This week on #FridayNightHistory: US Navy slapdash gunboat diplomacy prompts Japan's naval modernization, *before* Perry and 1853. "The Shove Heard Round the World," Part 3 of 3, begins NOW!
#FridayNightHistory is made possible by readers like you. Support this and more via Patreon, send 1-time donation here: , or buy my new novel #GreyDawn via ! You rock my world!
Commodore Biddle's slapdash attempt at gunboat diplomacy in the summer of 1846 failed, hampered especially by the fact that neither the US personnel nor the Japanese officials had anything in common for communication beyond a mutually tenuous grasp of Dutch and classical Chinese.
After a polite but awkward encounter that went nowhere substantive and included Biddle getting shoved, the little flotilla left Japan empty-handed and the ships went their separate ways. Their experience would inform later US missions but that was not all.
It prompted a wave of discussion on military reform and naval design that was well underway by the time Japan was "opened" in 1853. To say simply that Perry "opened" Japan without understanding how much was underway by the time he arrived, is to do a disservice to the facts.
This-- the Shogunate officials in Uraga in the aftermath of Biddle's visit-- is where our story begins.

That the US warships had the technological edge, especially in firepower, was beyond doubt. As ocean-going vessels they were also bigger than anything in Japan at the time.
Enter the Office of the Uraga Magistrate (Uraga Bugyosho 浦賀奉行所), an administrative entity of the Tokugawa government. That part of the shore around Uraga (part of modern Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture) was a direct holding of the shogun.
The Uraga Magistrate (Uraga Bugyo 浦賀奉行)-- at times a title shared by two people, as it was after Biddle's visit in 1846-- was a position aimed at overseeing boat inspection as well as lifesaving operations at the mouth of Edo (Tokyo) Bay, established in 1720.
However, as time wore on, its role increasingly and necessarily involved intercepting foreign vessels that came close to Edo Bay, and thus posed a potential national security threat to the Shogun and the seat of government.
And it was vessels and personnel under the command of the Uraga Magistrate's office that intercepted Biddle's little flotilla. Biddle comments that the Japanese boats were able to surround his ships but posed no real threat. The Japanese authorities were just as aware of this.
The ships in service of the Uraga Magistrate were for the most part old and small in 1846. While things were successfully deescalated and Biddle did in fact leave, this, in turn, prompted Shogunate naval construction efforts that soon followed the Biddle mission.
The tangible result of these efforts was the hybrid warship Soshunmaru. Built on the model of a sloop-- on pattern of & on observations of the Vincennes- but modified to be a hybrid Japanese-Western warship, it was the first and foremost of Japan's new wave of naval construction.
While another school of thought emphasized coast artillery, and indeed many coast artillery batteries were built (such as Odaiba in Tokyo, which still bears the name "Odaiba" or "The Battery") , that would only go so far.
The Shogunate-- during the reign of Tokugawa Ieyoshi (1793-1853, r. 1837-1853) and the Chief Councilorship of Abe Masahiro (1819-1857, in office 1843-1855)-- understood that something had to be done, though the national seclusion policies were left unchanged.
And so the construction of Soshunmaru went ahead-- keel laid 22 April 1849, launched 9 August 1849-- under the supervision of the Uraga Magistrate.
And it became one of several such hybrid sloops that were used either by the Uraga Magistrate Office or the feudal domains assigned to coast guard duty in the area (most notably the powerful Hikone domain and Aizu domain).
They were in service when Commodore Perry arrived, and as I've noted elsewhere, the Dutch government had advised the Shogunate in advance that Perry was coming.
A far cry from the impression in some quarters that the Japanese government was entirely unprepared and entirely without military modernization projects underway on Perry's arrival.
Simultaneously, domains from as far afield as Saga, Satsuma, and Sendai all set about their own efforts at modernized shipbuilding in the interest of building their own naval capabilities to put in both their own service and to second to the shogunate as needed.
Thus, we can see that Japan was not simply a passive subject of Perry's gunboat diplomacy, but rather had and exercised plenty of agency in facing it, despite its preparations still being inadequate.
The onus is on us, the modern scholars and readers, to account for this rather than erase it.

But the story doesn't end here.
Soshunmaru was lost when the Uraga Magistrates' headquarters burned in 1853. The magistrates (there were two at the time) petitioned the Shogun in August 1853 to allow for construction of new warships to replace it.
The Magistrate's subordinates built Hoomaru, keel laid 22 October 1853, launched 6 June 1854- first entirely Western-style modern warship in Japanese service. A leader on this project was Nakajima Saburosuke (pictured) a senior Shogunate official.
Nakajima and his subordinates not only completed Hoomaru in record time, but also sailed it up the coast to Shinagawa-- now Shinagawa City of Tokyo Metropolis-- and showed it off to the Shogun's senior officials, including the senior council led by Abe.
This demonstrated that building western-style vessels was indeed within Japanese means, and useful for the national defense, and that it would be valuable to hire foreign specialists and buy foreign military equipment to further bolster those capabilities.

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