Schiller Institute on YouTube Schiller Institute on Facebook RSS

Home >

This Week in History
July 27-August 2, 2014

Japan and America Banish Feudalism

July 29, 1858 and August 1, 1873

by Anton Chaitkin

Two historic dates: 

July 29, 1858 – US-Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce 

August 1, 1873 – National Bank of Japan Opened

The American nationalists had determined well before the Civil War, that the U.S. must act resolutely to prevent British aggression, typified by the Opium Wars against China, from engulfing Japan. The American patriots seized the initiative from the disloyal New England elite, who persisted in dope-running and other criminal intrigues in Asia, in concert with the British empire.  

Commodore Matthew Perry, c. 1856-58, in a photograph by Matthew Brady.

Townsend Harris in 1855 (painted by James Bogle).

The Whig administration in 1852 dispatched Commodore Matthew Perry's fleet to Japan, to open that country to relations with the United States. Before sailing, Perry wrote, "When we look at the possessions in the East of our great maritime rival England, and at the constant and rapid increase of their fortified ports, we should be admonished of the necessity of prompt measures on our part. Fortunately the Japanese and many other islands of the Pacific are still left untouched by this unconscionable government..." [Quoted in Kathy Wolfe, "Hamilton's Ghost Haunts Washington from Tokyo," Executive Intelligence Review, January 3, 1992.]  

Photographer working for the government of Japan -
(Public domain)
Shigenobu Okuma as Japanese Prime Minister, 1898 or 1914-16.

Commodore Perry delivered to Japan as presents an entire steam train, a telegraph set, guns and telescopes.   Okuma Shigenobu, who would be a principal leader of Japan's industrialization, wrote of America helping to "chaperone Japan in her debut upon the stage of the world. Commodore Perry['s]....diplomacy was as adroit as it was magnanimous... [And] the first minister which his country sent us ... Townsend Harris [--] the confidante and adviser of the Japanese Government in the new business of diplomacy [--] .... advised Japan to forbid the introduction and use of opium, thus enabling her to keep clear of this source of national disaster." [Okuma Shigenobu, Fifty Years of the New Japan]   On July 29, 1858, American special envoy Townsend Harris successfully concluded the Treaty of Amity and Commerce Between the United States and Japan. Townsend Harris wrote,  “the pleasure I feel in having made the treaty is enhanced by the reflection that there has been no show of coercion, not was menace in the least used by me to obtain it. There was no American man-of-war within one-thousand miles of me for months before and after the negotiations. I told the Japanese at the outset that my mission was a friendly one; that I was not authorized to use any threats; that all I wished was that they would listen to the truths that I would lay before them.” [quoted by Mark Calney in his pioneering book-length, unpublished manuscript, Japan’s Historic Mission: Completing Fukuzawa’s Revolution – The Forgotten History of Japan and the American System.]  

Following the Union victory in 1865, America's more powerful world influence was pitted against the British: would newly awakening Japan be Britain's regional sub-empire to maintain Asian backwardness, or would Japan achieve independent great power status and help America and its allies develop modern times in Eurasia?  

Japan’s anti-feudal revolution of 1868, known as the Meiji Restoration, brought in a government that could direct a crash-industrialization along American System lines, with American help.  

To begin with, the U.S. withheld the previously promised transfer of an ironclad warship, the former Confederate ship Stonewall, so that it would not be used by the feudal Shogun's forces, who had British political backing. The Stonewall was released into the hands of the new central government forces (the Meiji Emperor as a constitutional monarch) who used it to complete the destruction of the feudalists' military.  

Henry C. Carey.

Erasmus Peshine Smith.

The new government's ambassador in Washington, Mori Arinori, and consul in New York, Tomita Tetsunosuke, worked closely with America’s nationalist strategy leader Henry C. Carey and sent his works to Japan. Tomita commissioned the first Japanese translations of Carey and of Friedrich List. Ambassador Mori created the Meiroku Society in Japan, to promote the American System of political economy.  

In 1872 Okuma's Finance Ministry set up an institute to train economists in Carey-List tradition. The Japanese government itself published Carey's Principles of Social Science.  

Tomomi, Prince Iwakura.

Tomomi, Prince Iwakura on Japanese 500 yen note .

