I happen to be in Japan on business, and the office I’m visiting is on the pleasant Sumida River where it empties into Tokyo Bay
It’s right next to the Takeshiba Passenger Terminal, which takes people on sea trips to the Tokyo Islands, about 100 km out in the Pacific. But what’s this in the middle of the plaza outside the terminal?
A sailing ship mast? With a white dude halfway up it?
Could this have something to do with Admiral Perry, and his Black Ships that forced Japan to open to the world?
No, it turns out to be a much nicer story. In 1845, the American whaling ship Manhattan rescued 22 Japanese sailors from those same Tokyo Islands. Some had been stranded on an island, while others were picked up from a sinking junk. The commander, Captain Mercator Cooper, then took five weeks out of his voyage to return them to Japan. He sailed over to this very stretch of Tokyo Bay, and lowered a boat with four of the sailors and a note describing the situation.
At that time Japan was strictly closed to the outside world by order of the Shogun, a policy known as sakoku, “chained country”. This was instituted in the 1630s, largely as a response to unrest caused by Jesuit missionary work. Catholicism had hit Japan like a bomb. Their native religions hadn’t been competing ferociously the way creeds had been in the West. It was an invasive species to which the native-born memes had little resistance. They must have seemed like pretty thin gruel compared to what the Jesuits offered. Forgiveness of sins! Life everlasting! A saint for every occasion! An immense theology backed up by a wildly diverse sacred text, with a story in it for everyone. The shogun’s response was to take a flamethrower to these invasive weeds, and he ordered the execution of all Christians, usually in as gruesome a manner as possible. He then closed the country to limit future contact. That had the other salutary effect of cutting off trade and therefore wealth for provincial barons who might turn out to be competitors.
The only source of contact with the outside world was a small Dutch trading post on the island of Dejima near Nagasaki. Interestingly enough, the main impact of the Dutch on the Japanese was through medical textbooks, which were furtively passed from hand to hand like samizdat. This was indeed secret and powerful knowledge. For a brilliant fictional version of life in Dejima in the early 1800s, see the David Mitchell novel “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet”. It’s got romance, intrigue, sea battles, ninjas, and one honest man trying to make his way through a corrupt world. When Napoleon conquered Holland in 1806, Dejima was the last outpost in the world of the Free Dutch Republic. Its residents came home to a hero’s welcome when their country was finally freed in 1813.
Anyway, when the governor of Edo received Captain Cooper’s note, he allowed him to land. His party were the first Americans to ever visit the mainland. The lost sailors were received with much rejoicing. Cooper stayed for four days, visited the governor himself, and was much impressed. His ship was re-provisioned, and when Cooper offered to pay, the governor waved him off. However, the shogun’s Imperial officers were less hospitable. They thanked him for rescuing their people, and told him never to return.
His story made its way back to Washington. The US had long wanted Japan to open, mainly as a coaling station for trade with China, which was flourishing. Officers in the US Navy argued that the people of Japan were much more open to trade than the Imperial government was, and would welcome an opening. That led to the Perry expedition of 1853, which had almost as dramatic an effect on the country as the Jesuits.
Captain Cooper himself seemed to have a taste for exploration. How could you not with a name like Mercator? In January 1853 he was commanding a whaling and sealing voyage in the Ross Sea near Antarctica. They spotted an ice shelf backed by a high mountain. He ordered a boat lowered, which landed on the shelf. This was the first reliably documented landing on the continent of Antarctica. He stayed in the area for several days, but found only penguins, rather than something valuable to hunt.
His trip seems to be remembered fondly in Japan. They built the huge plaza above with a recreation of his ship mast. The Tokyo Rotary Club also put up a monument to the occasion:
A century later, in 1945, US-Japan interactions were less pleasant. Still, how nice to see this in the middle of this huge, bustling city!