was watching the animated traffic of the ships, boats and miscellaneous vessels, and their owners, who protected themselves of the scorching sun with ubiquitous picturesque straw hats, whose size could rival any Mexican one. I admired the eastern shores of the bay, which seemed fancier, having more exotic shapes, and hills marked with the orange colour of the soil. The western shore, full of inlets and small ports, did not impress me after the sight of Tokyo and Yokohama, but historically this shore was more important. There took place the first act of the modern history of Japan, when in July 1853 an American, Commodore Matthew Calbraight Perry, arrived there with four ships under his command.

On 8 July 1853 in the afternoon the American flagship Susquehanna dropped her anchor off the Japanese outpost just outside a hamlet called Uraga, from which the whole sector of the bay narrowing right there is called the Uraga Channel. American ships (apart from Susquehanna those were Mississippi, Plymouth and Saratoga), under the command of a tall dark-haired officer with a massive chin and inherited drive for adventures, made a tremendous impression in the Uraga Channel and the neighbouring villages of Uraga and Kurihama. The Japanese fishermen exhibited the signs of a great consternation, when huge black ships came into view, steaming against all the rules of sailing right against the wind. The fishermen hastily pulled in their nets, grabbed oars and rowed madly towards the safe shores. Nobody there had seen before such a phenomenon, apparently brought to life by evil powers. Several dozens of miles farther, in Edo (nowadays Tokyo), a city of one million inhabitants, the roar of the traditional gun salute, fired from the American ships, thundered with terrific echo. Whoever was able to do so, was hastening to the hills and look-out towers in order to grasp a better view of the bay. Frightened women crowded the temples. A contemporary Japanese chronicler, Inaso Nitobe, recorded the atmosphere in the city:

The popular commotion in Yedo at the news of a "foreign invasion" was beyond description. The whole city was in uproar. In all directions mothers were seen flying with children in their arms and men with mothers on their backs. Rumours of immediate action exaggerated each time they were communicated from mouth to mouth and added horror to the horror-stricken. The tramp of war-horses, the clatter of armed warriors, the noise of carts, the parades of firemen, the incessant tolling of bells, the shrieks of women, the cries of children dinning all the streets of a city of more than a million souls made confusion worse confounded. [Barr P. (1967).]

Eighty years later a similar display of panic occurred in the land of Commodore Perry, after radio-stations in the USA aired an impressive performance, based on George Herbert Wells' novel, about... Martians' landing near New York. The panic in New York was probably no lesser than in Edo AD 1853. Panic-stricken New Yorkers were rushing to their cars or taxi-cabs and fleeing the city!

One may ask, what is there in common between the crowd behaviour in so completely different epoques and societies? The common denominator is the confrontation with a new civilization. A civilization previously unknown, and presumed dangerous, capable of destroying own world.

In 1853 Japan had been hermetically closed to the outer world for almost two and half of a century. Her rulers - warlords from the Tokugawa dynasty - exercised a tough control of the country after a century of domestic civil wars, which as far as dimensions, zeal and the blood spilled are concerned, may be compared to the ravaging Wars of Roses in England (waged, after all, on a similar background). In Japan those military upheavals extinguished on the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. Who had the pleasure to watch Kurosawa's films, like for example Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior), he can imagine the scenery and climate of the deadly, uncompromising struggle between the great clans for the control over the whole Japan. So, the warlords fought, and the country was atomized to a greater degree than Germany during the Thirty Years' War. The real power in the provinces was concentrated in the hands of 300 daimiyo - practically independent fiefs, whose armies at times numbered dozens of thousands of men. As far as their position and possessions are concerned, the most prominent of them exercised influence bigger than the Yorks or the Lancasters of England.

Yet towards the end of the 16th century, out of the abyss of fratricidal fights, emerged several outstanding figures talented both in the art of war and the art of politics, who brought unity into the atomized and politically disunited country. Eventually, a great landlord and outstanding warlord from the plains of Kanto (the region of present day Tokyo), Ieiyasu Tokugawa, took the upper hand. In the decisive battle near the village of Sekigahara (21 October 1600) he crushed the coalition of his enemies, and three years later he pronounced himself the shogun - a hereditary commander-in-chief, and the actual ruler of Japan. He had mercilessly subdued all the daimiyo, taking their women and children as hostages. In 1615, with the 180-thousand-strong army, he took the city and the castle of Osaka, where his last rival from the Toyotomi clan locked himself with the 90-thousand-strong garrison. The victory ended in cruel slaughter. Since then the Tokugawa clan from Edo (nowadays Tokyo) exercised the total control over the country directly, through related clans, allied clans, rewarded for their services with the possessions taken from the enemies after victorious battles, and subdued daimiyo. The daimiyo in their turn had at their services the whole social stratum of vassals, the class of the "sword bearers" or samurai, whose position can be compared (although only partly) with the European knights. As to the Japanese emperors, although they derived their genealogy directly from the heavens, they did not matter politically. They were barred from the real power and used to spend their time in the seclusion in the city of Kyoto. The seclusion, what is worth mentioning, very comfortable one and allowing nursing sublime culture.

