Japanese Westernization and the American Civil War - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History


Japanese Westernization and the American Civil War

University of North Florida



Having already sailed to Japan under US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry (1794−1858), American author Francis Hall (1822−1902) possessed all the experience required by the New York Tribune in 1859 for their Japanese correspondent position. Hall did not take his charge lightly, eventually becoming America’s leading opinion maker on Japan during the twilight of the Tokugawa period (1600−1868). Hall figured Japan’s restrictive economics prevented better American relations: “There is no doubt that the present government is opposed to foreign intercourse, and seeks to obstruct trade [as far as] the treaty will allow.”[1] Even eruption of the American Civil War did not divert his focus while stationed in the capital city, Edo. “Mail from the States today,” he wrote in his diary days before the first engagement at Fort Sumter. “Its secession news exciting the liveliest interest. Raw silk immediately fell one fourth in price, much to the astonishment of the Japanese who were unable to understand such a depression.”[2] Apparently Hall and the Japanese prioritized the economy over what foreign relations existed with the United States.


As a pragmatic de facto diplomat, Hall encouraged the first Japanese mission to America in 1860. This first delegation included some prominent figures such as Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835−1901), an education and publishing magnate, who were already actively spurring the Westernization of Japan. Another envoy set sail in 1866, resulting in two fact-finding expeditions neatly bookending the American Civil War (1861−1865), the most disastrous conflict in US history which saw perhaps 700,000 soldiers and citizens  perish in only four years.[3]



The 1860 Japanese Mission to the US. Photo by Mathew Brady.

How did close observation of internal American conflict inform Japanese perception of Westernization? Did it at all temper men like Fukuzawa’s enthusiasm? Few records exist even for a conflict so proximal to American exposure, and those that do indicate little impact. From what has survived the ordeals of time and translation, two answers could explain the apparent indifference: the delegation desired modernization in economy and industry with little concern for politics, or that those Japanese pragmatic enough to abandon traditional customs accepted civil war as a potential outcome. Japan would experience its own civil war in the late 1860s, so neither of these tentative responses is mutually exclusive, and some observers like Fukuzawa vindicated both.



Over two centuries of Japanese seclusion policy was ended in 1853 when the US President Millard Fillmore (1800−1874) dispatched Commodore Perry commanding four warships to “open up the country” for trade and diplomacy.[4] Japan faced numerous pressures from within as well: lingering resentment from the great Tempo famine (1833−1838), income inequality and samurai impoverishment, and tensions between regional daimyo and the central Shogunate government,  to list a few. By the early 1860s the Tokugawa Shogunate was thoroughly humiliated and Japanese society ripe for reform. Within this context the Shogunate encouraged the first embassy in hopes of salvaging its domestic appeal through modernization and exhibiting itself as a world power, while the United States hoped to retain commercial amicability and foster this rising star of the Far East. In fact the US arranged a ship to ferry the embassy; the Japanese dispatched the warship Karin Matu before the American vessel as a sort of envoy-preceding envoy.[5]


San Franciscowas the first stop for the Japanese in America (before this they docked in Hawaii, then a separate kingdom, to resupply). There they stayed only for a few days but managed to record their varied first impressions of the city. Their hotel was so large that a bell summoned service instead of clapping, as was the case back home. Food was plentiful but greasy and lacking in flavor. Stone or brick buildings lessened panic from fire. Perhaps most astonishing to one delegate was a local theater in which women actually performed female roles.[6] Notably absent are discussions of politics, armaments or substantive diplomacy. In the first leg of the American tour they emphasized none of these concepts.


Once business (or, more accurately, pleasure) had concluded for the mission in California, they sailed for Panama and crossed the isthmus by train, from which a boat took them to the Washington Naval Yard. Civic receptions greeted them in every city they entered and the capital was no exception; around 5,000 waited at the harbor and roughly another 20,000 “insisted on shaking hands with them” as the travelers found their lodging.[7] Still the expedition leaders declined to investigate American politics, even in the seat of its government. When taken to a session of Congress, at the height of Southern discontent, mission officials refrained from asking any questions, explaining “we considered it as presumptuous to inquire into the state affairs of another nation.”[8] The only military aspect of their journey was a smelting plant producing weapons at the navy yard, which actually highlights the paramount purpose of their trip: modernizing industry. The same official who failed to inquire about congressional politics hoped to examine records at the patent office, but the constant crowd following the mission deterred him from doing so. Another field that interested the delegates was currency, specifically exchange rates. They questioned workers at the Philadelphia National Mint about coin weight and other factors while watching them melt, weigh, and account for American money.[9] Obviously, foreign policy was not important to these Japanese on this expedition.



