The start of modern Sino-Japanese relations

Senzaimaru - Alex Santafe

Illustration by Alex Santafé

This Week in China’s History: August 9, 1862

On July 31, 1862, the Japanese steamship Senzaimaru arrived at Nagasaki, ending a two-month stay in China. Crewed on its voyage home by 10 Dutch sailors, the mission of “a handful of shogunal [government] officials, three merchants and other officials associated with the Nagasaki Commercial Hall, and a large number of young samurai attendants whose job description was never explicitly spelled out,” as historian Joshua Fogel described them in his book Maiden Voyage, the Senzaimaru was the first official overseas embassy sent from Japan to China in more than 300 years.

One story of the 19th century has been the emergence of trade between East Asia and the West, with China often viewed through the lens of the Opium Wars and Japan with the American Commodore Perry at the center. But the emergence of ties between China and Japan, every bit as important as those between East Asia and the West, has received less attention. The two countries would go to war twice, eventually establish the largest bilateral trade in East Asia, and become two of the world’s three largest economies, yet prior to 1862, there had been no formal relations between them since the 1500s.

In the 19th century, both China and Japan were grappling with expanding European maritime power, power that had made their previous trade policies unsustainable. The Opium War put an end to China’s Canton System that had carefully regulated European overseas trade. The new treaty regime that had followed that war, and engendered several others, was sweeping across the empire with myriad and often unexpected effects. The first five treaty ports — led by Shanghai — were the start of China’s “century of humiliation,” and also emblems of a new era of globalization.

Although never as isolated as the popular image of a “closed country” suggests, Japan controlled foreign interaction closely. Perry’s 1853 arrival made plain that time was running out if Japan wished to avoid China’s fate in the Opium War. With this in mind, Japan looked toward the nearby Chinese treaty ports to see what this new era of international trade might offer.

The most obvious and promising link to be made was between Nagasaki and Shanghai. Nagasaki — in the news this week on the anniversary of the second atomic bombing in 1945 — had been Japan’s only port open to international trade for centuries, a role it retained as commerce with the United States and Europe began to open in the 1850s. Shanghai, quickly emerging as China’s most cosmopolitan port, was also the closest point on the Chinese mainland to Nagasaki, just 500 miles away across the East China Sea. Foreign ships began plying the waters between the two cities as soon as commerce opened, in 1858. Dozens of British, Chinese, and American vessels were soon sailing regularly between Nagasaki and Shanghai.

One of these was a British ship named the Armistice, which began serving in Chinese waters in 1859. For an island nation, and one that would become a naval and mercantile power in the 20th century, Japan had little in the way of nautical expertise. Fogel writes that the 1860 mission to America to sign the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce “was the first time that any Japanese…had purposefully crossed an ocean,” and that was accomplished in a Dutch-built steam sloop, specially ordered by the Japanese government. To launch its mission to Shanghai, the Japanese government purchased the Armistice, renaming it the Senzaimaru. The British Captain, Henry Richardson, was retained to sail their former ship back to Shanghai along with his crew (and his wife, the only woman on board). Joining them were 51 Japanese, including about a dozen officials from the central shogunal government, a similar number of Nagasaki city officials, commercial bureaucrats, and merchants.

On June 2, 1862, the Senzaimaru docked in the Huangpu River in front of the Dutch consulate near the boundary between the Bund and the French Bund. As Fogel reports their impressions, they found a city that was both repulsive and irresistible. “The [Huangpu] River was completely full of boats; the homes and shops on land lined up next to one another. What great prosperity!”

Another observer wrote, “This is the most thriving port in China. Its breadth and size are beyond description,” while another lamented, “There is no way to describe the filth of the Shanghai markets and lanes. This is especially true of the medium and smaller alleys which are everywhere filled with refuse and excrement…People do not sweep up here.”

The Japanese observers were also keenly aware of the disparate situation of Chinese and Westerners in the city. “Although the harbor is all hustle-bustle, it is due entirely to the large number of foreign merchant vessels. Within and without the walled city are numerous foreign commercial houses which are thus thriving. The places where I have seen Chinese living are often poor and filthy.” The same samurai who had noted the port’s prosperity later corrected himself, writing, “Pray, do not say of Shanghai that this is a flourishing place, For how much of it is being transported home on barbarian ships?”

The two months that the Japanese delegation spent in Shanghai was an encounter between cultures, nearly as stark as the more commonly described first encounters between Westerners and China. The Japanese were repulsed by Chinese food, and took exception to the manners and habits of the Chinese. The Japanese visitors had one clear advantage over their Western counterparts: “brush conversations” in classical Chinese, or Chinese characters, let them communicate far more broadly than most Europeans or Americans could. Despite this, they had few direct interactions with Shanghai’s Chinese population because of restrictions imposed by the Qing empire. The Japanese delegation was mediated entirely by Dutch interlocutors, who were familiar with the customs, regulations, and other rules of the trade.

The mission of the Senzaimaru was in some respects a failure. The Qing officials in Shanghai permitted the Japanese to sell the goods they had brought and leave. They weren’t permitted to establish a permanent trading presence, nor were diplomatic relations established.

But Joshua Fogel suggests that there was more going on than official attempts at commerce or diplomacy. “The main purpose of the mission of the Senzaimaru was to observe the Western world in microcosm in Shanghai,” he writes. “In this way, Shanghai was to serve a double role as microcosm both of the West and of China.” The Japanese observers came away from their time in Shanghai repulsed by Western racism and arrogance. They viewed the exploitation of China as a lesson for Japan: in particular, the Qing acceptance of Western aid to fight the Taiping rebels — the Senzaimaru arrived at the height of the Taiping War — as a deal with the devil that would lead China to ruin. They were not wrong.

Recent comments by Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, suggesting that Japan might intervene militarily if the PRC were to threaten or invade Taiwan, and the swift predictable rebuke from the Chinese government, are reminders both of the importance of Sino-Japanese relations and of how much they have changed. Just 30 years after the Senzaimaru’s voyage, China and Japan were at war, and they would remain in conflict for 50 years. On both sides, animosity and hatred have often typified the relationship, although commercial and cultural ties are often close. Undeniably, the relationship is crucial to the economic and political success of East Asia.

And it was the voyage of the Senzaimaru that was, as Joshua Fogel’s subtitle states, “the creation of modern Sino-Japanese relations.”

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.