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Things Japanese/Treaties with Foreign Powers


Treaties with Foreign Powers. The subject of treaty revision was for so many years the hinge on which Japanese foreign policy turned, the working of the new treaties is still such a burning question to the foreign residents, that the new comer desirous of peeping below the surface and learning some thing of the inner springs of local politics, will perhaps find an interest in details that might otherwise be condemned as "ancient history." In effect, is not the recent past our only trustworthy guide to the present and the near future?

Japan's first treaty with the United States was that wrung from her, in 1854, by the terror which Commodore Perry's "black ships" had inspired. Others, dating from 1858 to 1869 inclusive, followed with Russia, Great Britain, France, and the rest of the European powers great and small, the chief features in these documents, which were practically merged in one by the insertion of the most favoured nation clause, being (I) the opening of the ports of Yokohama, Kobe, Ōsaka, Nagasaki, Niigata, and Hakodate to foreign trade and residence, with a radius of 10 ri (about 24½ miles) round each, termed "Treaty Limits," wherein foreigners might travel without passports; (II) the establishment of "exterritoriality, that is to say, the exemption of foreigners from the jurisdiction of the Japanese law-courts; (III) a very low scale of import dues, mostly five per cent ad valorem.

Such, in barest outline, were the old treaties, their tacitly assumed basis being the unequal status of the two contracting parties,—civilised white men on the one hand, Japan but just emerging from Asiatic semi-barbarism on the other. How to get them revised on more favourable terms, long formed the great crux of Japanese diplomacy. The matter was a complicated one, involving, as it did on the foreigner's part, the surrender of commercial and legal privileges that had been enjoyed for a long term of years,—involving, too, the extremely delicate question as to the fitness of Japan for admission into the family of Christian nations on equal terms. Legally, Japan had a claim to the revision of the treaties as far back as 1872; and the long tarrying of Prince Iwakura's embassy in the United States in 1872-3 was avowedly caused by the desire to conclude a new treaty then and there. But if Sir Francis Adams's account of the proceedings may be trusted, the Japanese authorities themselves ended by requesting a delay. Perhaps there had been gradually borne in upon them the consciousness that Japan was then in no position to offer suitable guarantees; nor indeed did her laws and usages approximate to the necessary standard for a whole decade more. A less radical, but equally thorny, obstacle in the way was the fact that the sixteen or seventeen foreign powers had pledged themselves to act conjointly in their negotiations, and that it was no easy matter to get England, France, Holland, and the rest to consent to any common basis on which a conference might be opened. Some held to the low import dues which favoured the operations of their merchants. Others—all perhaps—hesitated to place their nationals at the mercy of Japanese judges. Thus the status quo was preserved for years. One country, the United States, which had always been Japan's kindest patron, did, no doubt, show signs of breaking away from the league of the Western powers, and made a separate treaty in 1876, whereby all the chief points in dispute were surrendered. This treaty, however, contained one clause which invalidated all the rest,—a clause to the effect that the treaty was not to go into force until all the other powers should have concluded treaties of a similar purport. America's good-will on this occasion, though doubtless genuine, proved therefore to be of the Platonic order; and "the Bingham treaty," as it was called from the name of the minister who negotiated it, was consigned to the limbo of a pigeon-hole.

True, some declare that the paralysing little clause in this treaty was inserted, not by the American negotiator, but by the Japanese Government itself! Impossible, it will be said. Improbable, assuredly. Still, when the reader calls to mind what has been mentioned concerning Prince Iwakura's alleged tergiversations, he will be led to hesitate before rejecting the possibility of such a thing. It will be seen immediately below that on two occasions more recent the Japanese negotiators did actually shift their basis at the eleventh hour; and if private individuals often tremble to see their heart's desire on the eve of accomplishment, and would give worlds to recall it at the last moment, why should not the same be sometimes true of governments?

Meanwhile Japan's progress in Europeanisation had been such, above all her honest eagerness to reform her laws and legal procedure had been made so clearly manifest, that it began to be acknowledged on all sides, in diplomatic circles and in the home press, that the time had arrived for the admission of her claims, in return for granting which it was understood that she should throw open the whole empire to foreign trade and residence, instead of restricting these to the "Open Ports" of Yokohama, Kōbe, etc., as under the system of exterritoriality hitherto in vogue. A preliminary conference was held at Tōkyō in 1882, to settle the basis of negotiation. The Japanese proposals included the abolition of exterritoriality outside the foreign settlements as soon as an English version of the Civil Code should have been published, the abolition of exterritoriality even in the foreign settlements after a further period of three years, the appointment of no less than twenty-five foreign judges for a term of fifteen years,—the said judges to form a majority in all cases affecting foreigners,—and the use of English as the judicial language in such cases. Diplomacy, in Japan as else where, talks much and moves slowly. To elaborate the scheme here outlined was the arduous work of four years, and 1886 was already half-spent when the great conference, intended to be final, met at Tōkyō. The English and German representatives led the way by making liberal concessions; and all was progressing to general satisfaction, when suddenly, in July, 1887, on the return from abroad of certain Japanese politicians holding radical views, the Japanese plenipotentiaries shifted the basis of their demands, and the negotiations were consequently brought to a standstill.