Fukuzawa with the girl of photo studio in
San Francisco. Source: Fukuzawa Studies Institute.

Ominous signs of the coming Civil War in America were either not sufficient to disprove that Westernization paid dividends or simply unknown. As details emerged about the grim conditions gripping the United States, did the Japanese intent on adopting Western societies question their resolve? Sources available indicate they did not. In his autobiography Fukuzawa Yukichi mentions the American Civil War only once, referring to warships purchased by Japan from military surplus before and during his second trip to the United States in 1867.[10] In fact by 1875, with the benefit of hindsight, Fukuzawa reasoned some type of domestic conflict was almost inevitable when new ideas emerge:  “the justification of political authority… these ideas of political legitimation originate, in the majority of cases, by dint of force of arms.”[11]



Whether or not the American Civil War influenced this conclusion, certainly the turbulent transition from Tokugawa to Meiji did. A movement to restore imperial authority through the Emperors K?mei (1831−1867) then Meiji (1852−1912) had developed in the late Tokugawa period. Harnessing frustration with the establishment, K?mei undermined the Shogunate with appeals to anti-Japanese or anti-“barbarian” sentiment: “the subjugation of the hated foreigner... is the greatest of national tasks facing us.”[12] Imperial reformers clashed with Tokugawa loyalists in the Boshin War (1868−1869), ending with restoration of the Emperor Meiji and ascension of a new nationalist ethos, “rich nation, strong military.” Fukuzawa noted that, when the last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837−1914) returned to Edo in defeat, “a dreadful time was to follow. The entire city seemed to boil and throb with discussion as if the whole populace had gone mad with suspense… about what the government should do.” Fukuzawa had his ideas but was “inclined to believe that I was born under a star which led me away from the political world and kept me apart from all the activities of the Restoration.”[13] No matter the cosmic alignment at his birth, Fukuzawa was a revolutionary in his own way and accepted the conditions needed to bring about societal change.


Many more reasons than these contributed to the lack of American Civil War discussion by the Japanese. The language barrier is a likely culprit, stunting conversation since the first official mission to America, not to mention Americans who might hesitate to mention or decline to discuss the developing sectional fracture. Most likely, after observing other Western nations in Europe, the Japanese felt secure enough in the promise of modernization to ignore the conflict engulfing the United States. In any case the first diplomatic exchanges between Japan and the world, especially the United States, were not explicitly political. In the following decade, the “inevitable domestic conflict” predicted by Fukuzawa did break out, as the Satsuma Rebellion pulled Japan into  its own civil war. Again, the lack of acknowledgement of the American Civil War among Fukuzawa and his  peers was probably an acceptance of Japan's own conceivable struggles.



About the author


Kyle Bridge is a senior History major and Education minor at the University of North Florida, specializing in 20th-century American politics and culture.


Recommended citation


Kyle Bridge, “Japanese Westernization and the American Civil War,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 3, no.1 (Jan. 2013).





[1]F. G. Notehelfer, “Francis Hall,” in JapanThrough American Eyes: The Journal of Francis Hall, 1859-1860, edited by F. G. Notehelfer (Boulder: Westview Press, 2001), 12−13

[2]Francis Hall, “Saturday, April 6, 1861,” in Notehelfer, 216.

[3]Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death in the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), xi−xii.

[4]Matthew C. Perry, Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, edited by Francis L. Hawks (Washington, DC: A.O.P. Nicholson, 1856), 75−77.

[5]Chitoshi Yanaga, "The First Japanese Embassy to the United States," in Pacific Historical Review 9, no.2 (June 1940): 113−116

[6]W. G. Beasley, JapanEncounters the Barbarian: Japanese Travelers in America and Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 61.

[7]Ibid., 61−62.

[8]Ibid., 64.

[9]Ibid., 64−65.

[10]Fukuzawa Yukichi, The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa, trans. Eiichi Kiyooka (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), 166.

[11]Ibid., An Outline of a Theory of Civilization, trans. David A. Dilworth and G. Cameron Hurst III (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 32−33.

[12]Quoted in Jonathon Clements, A Brief History of the Samurai: A New History of the Warrior Elite (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2010), 287.

[13]Fukuzawa Yukichi, The Autobiography, 193.

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