Book Review: Pat Barr’s The Coming of the Barbarians
Pat Barr’s The Coming of the Barbarians: A Story of Western Settlement in Japan, 1853-1870 (Amazon) tells the coming of Westerners to Japan over a seventeen-year span. Barr’s account begins with the coming of Commodore Matthew Perry and leaves off with Tokyo being opened to foreign trade and residence. Barr concentrates almost completely on the Americans and British. The Dutch are acknowledged only to a small degree, while the French, Prussians, and others are almost completely neglected.
The Coming of the Barbarians looks at the political, cultural, and economic ramifications of the increasingly present Westerners. Most of Barr’s characters are British and American political figures. While some smaller figures, such as merchants, find their way into the book, their personal accounts do not. The work is as much an account of how the Japan affected the Westerners living there, as it is an account of how the Westerners affected Japan.
The first of the four sections in The Coming of the Barbarians concentrates especially of the two Perry delegations. The fear the Japanese initially experienced with the arrival of the black ships quickly gave way to curiosity. Soon after Perry successfully negotiated his trade treaty with the Japanese, the American government sent Townsend Harris as the official consul to Japan. The British were also quick to send a delegate to negotiate a treaty with Japan almost identical to that of the Americans. Other European powers followed suit.
Harris and Alcock, the British consul, drew harder lots than those of men like Perry. Theirs was to stay relatively isolated on a land full of people with whom they could not communicate. Neither were they allowed to travel too far. Harris experienced a great deal of illness while on the Island, but such was the least of his concern at times.
Death at the hand of the ronin was something that all foreigners were forced constantly to fear. Harris’s own interpreter and right-hand-man Heusken died at the hands of these men, while traveling back to the American consulate from visiting his Prussian friends late one night.
The British consulate was also attacked one night by a group of fifteen ronin, though it was supposed to be well protected by Japanese guards. The guards, however, were discovered to have been asleep at the outset of the attack. Most of the British officials survived, though several were gravely injured.
Those who experienced the most hardships were the merchants, most of whom were based on the shores of Yokohama. Fires, earthquakes, and ronin were prevalent sources of trouble. Fortunes were made and lost quickly for these merchants, who at times seem little more than professional gamblers.
Beginning with the arrival of Perry and the Americans in 1853, the Shogunate had difficulty deciding definitely how to deal with the foreigners. The problem only escalated as more European powers attempted to grain inroads to trade with Japan. The Shogunate tried to postpone the foreign powers but eventually took a reserved line, allowing only limited access at only a couple of ports. Eventually they were allowed to establish consulates within Yedo. With the fall of the Shogunate and the decline of sonno joi, the Westerners eventually received more and more privileges.
Japan realized early that she must allow the barbarians on her sacred soil. They would not stop coming, and would open Japan to trade either with or without her blessing. The final major step in this change came in 1869 when foreigners were no longer restricted to residing on the beaches of certain ports. They even received the received the privilege living and carrying out business in Tokyo.