And what was the relation of that feudal Japanese micro-world to the outer world, and what was the outer world's relation to Japan? When Tokugawa stormed the castle of Osaka, and consolidated his hegemony, Europe already had firmly set its foot in Asia. The Dutch controlled the Spice Islands (nowadays Indonesia), where they settled after chasing away the Portuguese. The Spaniards took the Philippines in their possession, and the English penetrated Indies. The Portuguese were the first to arrive in Japan, where they landed on a small island Takeshima, off the southern coast of Kyushu, the southernmost of the big islands of the Japanese archipelago. And what is particularly remarkable, the Portuguese harquebuses - the first firearms, with which the Japanese had a contact - got the name takeshima. Forty years after the arrival of the Portuguese, in the battle that raised to the political top Tokugawa's predecessor, Nobunaga (1575), he used massive fire-power against the heavy cavalry of his enemies - with the devastating effect. It is characteristic that the local warlords, and later also the rulers of Japan, were not in general interested in political ideas and legal systems of Europe, but they desired those European goods, which could help to exercise power and preserve the system existing in Japan. And so, once the new weapon was handy in wartime fights and peacetime administration, it was accepted immediately. It happens so often that from a clash or contact of two cultures each of them adopts what fits, what is useful, what will not disturb existing system, especially if one of the contacting cultures is virtually hermetic.

After the initial flirtation with the Christendom, the first of the Tokugawas assumed a hostile position towards it, perhaps suspecting that the Christianity could undermine the foundations of the system, which after all was to a big degree cruel and merciless. Christianity could not reconcile with the widespread concubinage, trading young women, killing "surplus" children, honourable suicides and many other practices of the Japanese society. On the other hand the Christians, especially the subjects of the kings of Spain, were suspected in nursing plans of gradual conquest of Japan for the distant monarchs confessing in a benign religion, but malignant in the quest for gold and silver. That those suspicions were not groundless shows the accident with the Spanish ship San Felipe that went aground off the Japanese coast in 1596. Her pilot survived and presented to the intrigued Japanese a map, featuring Spanish and Portuguese possessions spreading all over the eastern hemisphere, with a sensational comment: European kings first of all send to the countries they want to conquer priests, who convert local kings to use them against their own kind. Once they make seizable progress, there come troops that join the newly converted Christians, until all the land is swallowed.

It may be that the words of the San Felipe's pilot were misrepresented by the Buddhist monks jealous about the influence of the new religion, or may be there were other reasons - enough to say that the shogun had got berserk and ordered to crucify in Nagasaki six Spanish Franciscans, three Japanese Jesuits and seventeen Japanese converts. During the rule of Tokugawa all the priests were deported, and more than 1500 Christian converts were murdered. Christianity went underground. In the museum in Nagasaki I saw items featuring images of fish - this way the Christians in underground were giving one to another signs of existence in the sea of hostile environment, just as they did in the Roman Empire. In 1614 most of the missionaries were exiled, and remaining missionaries and converts were forced to trample the images of Jesus Christ and spit on crosses.

In 1615 the shogun forbade building of big seaworthy ships. Only light coastal vessels, the "junks", were allowed to be build. Next year the right of entry to the European ships was restricted to two ports - Nagasaki and Hirado. In 1623 the Englishmen terminated their contacts with Japan, and next year also the Spaniards were forced to do so. In 1635 a new shogun from the Tokugawa clan forbade the Japanese, under the threat of death penalty, travel abroad and return home if they happened there. In 1639 the last Portuguese were expelled, and next year their envoys were murdered when they tried to enter Japan. This way the rulers of Japan had raised a regular sea wall around Japan, just like the Chinese teachers of the Japanese once raised the Great Wall to protect their country of Mongolian invasions. Also was forbidden import of books and pamphlets from all the foreign countries except China. The exception was made in particular for the works of Confucius, whose doctrines appealed to the political imagination of the Japanese rulers. As the time flew, they desired to rule not with sword and fire, but wisdom; to use wisdom along the authority they gained on the tips of their swords.

The only Europeans, who managed to find a breach in the great Japanese sea wall, were the Dutch, who cared least about the Japanese souls, but most of their goods and money. The perspective of saving the souls of the shogun's subjects bleakened in comparison to marvellous exchange rate between gold and silver. In Japan four pieces of silver would buy one piece of gold, while in Holland the same piece of gold would require putting on the counter no less than fifteen pieces of silver. So eventually the shogun allowed the pragmatic, and spiritually quite indifferent, Dutch to found a trading station in the port of Nagasaki, on a small artificial island Deshima linked with the land with a narrow dam. The Dutch were ready to stand many humiliations just to keep their position; they had even taken part in the cruel suppression of the rebellion of the Christian peasants on Kyushu island. Like a narrow stream, the information about the outer world, its forces and technologies, was trickling via that tiny island only to reach few members of the élite of the Japanese society.

The rest of Japan for more than two hundred years lived in isolation from the surrounding seas. Of course, within those two hundred years the Japanese society did not stop at one point. After the domestic troubles faded out, the samurai nobles transformed rather into a class of administrators, who retained their swords, and partly also separate habits and traditions. The peasantry, troubled by poverty and burdened by the huge taxes and levies, which fed the overgrown central and local administration, was unrest. But a new and powerful class of merchants had emerged in the biggest administrative centres of the stabilized country. And those were the merchants, who were more and more often thinking about opening to the outer world, to new opportunities, new contacts, and new profits.

This was the world where encroached Commodore Perry with his "black ships", modern guns and well-trained crews, as well as new powers the samurai world did not dream about...

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