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  • Negotiating with Imperialism: The Unequal Treaties and the Culture of Japanese Diplomacy
  • M. William Steele
Negotiating with Imperialism: The Unequal Treaties and the Culture of Japanese Diplomacy. By Michael R. Auslin. Harvard University Press, 2004. 263 pages. Hardcover $45.00.

Negotiating with Imperialism breaks new ground in the study of modern Japanese diplomatic history. In it, Michael R. Auslin presents a wealth of detail on Japanese-foreign interactions between 1858 and 1872 when Japanese and Western diplomats carried out a series of hard-fought negotiations that defined Japan's place in a new global environment. Following the long tradition of diplomatic historians, Auslin grounds his work on a thorough reading of British, American, and Japanese archival materials, but he also offers a compelling interpretive framework based on the premise of an evolving Japanese "culture of diplomacy."

Auslin demands that the cultural underpinnings of diplomacy be taken into account. He sets out to examine "the set of accepted interpretations and beliefs about the relationship between the foreign and the domestic, and the traditional patterns of interaction with the outside world" (p. 2). In effect, he traces the clash of Japanese and Western "diplomatic cultures" during the mid-nineteenth century and the eventual emergence in Japan in the 1870s of a new diplomatic culture that sought literally to place Japan on the same footing as the Western imperialists. Auslin also challenges the conventional view that makes Japan a passive victim of Western designs. All too often, he points out, scholarship on modern Japanese history, by Japanese and non-Japanese [End Page 254] scholars alike, is based on the assumption that Japan, at mid-century, was weak and backward, while the West (somehow unified) was strong and progressive. Japanese modernity is attributed, on the one hand, to the appearance of enlightened leaders, eager to "catch up with the West," or, on the other, to the impact of Western imperialism. In either case, Japanese agency is denied. Auslin shows how Japanese officials used strategies of negotiation effectively in confronting Western demands. Japan was no pushover. Compromises were made along the way, but Japanese leaders, both before and after the Meiji Restoration, were able to set the terms for their country's appearance on the global stage.

The first chapter, "Style and Substance of Treaty-Making," sets out to define Japan's "culture of diplomacy" as it existed before 1858. Auslin maintains that for Japan, as for other East Asian countries, diplomatic ceremony (as opposed to negotiation) was supremely important: "ritual was the relationship" (p. 13). I wonder about this, as prescriptions for ritual required negotiation. The various "agreements" (Kr. yakcho, Jp. yakujō) negotiated between the Chosŏn government and Tsushima authorities from the fifteenth into the seventeenth century sought not only to define the terms of engagement between governments in Korea and Japan, but to clarify the details of ritual as well. The diplomatic duties and roles of elites in Tsushima and Satsuma during the Edo period seem to fall outside Auslin's description of Japan's pre-1858 diplomatic culture. His discussion of the ideological, intellectual, and physical boundaries of Japan's traditional diplomatic culture also set me wondering. In light of recent scholarship in Japanese and English, was Japan during the Edo period really an "inward-looking culture," in which "no one could attempt an intellectual journey outside the nation's boundaries" without government approval (p. 14)? Japan's premodern "culture of diplomacy" would seem to require further clarification.

The negotiations over the location of the treaty ports, especially Yokohama, are the subject of chapter 2. Here Auslin is able to show his skills as a diplomatic historian. In deciding the location of foreign intercourse, bakufu negotiators clearly had the upper hand and were able to keep the foreigners at some distance in Yokohama (rather than in Kanagawa, closer to transportation routes into Edo). Similarly, in chapter 3, Auslin gives a masterful account of the 1862 bakufu mission to London that succeeded in renegotiating various terms of the original 1858 treaties. The fourth chapter, "The Limits of Negotiation," deals with the issue of gunboat diplomacy. In 1864, in response to a series of attacks on foreigners, the British minister, Rutherford...


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