Journals 9.2 – Seward’s Travels Around the World (Part 2)

This is the second part of my article on Seward’s journal.  For the first part, please see the entry posted on 2nd November 2015.

Edo Map

A map of Edo (now Tokyo) from the 1840s.

On board a steamer across the Pacific to Japan, Seward had his first opportunity to make some observations about Asian culture, with Chinese passengers also on board.

The gentlemen amuse themselves with gymnastic games, the ladies with music and books. An expert Japanese juggler entertains us in the cabin. In the steerage, are five hundred Chinese returning home. They pay less than half price, and are fed with the simple fare of their country. Knowing no use of beds, they sleep on the floor. In the middle of their cabin they have made, with canvas, a dark room for opium-smoking. When on deck, they appear neatly clad, and amuse themselves with unintelligible and apparently interminable games of chance. The annual immigration of Chinese to the United States is twelve thousand. They are invariably successful.

In Seward’s day there were already over a quarter of a million Chinese Americans. Viewed as a source of cheap labour, they were often employed in menial jobs and suffered severe discrimination. Two years before his voyage, Seward himself had attempted to address this problem along with Anson Burlingame, with the Burlingame Treaty of 1868. One of the provisions of the treaty was that “citizens of the United States in China of every religious persuasion and Chinese subjects in the United States shall enjoy entire liberty of conscience and shall be exempt from all disability or persecution on account of their religious faith or worship in either country”. Due to Seward’s involvement, the treaty was also known as the Burlingame-Seward Treaty. Unfortunately public opinion was not with the treaty, due to fears of jobs being given to Chinese immigrants who were working for low wages, and the treaty was eventually negated by the Chinese Exclusion Act. Seward did not live to see this reversal of a treaty in which he believed so strongly. China was therefore an important destination on Seward’s itinerary, and much of his journal is given over to its exploration. First, however, he visited Japan, and observed many interesting cultural details.

Here, as in Alaska and in ancient Mexico, civil economy requires that the married and unmarried women shall wear distinguishing badges. The girl, with full hair tastefully arranged, with white teeth, and with the free use of cosmetics, and a scrupulously modest costume, is attractive; when married, her eyebrows are immediately shaven off, her teeth are stained jet-black, the ornaments are removed from her hair, and she becomes repulsive.

In Kanagawa, Seward was interested to see the famous Daibutsu (the term used for giant statues of Buddha).

On a pedestal six feet high, in the centre of the square, is the gigantic statue of Buddha (famous as the Daibutz), sitting with crossed legs, on a lotus-flower. Though description by measurement is not poetical, we must use it to convey an idea of this colossal idol. It is fifty feet high, a hundred feet in circumference at the base, and the head is nine feet long the hands are brought together in front, with thumbs joined; the head is covered with metallic snails, which are supposed to protect the god from the sun. Some travellers find in the face an expression of sublime contemplation; to us it seems dull and meaningless. The statue being made of bronze plates, is hollow; the interior is shaped and fitted as a temple. We are inclined to believe that the Japanese have lost their early reverence for the Daibutz; we find the walls covered with the autographs of pilgrims and travellers. The bonzes invited us to register our own names, and they offer to sell the god to any purchaser for the price of old copper.

The term ‘bonze’ is no longer in common usage. Used to refer to a bhikkhu (Buddhist monk), the word is derived from the Japanese word ‘bonsō’ (‘priest’).

Just two years before Seward’s tour, the capital of Japan had been moved by the Emperor from Kyoto to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo. Seward continued to refer to the city by an anglicised version of its former name, ‘Yeddo’. On board the USS Monocacy (a sidewheel gunboat launched in 1864), which was docked there, he experienced a violent storm.

