Westward Expansion, Manifest Destiny, and the “Opening” of Japan
It makes sense to begin a history of shifting American images of Japan with the expeditions headed by Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 and 1854. But I want to start in the previous decade with the Mexican War of 1846-1848, for there is a direct connection between it and the appearance of the Black Ships off Edo Bay. Beyond the fact that Perry himself was a celebrated veteran of the Mexican War, I will go further and claim that the “opening of Japan” was made possible by the “winning of the West.” To see why this is so, let’s review the larger history of U.S. westward expansion over the course of the nineteenth century and examine notions of American manifest destiny that became popular by mid-century.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, the United States went from being a small nation of thirteen states on the east coast of North America to a large nation in possession and control of much of the continent, including the noncontiguous territories of Alaska and Hawaii. Before the Mexican War, the largest expansion of U.S. borders occurred in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase. What we now know as the Haitian Revolution, the world’s only successful slave revolt, made this purchase possible, as France lost interest in its North American holdings after losing the most valuable colony in the New World at the end of the eighteenth century. It took most of the first half of the nineteenth century for the U.S. to actually control the territory it purchased, as Indian Wars and Indian Removals punctuated crises and compromises over the expansion of American slavery. But by the mid-1840s, after the purchase of the Oregon territory from England, a border dispute between the recently-independent nation of Mexico (formerly New Spain) and the even-more-recently independent Republic of Texas (formerly part of Mexico) provided a pretext for the U.S. to start the Mexican War. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war in 1848 on highly favorable terms to the U.S., along with the California gold rush in 1849, gave the U.S. government great incentive to turn their paper purchase of what is now the American Southwest into actual U.S.-controlled territory, not least to have Pacific ports for exploration, trade, and projection of military forces and strategic interests. Although this process was interrupted by the Civil War and took up much of the second half of the nineteenth century, even by mid-century many American explorers, scientists, and missionaries had joined the whalers and traders criss-crossing the Pacific—not to mention Herman Melville, who published several novels set in the Pacific and Pacific islands years before Perry arrived in Japan.
Having reviewed this process of U.S. westward expansion over both land and sea, we are now in a position to appreciate how white Americans’ prior experiences with, and representations of, enslaved Africans and their African American descendants, American Indians, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, and peoples of the Caribbean and Pacific influenced their views of Japan and the Japanese people. The Perry expeditions also relied on European, particularly Dutch and English, accounts of Japanese culture and society, which were shaped in part by their own histories of colonization of Asia and elsewhere. Combined with the fact that the U.S. delegation wasn’t permitted to visit major Tokugawa cities, it’s no wonder the earliest American representations of Japan focused on exotic landscapes, architecture, and clothing, on village culture, non-Western religion, primitive technology, and simple weaponry, as John Dower’s Black Ships and Samurai documents. They fastened on what their history prepared them to see.
Please tell me how to make this better! And, if possible, shorter!