This book didn’t honor Commodore Perry at all,” he said. If his face was any indication, he was disgusted with what he had just read. “Why not? What’s wrong with it?” he asked me. I was trying not to laugh at him because he had almost completely botched the question on Perry in his exams a couple weeks ago, and at the time my suspicion was that it had more to do with attitude than lack of knowledge (suspicion confirmed), especially as he went through and compared and contrasted, without prompting, Susan Wise Bauer‘s take with that of Genevieve Foster.
I had noticed this when I did my pre-reading, but I didn’t say anything to my student because I’m not one to bias a reading. I disapproved, but Story of the World isn’t my favorite anyhow.
“Which one is true?” he prodded me. I had wandered off in thought, and he was bringing me back.
“We-ell,” I hesitated. A lot goes into the writing of history. How much should we really get into here? In the end we discussed bias and perspective.
“But which is true?” he asked again, after all of that. He reminded me of what he perceived to be factual contradictions, to say nothing of the tone of Bauer’s work, which portrayed Perry in a sort of snide, knowing way. In a he-thought-he-was-so-smart-but-the-Japanese-knew-better way. In a looking-down sort of way.
Or, at least, that was how I took it. Apparently, my student took it in much the same way.
So I told him I’d check up on the factual contradictions — as well as the parts that were obviously left out by Bauer when compared to Foster — and see what I could come up with. I’m no expert. What if Foster embellished? What if what happened really was what Bauer said, in spite of that Bauer tone which irks me every. single. time?
And so I searched the internet, looking for reliable sources.
It helps immensely that Francis Hawk’s book is now available on Google Books. Francis Hawk claims in his preparatory notes that all he really did is “compile” information sourced from journals written not just by Commodore Perry, but the other men with him.
Was Commodore Perry an Ignorant Fool?
If I had only read Story of the World, I might have thought him silly, at the very least. For example:
[T]he Americans told the Japanese who tried to board, “We bring a letter from the president of the United States to the Emperor of Japan. But we can only give it to a high official of the Emperor.”
The Japanese went back to the shore to talk this over. They could see that the Americans did not understand how Japan was governed. Japan did have an emperor, but although the Japanese believed that the emperor was almost divine, he didn’t actually rule in Japan.
Now, nothing said here is untrue, but knowing only this, it gives the impression Perry is going into this situation blind. The beginning of the section discusses why and how the Japanese cut themselves off from the world, but nothing of substance about Perry.
Genevieve Foster, however, tells us:
Long before he started Perry had tried to learn all he could about the mysterious island. He sent to Holland for all available books, pictures and maps of Japan. These he spread out and studied over all of one summer in the library of his country home…
And then later Foster explains why Perry used this tactic:
Perry saw the reason for [why the Dutch had to make their deliveries to the “back door” of Japan]. Japan was a nation with a proud caste system. Tradespeople were considered low class, and foreigners were “scum.”…
If, on the contrary, someone of apparently high caste approached Japan with the proud but courteous formality which Japanese could understand, would he not at least receive consideration?
Whether or not Perry understood the relationship between the emperor and the shogun, Perry definitely had more knowledge — as much as could be gained considering Japan was all but closed off from the world — than Bauer gives him credit for.
All of this intrigued me, so I did a little digging. It is obvious from Hawk’s Narrative of the Expedition to the China Seas and Japan that Perry had extensive knowledge of the works of Philipp Franz von Siebold, one of the leading Dutch experts on Japan of his time. I read much on this subject that validated Foster’s claim that, before undertaking his expedition, Perry spent much time (reports seem to vary from a handful of months to two full years) studying Japan and preparing himself to engage the Japanese culture.
This is why, during Year 5, Term 2, my student and I spent a bit of time comparing Commodore Perry to Lilias Trotter — specifically, how they came to understand the foreign culture they were engaging in order to be more effective in accomplishing their aims.
This sort of cultural understanding is evident in the fact that Perry didn’t require the Japanese to sign the English translation version of the treaty:
Perry’s letter to the Navy Secretary, also in the holdings of the Archives, offers an explanation: “It will be observed that the practice usually pursued in affixing signatures to treaties was departed from on this occasion, and for reason assigned by the Japanese, that their laws forbade the subjects of the Empire from putting their names to any document written in a foreign language.” The missing signature demonstrates that Perry’s determination to achieve mission objectives was tempered by a willingness to compromise on issues of custom.
Who Was Toda?
