The Samurai, the Ship and the Golden Gate

In January 1860, the Tokugawa Shogunate, the feudal military government which ruled Japan for over two and a half centuries, dispatched an official delegation to Washington to ratify the first commercial treaty between Japan and the United States. The members of the delegation sailed aboard a U.S. Navy steam frigate. In advance of the delegation, the shogunate sent the tiny schooner Kanrin Maru. In command of the Kanrin Maru was a fascinating man by the name of Katsu Kaishu – an expert swordsman who refused to draw his sword, founder of the Japanese Navy, and one of the most revered personages in Japanese history. Accompanying Captain Katsu and Company was U.S. Navy Lieutenant John M. Brooke, who criticized the Japanese for their lack of maritime expertise.

Their inexperience in practical navigation notwithstanding, each of the samurai of the Kanrin Maru was endowed with a special sense of duty and integrity which was distinctly Japanese. This special sense of duty and integrity was known as “giri.” It was a duty based on favor received, and an integrity founded on a sense of shame. Giri accounted, to a great extent, for the harmony in samurai society, and it was an inherent element of both the beauty and the moral strength of the samurai class. Giri would serve as a foundation for the formidable power of the future Japanese Imperial Navy, and Captain Katsu had incorporated it into the regulations of his ship’s company, and indeed those of the shogun’s nascent navy. Kaishu admonished his officers “not to employ the service of the sailors for other than official purposes,” and, in this regard, wrote: “In other countries the navy or the army, as the case may be, decides how it will use its officers and rank and file – and, in fact, uses them as if they were slaves. Based on severe regulations, if a subordinate does not obey the orders of a superior officer, he will be dishonorably discharged by order of the top commander. But Japan is unlike other countries. We command the hearts and minds of our people through [their sense of] duty [based on favor received], and integrity [founded on their sense of shame]. However, unless superiors treat their subordinates with a warm heart on an everyday basis, the subordinates will not act in harmony with their superiors in the face of a life-threatening situation. And unless a superior works and worries ten times as much as his subordinates, he will not be qualified to lead others.” Katsu Kaishu’s words of wisdom would best be heeded by leaders in today’s troubled world!

This year [2004] marks the 150th anniversary of the Kanagawa Treaty. Signed on March 31, 1854, it is also known as the Treaty of Peace and Amity – certainly a misnomer! The treaty, in fact, was a result of the gunboat diplomacy of U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry, whose flotilla of four warships had threatened Edo (modern-day Tokyo), the shogun’s capital, in the previous summer. The Kanagawa Treaty officially inaugurated diplomatic relations between the United States and Japan, and marked the beginning of the end of Tokugawa rule. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan had been isolated from the rest of the world. As part of its isolationist policy, the shogunate had banned the building of large oceangoing vessels to prevent would-be insurgents from venturing overseas. As a result, Japan did not have a navy. After the arrival of Perry, the small island nation was compelled to develop a modern navy to preserve its sovereignty. Katsu Kaishu realized this, just as he knew that modern technology would be essential to this end. But Katsu was a nobody, the son of a petty samurai without an official post. Fortunately for the future of Japan, however, he was also a shining light of progressive thought – in a land ruled by a technologically and politically backward regime. Katsu had submitted a letter to the shogun’s government, in which he pointed out that Perry had been able to enter Japanese waters unimpeded only because Japan did not have a navy to defend itself. The shogunate must establish a navy, he professed. He advised the shogunate to lift its ban on the construction of warships needed for national defense; to manufacture Western-style cannon and rifles; to reform the military according to modern Western standards; to establish military academies. He was subsequently recruited into government service, and received training at the new Naval Academy in Nagasaki.

One cold morning in early 1860 Captain Katsu was down with a fever. He sat alone in his study at his home in Edo, his mind occupied with more pressing matters than his immediate physical condition. “I thought that rather than dying uselessly at home it would be better to die aboard a warship,” Katsu later recalled. “Ignoring the throbbing pain in my head . . . I told my wife that I would go . . . and have a look at the ship” – so that his wife expected him to return soon. He would not be back for four months.

The Kanrin Maru was a meager 292 tons, measuring just 160 feet by 24 feet – making for a harrowing transpacific voyage. As Captain Katsu would recall: “Since a ship must depend on her sails rather than burning coal on a long, ocean crossing, there were a number of times when the Kanrin Maru was in distress due to the wind and the rain. But since everyone of my crew was prepared for anything, and all were in the prime of manhood, I was never much worried. Although I frequently vomited blood due to fever, I didn’t pay any attention to it. By the time we reached San Francisco, I had completely recovered .”