The pro-American leaders sent a delegation, headed by Prince Iwakura, on a tour of the United States and other nations from 1871 to 1873. In March, 1872, the Japanese representatives arrived in Philadelphia, and that city's leaders published a celebratory pamphlet [Diary of the Japanese Visit to Philadelphia in 1872], describing "the mission on which these pioneers of an advancing state of civilization in their own country were engaged."  

The Philadelphians wrote that before the United States went to aid Japan's development, Japan was closed to world commerce, in self-defense against the European empires: "the least concession ... to the foreign trader" had previously brought in "that aggressive policy, that arrogance, and grasping spirit of monopoly which have ever followed the British footfall on foreign soil," forcing Japan to close up "as a means to preserve its national and political autonomy."  

The Japanese visitors toured the Baldwin Locomotive Works, inspecting the machine tools, the metal foundries and the plans for the locomotives, so that they could either buy them or build their own locomotives, with U.S. credit.  

At the same time, President Ulysses Grant sent Henry Carey's disciple, economist E. Peshine Smith, to Japan in 1871. Smith served as economic adviser to the Japanese government.  

On E. Peshine Smith's advice, Okubo Toshimichi -- the first Meiji finance minister -- in 1873 created the Interior Ministry and within it the Industrial Promotion Board, to steer Japan's industrialization. Okubo's successor as finance minister, Okuma Shigenobu, set up the First National Bank, choosing Lincoln's national banking arrangements as opposed to the Bank of England model.  

Mark Calney wrote, “On August 1, 1873, the doors of the newly founded First National Bank of Japan opened its doors for business headed by Ōkuma Shigenobu. Those measures were modeled on Alexander Hamilton’s First National Bank of the United States which had allowed the advancement and industrialization of America – what became known as the American System. Japan now had the vehicle by which to develop, and the Asian banking monopoly controlled principally by Britain’s opium-dominated Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation was seriously threatened.”  

Also in 1873, President Grant sent former Ohio Congressman John A. Bingham as Ambassador to Japan; he served until 1885. Bingham's previous record made him ideal for the struggle to build up modern Japan, against British efforts to make it a militaristic British puppet. When the British-affiliated Wall Street bankers had demanded control over U.S. currency early in the Civil War, Bingham had attacked "efforts made to lay the power of the American people to control their currency, a power essential to their interests, at the feet of the brokers and of city bankers who have not a tittle of authority save by the assent or forebearance of the people to deal in their paper as money." Later Bingham was a member of the military court which tried Lincoln's assassins, concluding there had been a plot hatched in Britain's Canada colony; and he was a principal author of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, providing citizenship to freed slaves and immigrants.  

The Japanese government now moved swiftly to break up feudalism. They freed the serfs, following the 1861 example of Russia's "Czar Liberator," Alexander II, and of Lincoln's triumphant Union. They compelled war lords and great landlords to sell their lands, and loaned them money to become industrialists. The initial government strategy deliberately avoided building up the already large British-aligned merchants like Mitsui.  

From 1873 to 1882, government loans and other encouragement resulted in creating 200 new corporations for ship building, construction, cement fertilizer, salt works, textile mills and other production.  

Japan's government itself operated most heavy industries, often advised by American System economists. In 1875, 56 per cent of all Japanese factories were government-operated, accounting for 75 per cent of the total energy throughput in factories and 88 per cent of the manufacturing employees. The government built a nationwide railway system, a chemical industry, and a shipbuilding industry. Meanwhile protected private industries sprang up and flourished in the major lines of production.  

Okubo financially sponsored the creation of the Mitsubishi shipping enterprise, and the government in 1874 bought 13 steamers and gave them to Mitsubishi. The British-instigated Satsuma samurai rebellion was put down with the crucial transport of Japanese troops on Mitsubishi transports.  

American General Charles LeGendre served as a strategic advisor in Japan, counseling Japanese cooperation with America's ally, Russia, for the development and peace of Asia.  

The British had other ideas.  

British counter-operations against the American-Japanese alliance eventually bore bitter fruit, with Japan turning to aggressive militarism. But the chaos and mass bloodshed of the 20th century must not obscure for us the truth, that Japan came into the modern era under the sheltering wing of American nationalism.