We were on deck at break of day. The sky wore a copper hue; the air grew intensely hot; the barometer fell from 30° 50′ to 28°; a violent wind seemed to come from all quarters, and, in the midst of a deluge of rain, blew the sea from underneath the ship, causing her continually to bound and rebound on the sandy bottom. It was the typhoon! Nevertheless, we remained on deck, lashed fast in our seats, preferring the open tempest there to the close and nauseating cabin. The captain was self-collected; he ordered the top-masts down, and every spar well secured. Three anchors, the ship’s entire ground-tackle, were thrown out; every vessel, and every other object on sea and land, now disappeared from our view. With confused fears that some ship might be driving against us, or that we might be dragging toward a lee-shore, we put our engines in motion, to keep the Monocacy up to her anchors. The more juvenile officers, of whom, of course there were many, enlivened the dark and dreary hours by whispered accounts of all the ships which had been wrecked, or escaped wreck, in all the typhoons, and all the tidal waves, and all the earthquakes that have raged in Asiatic waters, or in any other seas, within the memory of man….

In half an hour we were on deck again. The sky was bright, and the sea, though yet rolling, had lost its violence. Bat the vessels which had been moored in such dangerous proximity were no longer there. The lee-shore was so near that we wondered at our presumption in having anchored there. At five o’clock, a full boat’s crew manned a prize-gig, and with bright and merry oars rowed us around the forts to the wharf of the consulate at Yeddo. On the way we passed a crowded steamer, broken directly in the middle, and hanging across the rampart of the upper fort; while a dozen vessels were seen half out of water in the shallow and treacherous bay. When we saw the broken walls, overturned trees and fallen buildings on the shore, we were convinced that our anchorage in the bay was the safer refuse, notwithstanding all its terrors. The Monocacy had neither parted a rope nor started a nail, while the consulate had been beaten and shattered on all sides and in every part.

Seward had arrived in Japan at a time of great change. In 1868 the Edo period had come to an end with the Boshin War. Since 1603 the country had been under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, known also as the taikun, and anglicised by Seward as ‘the Tycoon’. The imperial line had now been restored to power, but the question of who was the rightful ruler had been a contentious issue for a very long time, and people had long memories:

He inquired of the prince to which of the local parties in Japan he belonged. To Mr. Seward’s surprise, he answered, “to the Mikado’s.” “What,” said Mr. Seward, “is the cause of the civil war, and what question does it involve?” He replied: “The Tycoon, who has no title to the throne, but is only a general in the imperial service, some time ago usurped the government, and claims to transmit it to his heirs. This usurpation is intolerable.” “How long,” said Mr. Seward, “since this usurpation was committed?” “Oh, it is very recent — it is only six hundred years since it occurred.”

Due to his political history, Seward was an important visitor to Japan, and he was lucky enough to be invited to see Meiji, the Emperor who had so recently gained power.

When they had gone round the knoll, the lodge which now contained the heaven-derived Majesty of Japan came to view. It stands five feet above the ground, is one story high, and consists of four square rooms of equal size, with sliding partitions, the ceilings six feet high, and the whole building surrounded by a veranda. All the rooms were thrown open, and were without furniture. The visitors entered the apartment, which was at their left, and, looking directly forward, saw only Ishtabishi surrounded by a crowd of official persons, all crouched on the floor. Having reached the exact centre of the room, Mr. Seward was requested to turn to the right. He did this without changing his place. The United States minister and the consul stood at his right hand. In this position he directly confronted the Mikado, who was sitting on a throne raised on a dais two feet above the floor. The throne is a large arm-chair, apparently of burnished gold, not different in form or ornament from the thrones which are used on ceremonial occasions in European courts. All the cabinet ministers and many other officials had arranged themselves below the dais, and behind and around the throne. The Mikado was dressed in a voluminous robe of reddish-brown brocade, which covered his whole person. His head-dress differed in fashion from that which was worn by Sawa in our audience with him, only in this, that a kind of curved projecting prong was attached to the boat-shaped cap, and bent upward, the corresponding appurtenance of the minister’s cap being shorter, and bent downward. What with the elevation of the dais, and the height of his elongated cap, the emperor’s person, though in a sitting posture, seemed to stretch from the floor to the ceiling. His appearance in that flowing costume, surrounded by a mass of ministers and courtiers, enveloped in variegated and equally redundant silken folds, resting on the floor, reminded Mr. Seward of some of the efforts in mythology to represent a deity sitting in the clouds. His dark countenance is neither unintelligent nor particularly expressive. He was motionless as a statue. He held a sceptre in his right hand, and at his left side wore one richly-ornamented, straight sword. What the Mikado and his court thought of the costumes of his visitors, with their uncovered heads, square, swallow-tailed dress-coats, tight white cravats, tighter pantaloons, and stiff, black boots, we shall never know…

Refreshments were served, and Mr. Seward was informed that his audience was the first occasion on which the Mikado has completely unveiled himself to a visitor.

