On July 29, 1858, the United States and Japan signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce (the Harris Treaty). Townsend Harris, the first U.S. diplomatic representative to Japan, negotiated the arrangement, which became effective July 4, 1859. A New York merchant with experience in Asia, Townsend was appointed consul general to Japan in August 1856 and began his assignment shortly thereafter. Harris was not welcomed and was ignored by the Japanese authorities for more than a year. He operated in diplomatic isolation out of the Gyokusenji Buddhist temple in Shimoda.
In 1857 the Japanese government approved Harris’ move to Edo (Tokyo); he used the Zenfukuji Temple in Azabu as the U.S. legation. His negotiations with the Tokugawa regime were aided by concessions that the British had already wrought in China. Harris convinced the Japanese that a voluntary treaty with the United States was more advantageous than a forced treaty with the Europeans.
Harris is credited with opening the Japanese Empire to foreign trade and culture. In addition to Shimoda and Hakodate, which already traded with the U.S., the Harris Treaty opened new ports to U.S. trade, granted U.S. citizens extraterritorial rights (exempting them from the jurisdiction of Japanese law), and permitted Americans their religious freedom. The tariff rates attached to the treaty favored the United States over Japan, but the treaty provided an opportunity to renegotiate in 1872. The Japanese Government also was allowed to “…purchase or construct in the United States ship-of-war, steamers, merchant ships, whale ships, cannon, munitions of war, and arms of all kinds … [as well as] to engage in the United States scientific, naval, and military men, artisans of all kind, and mariners to enter into its service…”
The Harris Treaty made reciprocal diplomatic representation possible. In 1860, a delegation of more than seventy Japanese traveled to the United States. Congress appropriated $50,000 for the visitors, who spent seven weeks touring the United States. Another trip was made twelve years later when, in accordance with the Harris Treaty, the Japanese attempted to gain concessions from the U.S. These visits are credited with helping to dispel cultural stereotypes and furthering diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Before his appointment to Japan, Townsend Harris participated in community affairs in New York City. He was a volunteer firefighter and active in the Democratic Party. He served as president of the New York City Board of Education from 1846 to 1848. In 1847, Harris founded the Free Academy, which became The City College of New York(CCNY). CCNY enjoys a special relationship with Japan. Since 1986 city officials from Shimoda have visited CCNY annually and viewed Harris’ memorabilia. Harris is buried in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery where the Japanese people gifted a refurbished gravesite to the college.
- Visit turn of the century Japan with the World’s Transportation Commission. The World’s Transportation Commission collection contains nearly 900 images taken by William Henry Jackson, official photographer of the Commission. For images of Japan some forty years after the Harris Treaty, choose Japan from the list of countries in the Location Index.
- Search the historic American newspapers database, Chronicling America, to follow the Japanese delegation’s visit to the United States in 1860.
- Search on Japan in the Map Collections to locate maps of Japan from the seventeenth century to the present day.
- Find more information about Japan in Japan: a country study, part of a series of books prepared by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress and found online in the collection, Country Studies.
- Read about Japan’s generous gifts of cherry trees to the United States in the Today in History feature for March 27.