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Like cherry blossoms, US-Japan relations are rooted in New Hampshire

Pierce Manse in Concord, New Hampshire
Pierce Manse in Concord, New Hampshire
ST Seacord

New Hampshire’s relationship with Japan and the shared history which is highlighted by the peace conference ending the Russo-Japanese War with the Portsmouth Peace Treaty signed at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in 1905, began early.

In fact the history of New Hampshire-Japan relations is often indistinguishable from the history of US-Japan relations. While American ships had traded as neutral vessels with Japan through the Dutch East Indies Company from 1797 to 1809, Edmund Roberts, the Portsmouth-born sea captain was the first official US delegate bearing instructions from the US President (Andrew Jackson) to make overtures to the emperor. His voyage was made in 1832.

A stained glass window in one of the oldest churches, St. John’s, in Portsmouth is dedicated to Roberts; and when Rev. E.W. Clark, another native son returned to the city to greet his former students Komura and Takahira who were among the 1905 Japanese diplomats, he mentioned the window in a letter to his friend and fellow Japanese school teacher W. E. Griffis. Griffis subsequently wrote an article for the New York Times, “Edmund Roberts, Our First Envoy to Japan.”

Roberts started trading in the East in 1827. Returning to New Hampshire in 1832 he interested his friend, Levi Woodbury, US Senator from New Hampshire and later Secretary of the Navy in the Jackson administration, in the idea of negotiating treaties to put the US on equal footing with other trading nations. Roberts secured treaties with Muscat and Siam in 1833; but died of typhoid in Macao in 1836 before he could reach Japan. Roberts’ work effectively set the stage for Commodore Matthew Perry who successfully opened Japan to trade with his “Black Ships” fleet in 1853-54.

The New Hampshire connection with Perry is that the Commodore was a friend of Franklin Pierce – New Hampshire’s only representative in the White House – and though President Fillmore had written the formal letter of introduction to the Japanese Emperor on behalf of the United States, Perry timed his arrival for President Pierce to earn the honor of being the one whose administration succeeded with the task and is credited with the 1854 Treaty of Peace and Amity.

President Pierce subsequently dispatched Townsend Harris (of New York) as the First American Consul in Japan. Harris had hoped to accompany Commodore Perry; but traveled separately, arriving in Shimoda in 1856. More than a year later – on December 7, 1857 – Harris presented his letter of introduction from Pierce to the Emperor and spent the next four years assisting in trade negotiations and setting the stage for Americans like Clark and Griffis who would bring Western studies of mathematics, chemistry and law to students at the Imperial University of Tokyo.

Harris returned from Japan in 1861 and would be succeeded in Japan by another New Hampshire man: Henry Willard Denison, who had grown up in Lancaster, New Hampshire. Denison went to Japan in 1869 as vice consul in the American Consulate in Yokohama. When Consul Lemon was recalled, Denison became acting consul and from 1880 until his death on July 4, 1914 served legal advisor to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Denison accompanied the Japanese delegation back to New Hampshire in 1905 and visited Lancaster – stopping first in Concord, where the Pierce Manse still stands today – after the Portsmouth Peace Treaty was signed.

Research in 2012 revealed that the Japanese cherry trees that are an iconic and much-loved sight in Washington DC were actually a gift from Japan in appreciation for US assistance during the Russo-Japanese War. As Theodore Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for orchestrating the diplomacy that led to the signing of the Treaty, and since the US was only an observer to the War, the most significant help provided to Japan was to provide the atmosphere that produced the peace, in Portsmouth NH.

It turns out that the Japanese industrialist, living in New York, who helped underwrite the cost of the cherry trees planted in DC in 1912, was a very close friend of one Baron Shibusawa – who had served as Townsend Harris’ samurai bodyguard. Immediately after the Russo-Japanese War, Shibusawa served as an active advocate for the citizen diplomacy so evident in the summer of 1905 in Portsmouth, and now celebrated in Portsmouth Peace Treaty Day, September 5th, throughout New Hampshire. The Eichi Sibusawa Memorial Foundation recognizes the importance of that “private sector diplomacy” and its contribution to US-Japan relations today.