Nevertheless, as there remained a genuine desire on both sides to get the treaty revision question settled, the attempt to settle it was not given up. Some of the powers now allowed them selves to be approached singly. Mexico (absurd as it may sound) led the van. To be sure, she had no trade to be influenced, and no citizens in Japan to protect. Anyhow, she made her treaty, which was ratified early in 1889. In the summer of the same year several of the powers followed suit,—first the United States, next Russia, then Germany. France, too, was on the point of signing; and the other powers, though moving less quickly, were also moving in the same direction. Suddenly again, Japanese public opinion—if that term may be employed, for want of a better, to denote the views of the comparatively small number of persons who in the Japan of those days thought and spoke on political subjects,—Japanese public opinion, we say, veered round. Among the new stipulations had been one to the effect that four foreign judges—not twenty-five—were to assist the native bench during the first few years following on treaty revision. This stipulation was denounced on all hands as contrary to the terms of the new Constitution, which had just been proclaimed. But the real objection lay elsewhere, and had its root in panic at the idea of Japan being thrown open to foreign trade and residence. For years the opening of the country had been prayed for as a blessing to trade, a means of attracting foreign capital to the mines and industries, a means of making Japanese manners and institutions conform to what were almost universally admitted to be the superior manners and customs of the West. The same anticipations remained, but the inferences drawn from them were reversed. Japan, it was now feverishly asserted, would be swamped by foreign immigration, her national customs would be destroyed, her mines, her industries would all come under foreign control, her very soil would, by lease or purchase, pass into foreign hands, her people would be practically enslaved, and independent Japan would exist no more. Such were the sentiments given voice to in every private conversation, and re-echoed daily in the press. Nevertheless the Japanese Government, more enlightened than the Japanese public, endeavoured to continue the negotiations for treaty revision. Popular excitement then began to seek more violent vents. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Count Ōkuma, had his leg blown off by a dynamite bomb. It became evident in October, 1889, that negotiations could no longer be carried on consistently with the public peace, and the Government once more drew back. Even those treaties which had already been concluded with America, Germany, and Russia were left unratified; and it was proved that the representatives of the other great powers had acted wisely in acting slowly, and had saved their respective governments from a humiliating rebuff.

A few months slipped by, and the tide once more began to flow. The native press whether inspired from headquarters we cannot say started a new watchword, which, being interpreted, signified "treaty revision on a footing of equality,"[1] This was a fair phrase; but on examination, it turned out to mean simply that the foreign powers should concede everything, and Japan nothing at all. In fact, it was a case of

"the fault of the Dutch,
"That of giving too little, and taking too much."

The claim was preposterous; but—for the impossible does some times come to pass—it actually was granted! Who knows? Perhaps Great Britain thought thereby to obtain the Japanese alliance; perhaps it was only that she wanted to patch up, somehow and once for all, an old difference which had degenerated into a bore. Anyhow, in 1894, the Radical English ministry of the hour consented to a new treaty on the peculiar Dutch lines just mentioned. Hereby, either explicitly or else implicitly by the recognition of her legal codes (some of which had not even been published at that date!), Japan obtained the abolition of exterritoriality, full jurisdiction over British subjects, the right to fix her own import dues, the monopoly of the coasting trade, and the exclusion of British subjects from the purchase of land, or even from the leasing of land for agricultural or mining purposes. In exchange, Great Britain obtained ————? The only items revealed by a microscopic scrutiny were that every one would be permitted to travel unmolested in the interior, but in practice this privilege was enjoyed already, as would naturally be the case in any country ranking as civilised,—and that property might be leased in the interior for residential and commercial purposes, a doubtful advantage, entailing, as it would, on merchants the expense of keeping up establishments in various cities for the same trade which had hitherto more economically centred in the Open Ports.

But all this was merely the beginning of the trouble. As the date for the enforcement of the treaty drew near, and men had to make arrangements accordingly, they found themselves confronted with obstacles which could never have arisen had the negotiators exercised ordinary foresight. The ambiguity of the document was not the least of its defects. A careful consideration of what was not stipulated for, as well as of what was, showed that, under the new treaty, British subjects might, if the Japanese Government so ordained, lose their privilege of publishing news papers and holding public meetings, in a word, their birthright of free speech, and that it was doubtful whether their doctors and lawyers would be allowed to practise without a Japanese diploma. Even the period for which leases could be held was left uncertain; the conditions of the sale and re-purchase of leases in what had hitherto been the foreign "Concessions" were left uncertain; the right to employ labour and to start industries was left uncertain; the right of foreign insurance agencies to continue to do business was left uncertain. As for the question of taxation,—a matter of prime importance if ever there was one,—which almost immediately ramified into a labyrinth, the negotiators had simply not troubled their heads about it. With things in this state, and with new r duties of from thirty to forty per cent levied precisely on those articles which are prime necessities to us but not to the Japanese, could any one imagine such terms having ever been agreed to except as the result of a disastrous war? The authorities in Downing Street apparently considered that a state of things endurable by British communities in certain other countries, should be good enough for the British community in Japan. But surely there is all the difference in the world between acquiescing in inconveniences of immemorial date, and running one's neck into a new noose.