Travelling to Osaka, Seward visited the Temple of the Moon. Osaka was an important city, famed for its trade in rice during this period. Just before the Boshin War, the city had been opened to foreign trade.

The Temple of the Moon, standing on the highest peak of the mountain, reflected the morning sunlight from gilded roofs, resting on snow-white columns. The moon in Japan is a masculine deity. Is this exceptional idea due to the native jealousy of the gentle sex? Or is it owing to the fact that it is a man’s face and not a woman’s that is seen in that benignant orb? Quien sabe?

The moon as a feminine deity is more familiar, as stated by Seward, possibly due to dominant priesthoods identifying the sun as a male deity and assigning the inferior light of the moon to the priestesses (although the obvious parallels with womanhood and the lunar cycle are assumed to be a common factor). However, the Japanese male moon deity (Tsukuyomi) is not quite such an ‘exceptional’ idea as Seward believed, being common to certain Germanic tribes, Mesopotamia, and of course Thoth in ancient Egyptian religion.

A free port since 1859, Nagasaki was in the process of post-restoration modernisation when Seward arrived. But the extremes of industrialisation (which would eventually lead to the city becoming a target in the Second World War) were yet to take hold and the harbour was a beautiful location.

What does this scene want to perfect its magic? Only music! Instant with the thought, the band on the German frigate delivers its national hymn, “Des Deutsche Vaterland;” then come swelling forth from the British flag-ship the inspiring notes of “God save the Queen;” and these only die away, when the solemn national anthem of Russia, “Thou pious and gentle leader, shield of the church of believers, God be the protector and defender of our great Czar,” grander than all, rolls over the sea.

Is not this glorious concert, under the flags of these great Christian nations, in these distant and lonely waters, suggestive? Mr. Seward answered, “Yes, but deceptive.” The German is here lying in wait for his French enemy; the British admiral is here to intimidate the semi-barbarous races; and the Russian admiral is guarding the eastern gate of his master’s empire, which towers behind and above Asiatic and European states on both continents. So it is that jealousy and ambition breathe in the notes of this majestic serenade.

Departing from Japan, Seward had some final thoughts on the Japanese people and culture, and the behaviour of visitors to the country:

Although society in Japan is divided, as it is in every other country, into high classes and low classes, classes wearing two swords, classes wearing one sword, and classes wearing no swords at all, yet the people are universally docile and amiable. We saw not one act of rudeness, and heard not one word of ill-temper, in the country. Heaven knows that, in the arrogant assumption by foreigners of superiority among them, the people have provocations enough for both!…

It would be manifestly unfair to judge the Japanese by the standard of Western civilization. Measured by the Oriental one, it cannot be denied that it excels the Asiatic states to whose system it belongs. The affections of family and kindred seem as strong here as elsewhere. There is no neglect of children; there is no want of connubial care; no lack of parental love or filial devotion. Nor is it to be forgotten that, in regard to domestic morals, we are giving the Japanese some strange instructions. On this very ship on which we have embarked, there is a German merchant who, after a short but successful career in Yokohama, is returning rich to his native land; with him his child, a pretty brunette boy, two years old. The father brings him to us to be caressed. We ask, “Where is the Japanese mother?” “I have left her behind; she would not be fit to bring up the boy, or to be seen herself in a European country.”

The third part of this article, in which Seward faces danger in China after a recent riot and massacre, will follow in a few days.  I welcome comments and suggestions for the blog.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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