How the Samurai Saw the U.S. Civil War

How the Samurai Saw the U.S. Civil War

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When the U.S. Civil War broke out in 1861, samurai still ruled Japan. How did the samurai - recently forced into trade with the US and on the cusp of their own war - react?

On both sides of the Pacific, the 1860s were time a of momentous change. Not long after the decade began, civil war wracked the still-young United States of America. The outcome of this war, pitting brother against brother, would determine the very future of America and the millions of enslaved people within it. In Japan, on the Pacific’s west coast, the end of the decade saw its own civil strife in the form of the Boshin War. Japan threw off the centuries of Shogunal rule by the samurai of the Tokugawa clan; not long after, the class structure of feudalism was done away with. Both countries were changed, forever.

The United States had played a major role in opening Japan to Europe and the Americas only a mere decade earlier. In 1853, President Filmore sent Commodore Matthew C. Perry to Japan alongside a flotilla bristling with cannon; their goal, force the isolated island nation to trade. In 1854, samurai leaders admitted they had no recourse, and did as the foreign barbarians bid. The Americans had accomplished what the British, French, and Russians before them had failed to do. They had opened Japan.

And yet, this was not the end of the samurai, or of the long-lived Tokugawa Shogunate. For fourteen years, it was the Shogun’s samurai delegates who would deal with the Americans and other foreigners. And so it was the samurai who would watch on from afar as the United States descended into Civil War from 1861 until 1865. What did the samurai think, as they watched this overwhelmingly powerful nation – the very country that had forced them from isolationist reverie – tearing itself apart?

Commodore Perry meets with Tokugawa representatives.

Unequal Partners

The first direct head-of-state relationship between Japan and the US was that of Shogun Tokugawa Iesada and President Franklin Pierce. (Iesada’s father, Ieyoshi, had died of heat stroke just weeks after Commodore Perry’s fleet arrived in Uruga Bay. President Filmore, who had only reached the presidency via the untimely death of President Zachery Taylor, did not even attempt to run for a second term and was out of office by the time Perry arrived in Japan.) Iesada was Shogun during the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa, which opened Japan to the West; yet Iesada was essentially a figurehead, being too sickly to involve himself in politics.

During these decades, America was unquestionably the more relationally dominant of the two countries. The US forced Japan to sign loathsome “unequal treaties,” like the 1858 Treaty of Amity and Commerce. Japan, whose samurai government and population did not want to interact with these foreigners, had no choice but to open up treaty ports, grant foreigners extraterritoriality, and put up with unfair trade regulations.

Franklin Pierce was the first American president to officially engage with Japan.

Weak Leaders on Both Sides of the Pacific

And yet, the 1850s and ’60s were a time when both countries were saddled with particularly weak leadership. Both went through de facto heads of state at a startlingly quick pace. The Shoguns in Edo (modern Tokyo) steadily lost authority, seen as weak both because of their capitulation to the Americans and concessions to the Emperor in Kyoto. (Essentially a distant figurehead for many centuries, Emperor Komei [1831-1867] was so offended by the idea of foreign barbarians in Japan that he broke with tradition and began interfering in national politics.)

For its part, America’s strong foreign policy belied troubles at home. As more territories were admitted to the Union, the specter of slavery resulted in violent clashes between slaveholders and abolitionists. Presidents Filmore, Pierce, and Buchanan all tolerated slavery and did little to quell the instability in the country. All were one-term presidents, currently counted amongst the worst in US history.


For the samurai, however, these three represented the first American leaders they’d directly dealt with. Filmore dispatched Perry, and it was his name on the messages directed towards the “Emperor” of Japan. (It was instead delivered to the samurai government.) Pierce was president during the actual opening of Japan; he assigned Towsend Harris as America’s first consul to the island nation.

In 1857, Shogun Tokugawa Iesada granted Harris the unprecedented honor of meeting with his august person. Harris traveled some two hundred miles from his ramshackle consul in Shimoda to meet the Shogun in Edo; he was guarded by Shogunal samurai the whole way. Harris recalled that “the whole train numbered some three hundred and fifty persons.”[1]

Townsend Harris’ 1857 procession to Edo.

Samurai in the Antebellum

Harris’ meeting with the Shogun was a great triumph for Pierce’s pushy foreign policy. In Japan, however, many grumbled yet again of Shogunal weakness. (Not least among them, we can assume, was Emperor Komei.) For many samurai, for whom martial valor was their supposed birthright (despite not a single war in their lifetimes), the humiliation of kowtowing to foreigners was unbearable. Many longed to strike out at the foreign interlopers, but most knew that, militarily, they stood no chance.

Japan, however, did have a major advantage over its neighbors in Asia. Despite being subject to onerous unequal treaties, it was not colonized. The Shogunate knew that in order to survive, it would have to modernize, both in terms of technology and its military. Purchasing modern armaments and training experts in the ways of the outside world was imperative. This was all occurring as the country still officially forbade its citizens from traveling abroad, on pain of death.

But samurai would visit the United States – and they would do so while the tensions between North and South were reaching a boiling point.

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[1] Keene, Donald. (2002) Emperor of Japan: Meiji and his World, 1852-1912. Colombia University Press.

[2] Harding, Christopher. (2023). When the Samurai came to America. Engelsberg Ideas.

[3] W. G. Beasley. (1995) Japan Encounters the Barbarian: Japanese Travelers in America and Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press. 61. Referenced in Bridge (2013).

[4] Treese, Joel D. (2015). The Japanese Mission of 1860. The White House Historical Association.

[6] Nelson, Thomas. (2004). Slavery in Medieval Japan. Monumenta Nipponica, 59(4), 463–492.

[7] Francis Hall quoted in Bridge, Kyle (2013) “Japanese Westernization and the American Civil War,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History: Vol. 3: Iss. 1, Article 5.

[8] Ericson, Mark. D. (1997). “Yankee Impertinence, Yankee Corruption”: The Tokugawa Shogunate and Robert Pruyn, 1862—1867. The Journal of American-East Asian Relations, 6(4), 235–260.

Haraguchi, Izumi. (1995). The Influence of the Civil War in the US on the Meiji Restoration in Japan. 南太平洋研究-South Pacific Study. Vol. 16, no.1. 127-134.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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