According to Bauer (who refuses to refer to Perry as Commodore):
[T]he Japanese decided to write a letter assuring Matthew Perry that the governor of a nearby town, a man named Toda, was the emperor’s high official. They signed the letter in the emperor’s name, and gave it to the Americans. When the Americans saw this forged paper, they agreed to come ashore and give the president’s letter to Toda.
So Matthew Perry came ashore with his officers and a military band. The Japanese escorted him into a room hung with purple cloth and gauze curtains, where Toda sat, looking very serious.
Toda thought the whole scene was very funny.
Foster, on the other hand, writes:
The Governor would like to see the letter. At sight of the beautiful rosewood box inlaid in gold, his manner changed at once. He could take the matter up with a high Councilor at Yedo, he said…
Three days later he returned and … he said that a meeting had been arranged to take place two days later near Yokohama.
Perry walked the length of red carpet and presented to the First Councilor of the Empire the President’s letter. With the announcement that he would return in the spring for the answer, the ceremony ended.
I searched and searched. Every original and secondary source I could find — meaning journals from those who were on the expedition, records at the National Archives, books written in the 1800s and early 1900s compiled almost exclusively from journals and records and containing little commentary, agree that Prince Toda of Izu and Prince Ido of Iwami, who received the letter from Commodore Perry, were in high positions of authority. Some sources I read said they were representatives of the Emperor, but most seemed to agree that they represented the Shogun himself.
The only “evidence” I found supporting Bauer’s claims was a slew of sarcastic blog posts on websites designating themselves as “anti-imperialist.” I’m not saying there isn’t any evidence out there, but only that I was unable to find any.
Who Signed the Treaty?
Bauer ends her retelling of events by saying:
When Matthew Perry came back to Japan in 1854, the Japanese agreed to sign a trade treaty with them.
But Foster says:
That year 1858, Ii Naosuke had been appointed Prime Minister of Japan, or Tairo, the highest office under the Shogun and one filled only in a time of national emergency such as this caused by the knocking of the Americans on their door.
Japan was torn into two factions, bitterly opposed. Many government officials wished to continue their old policy of isolation and drive off all foreigners by force. Ii Naosuke, and a smaller group of his countrymen, realizing how strong the foreigners were and how impossible resistance would be, favored signing the treaty of commerce, if necessary.
Ii Naosuke, however, felt that it could not be avoided. Therefore, in the face of tremendous opposition, he courageously signed the treaty on July 29, 1858, and so unbolted Japan’s door from within.
For that he was called a traitor and a rebel.
Obviously, these things, again, are not directly in conflict (except for the dates, and in this case, Bauer is correct and Foster is incorrect).
For Bauer, the signing of the treaty is something of an afterthought, whereas with Foster, it is an important part of the story. To some extent, I’d say that, if Foster is correct (and the Encyclopaedia Britannica agrees with her), it is difficult to justify stating that the “Japanese agreed” to sign the treaty. The Japanese did not agree, which is partly why Naosuke was assassinated just a couple years later.
History Through Different Lenses
This case of contradiction was a wonderful experience for my student. It raised questions that he needed to answer, it gave him a chance to learn that history is written by persons with bias — that all history is written in this way. I’m going to offer him a Kindle copy of Hawk’s book, if he wishes to read more about Commodore Perry’s adventures … from Commodore Perry himself.
It does concern me, though, that many homeschoolers I have met read one version of history throughout the elementary years. It might be one author or another. Yes, Bauer is very popular, but so are other series. The problem is that they all tend to have a modern slant (harder to identify because it is our own slant, whether we like it or not), and they all tend to have the same author’s slant.
One of the things that I like about AmblesideOnline is that we get a bit of a variety, even though we of course limit ourselves to the “best” available books. But H.E. Marshall, James Marshall, M.B. Synge, Virgil Hillyer, Richard Hannula, Diane Stanley, James Daugherty, Feenie Ziner, Genevieve Foster, Hendrick Van Loon, Natalie Bober, Susan Wise Bauer, George Grant, and H.A. Guerber are some of the authors featured for the first history rotation. Some stories will be read twice, from two different authors, allowing for the sort of “rounding out” you see here in this post.
Reading broadly will protect us from being gullible when it comes our history reading — both in regard to “facts” as well as in regard to bias. Just because Bauer (or Foster!) wrote it in her book, doesn’t make it true, and doesn’t make it the whole story.
The one who states his case first seems right,
until the other comes and examines him.
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