On the morning of March 17, on her thirty-seventh day of passage, the Kanrin Maru sailed through the Golden Gate of San Francisco, and became the first Japanese vessel to reach the Western world. At her mainmast and bows flew white banners emblazoned with the red Rising Sun. The local San Francisco press made much ado about the arrival of the Japanese ship, while Captain Katsu and his samurai crew reeled from culture shock. In 1860 San Francisco, with a population of 56,000, was the economic and cultural center of the western United States. When the two-sworded, top-knotted gentlemen from Japan dropped anchor off Vallejo Street Wharf shortly before sundown, amid an eclectic gathering of merchant ships flying flags of every nation, their eyes were treated to a cosmopolitan feast which could only have exceeded their wildest expectations. According to a local newspaper, “the crew cast long and wistful eyes ashore at the city, whose strange sights they were doubtless eager to explore.” Captain Katsu made a grand impression on the San Franciscans, who discerned in him a likeness to former explorer, Gold Rush millionaire, California senator, and recent Democratic presidential candidate John Charles Fremont: “The Captain of the corvette is a fine looking man, marvelously resembling in stature, form and features Colonel Fremont, only that his eye is darker, and his mouth less distinctly shows the pluck of its owner.”

Upon disembarking, the samurai entourage proceeded by carriage to the International Hotel on Jackson Street. That Captain Katsu, unlike most of his countrymen, had previously familiarized himself with Western customs, dress and furnishings, and even cigars and champagne (although, as a rule, he did not drink alcohol), is indicative of the elasticity of his very open mind. That he did not blindly prescribe to standards of samurai dress, but rather wore his thick black hair tied in a loose topknot, so that, according to the local press, “he looked as if he knew nothing of pomatum and gloried in its frizzled, shaggy look,” speaks loudly of his outsider’s nature. That he did not seem to depend on an interpreter because, while the others “did not understand all that was said to them,” their captain was “acquainted with the language,” speaks for his command of self-possession, because, in truth, Katsu did not understand English either.

Captain Katsu had come to the United States resolved to introduce democratic ideas and American technology into Japan. He did not, however, proclaim this resolve to his less informed, and less enlightened, colleagues – most of whom had inherited their privileged positions from their fathers, and with whom he was constantly at odds, even as they sat in the exquisite parlor of the International Hotel, exchanging niceties with Americans whose government’s gunboat diplomacy had rent Japan asunder. Rather he would save his resolve for great and kindred souls, namely Sakamoto Ryoma and Saigo Takamori, who in less than eight years’ time would overthrow the regime in whose service Katsu repeatedly risked his life. Katsu’s resolve was bolstered by his farsightedness. He was a visionary who was beginning even now to see the inevitability of his government’s collapse – which was why, in just four years, when his house arrest was imminent for harboring known revolutionaries, most notably Ryoma, he would, as head of the Tokugawa Navy, meet with Saigo, one of the Tokugawa’s most formidable enemies. He would realize then that the future of Japan no longer rested with the shogunate, but with a unified and representative Japanese government. He would press upon Saigo the absolute necessity for the warring samurai factions to unite if Japan was to have a future at all. This, of course, was eventually what did happen, with the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868.

The samurai entourage savored their sojourn in the burgeoning silver metropolis beside the Golden Gate. They walked the Victorian streets. They entered a photographic studio on Montgomery Street. They toured the waterfront near the Vallejo Street Wharf, viewing with keen interest a merchant ship from Panama. Captain Katsu visited the San Francisco Baths on Washington Street, because he “was desirous of trying the American style” of bathing. He road the sand cars on the Market Street Railway, and observed local factories. (Years later Katsu expressed his disbelief at the spectacle of a factory worker openly engaged with a prostitute during break time, and his perplexity at being offered “the wife of Mr. So-and-So for a certain amount per hour.”) Captain Katsu explored the shops in town, his interest particularly aroused by Keith’s Apothecary, because on the previous day one of his sailors had died of illness. He went to the marble yard on Pine Street to order a gravestone, on which he wrote an epitaph for the burial which took place in the grounds of the Marine Hospital. The samurai noted his repulsion at the sight of large pieces of beef and pork at the front of a butcher shop, “covering my nose as I passed by.”

One evening Captain Katsu was invited to a dance party at the San Francisco home of a United States Navy officer. The samurai was impressed by the “courtesy of everyone,” and wondered at the strange customs of the Americans. “The men put their arms around their wives’ shoulders and waists to dance… [One man] took the hand of another man’s wife to dance.” From the eyes of a man born and bred amidst the mores of feudal Japan, even one as well-versed in things Western as Katsu Kaishu, the dance party was certainly a strange spectacle. A man of the samurai class simply did not bring his wife to a social gathering. It would have been a gross violation of protocol. He would no sooner do so than he would leave home without his swords, forsake liege lord or clan, or relinquish his warrior status. The notion, in fact, never crossed his mind. Whether or not Captain Katsu danced with the wives of his American hosts, he particularly enjoyed the ice cream they offered. “And the champagne, served with crushed ice, was most delicious. People in Japan have never tasted anything like it.” After a stay of nearly two months in San Francisco, the Kanrin Maru set sail on May 8, returning safely to Japan soon after.

On a bluff in overlooking the Golden Gate in lush Lincoln Park in the northwestern extremity of San Francisco, stands a stone monument to the Kanrin Maru. Dedicated in 1960, it was a gift from the city of Osaka to commemorate the 100th year since of the Japanese ship’s historic voyage. As mentioned above, this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Kanagawa Treaty. Both this monument and this anniversary must also celebrate the life and times of the ship’s captain, who rose to become one of the greatest men in Japanese history.


Copyright © 2004 by Romulus Hillsborough
All rights reserved.

This article was originally published in Tokyo Journal, Spring 2004 issue.