The British treaty once concluded, other powers followed suit. To some of them the nature of the terms mattered little; for the preponderance of British commercial and residential interests has always been so great in Japan as almost to make it a case of "Eclipse first, and the rest nowhere." The United States—the only power which might have been expected to stand out for better terms—was precluded from so doing, partly by her traditional policy of exceptional condescension towards Japan, partly, as it would seem, by the fact of her government, like that of Great Britain, having failed to appreciate in all its practical details, the position which affairs would assume when the old order should have been abrogated and the new set up in its stead. Meanwhile the China war of 1894-5 took place, Japan's marvellous successes in which made resistance to any of her demands increasingly difficult. The German and French negotiators, however, kept their heads; and under the most favoured nation clause, resident Britishers and Americans by a stroke of good luck, nowise thanks to the good management of their rulers—have come to share in certain ameliorations stipulated for by other powers:—their doctors, for instance, may practise, and their newspapers may continue to exist, though subject now to the Japanese censure, no longer independent as of old.

Such is the story of Japanese treaty revision, so far as it is publicly known. But we have access to no private sources of information, and we are (but for that we thank God) no politician. Diplomacy is not a game of chance. It is a game of skill, like chess, at which the better player always wins. The Japanese negotiators, who, to be sure, had more at stake than their opponents, entirely overmatched them in brains. By playing a waiting game, by letting loose Japanese public opinion when convenient, and then representing it as a much more potent factor than it actually is, by skilful management of the press, by adroitly causing the chief seat of the negotiations to be shifted from Tōkyō, where some of the local diplomats possessed an adequate knowledge of the subject, to the European chanceries which possessed little or none, by talent, perseverance, patience, tact, exercised year after year,—in a word, by first-rate diplomacy, they gained a complete victory over their adversaries, and at last avenged on the West the violence which it had committed in breaking open Japan a generation before.

From the point of view of patriotic Englishmen, the residents in Japan (that is, the class which possesses the best knowledge of the state of the case) almost unanimously regard the British Foreign Office with contempt, for having allowed itself to be so grossly misled and roundly beaten. But what avails that? It is a hundred years since Nelson noted the humiliating fact that "England seldom gains anything by negotiation, except the being laughed at," and still the Foreign Office slumbers and blunders on as in Nelson's day. Diplomacy is not our talent. We must continue to endure British ineptitude in counsel, as we endure war, pestilence, and American journalism.

Sacrificed, as they have been, on the altar of la haute politique, the only sensible course for the foreign residents to pursue is to make the best of a bad bargain, and that is what they have set themselves to do by arranging for the execution of trustworthy English versions of the codes, such as may acquaint them with the details of their new position under Japanese laws, and by other endeavours to ensure the harmonious working of the new machinery. Down to 1899, their settlements in Japan had formed—as Shanghai still does to-day—a sort of little republic, without political rights, it is true, but also without duties. They paid few taxes, carried on their business free of police inquisition, printed what they liked in their newspapers, and, generally, did what was right in their own eyes. Now all that has been changed, and they must learn to jog along under less favourable conditions. Such miscarriages of justice as the "Kent case," the "Kōbe Water-works case," and the "Clifford Wilkinson case"[2] have not been calculated to reassure their minds as to the superiority of Japanese to English law; but they hope for the best. The heavy and complicated system of taxation,—especially the business tax, with its wheels within wheels—weighs their business down; but there again they hope for the best. Meantime lawyers, officials, and arbitrators can go on arguing and penning despatches to their hearts content. The house-tax question alone has produced cumbrous volumes in several languages; but the day of settlement is not yet.

The conclusion would seem to be that neither the advocate of European official methods, nor those (and the present writer avows himself one of them) who love Japan but dislike jingoism, can find any source of edification in this page of modern history, on which so much pettiness and shiftiness are inscribed.

Book Recommended. Treaties and Conventions between the Empire of Japan and Other Powers, compiled by the Japanese Foreign Office.

  1. Taitō jōyaku kaisei.
  2. We cannot here touch the very grave issues of the "Kent case" and the "Water works case." But the "Clifford Wilkinson case" was so grotesquely amusing that not to devote a word to it would be to defraud our readers of a good laugh. Mr. Wilkinson is the proprietor of the favourite Tansan mineral spring near Kōbe, which he bottles for table use. A Japanese firm had imitated his label. He obtained a judgment against this firm, who thereupon appealed, and went on imitating the label. He then applied for an injunction to inhibit them from doing so, pending the result of the appeal. But the judge decided that the Japanese firm might continue to imitate the label in question, His Lordship opining that, as it was winter time, probably very few bottles of Tansan water would be drunk, and Mr. Wilkinson's loss could therefore be but slight. (!!) By the way, we should apologise to Mr. Wilkinson for speaking of the case as amusing. It was amusing to the public, but doubtless appeared in quite a different light to him, as the butt of this Japanese juridical joke.