Townsend Harris

Townsend Harris

Harris, Townsend, 1804-78, American merchant and diplomat, b. Sandy Hill, N.Y. A merchant in New York City for many years, he became (1846) a member of the board of education, served as its president (1846-48), and helped obtain the legislation chartering the present College of the City of New York. Appointed (1855) consul general to Japan, he arrived at Shimoda in 1856, the first U.S. diplomat in Japan after that country had been opened up by Commodore Matthew C. Perry. In 1859, Harris was raised to be minister. Having previously negotiated a commercial treaty with Siam, he won the confidence of the Japanese and obtained a commercial treaty (1858) that, in contrast to the demands of other Western powers, was notably moderate. He returned to the United States in 1861.

See M. E. Cosenza, ed., The Complete Journal of Townsend Harris (1930, 2d ed. 1959); C. Crow, He Opened the Door of Japan (1939).

Townsend Harris (b 3 October 1804–1878) was a successful New York City merchant and minor politician, and the first United States Consul General to Japan. He negotiated the "Harris Treaty" between the U.S. and Japan and is credited as the diplomat who first opened the Empire of Japan to foreign trade and culture in the Edo period. He gained the respect and affection of the Japanese people, and is honoured to this day in Japan.

In New York

Harris was born in the village of Sandy Hill (now Hudson Falls), in Washington County in upstate New York. He moved early to New York City, where he became a successful merchant and importer from China.

In 1846 Harris joined the New York City Board of Education, serving as its president until 1848. He founded the Free Academy of the City of New York, which later became the City College of New York, to provide education to the city's working people. A city high school bearing Harris's name, Townsend Harris High School, soon emerged as a separate entity out of the Free Academy's secondary-level curriculum; the school survived until 1942 when Fiorello La Guardia closed it because of budget constraints. Townsend Harris High School was re-created in 1984 as a public magnet school for the humanities.

In Japan

President Franklin Pierce named Harris the first Consul General to the Empire of Japan in July, 1856, where he opened the first U.S. Consulate at the Gyokusen-ji Temple in the city of Shimoda, Shizuoka Prefecture , sometime after Commodore Perry had first opened trade between the U.S. and Japan in 1853. After two years of negotiation marked by deadlock and cultural clashes, he successfully negotiated the "Treaty of Peace and Commerce," or the Harris Treaty, in 1858, securing trade between the U.S. and Japan and paving the way for greater Western influence in Japan's economy and politics. He returned to the U.S. in 1861.

Townsend Harris expressed some very positive views about Japan at the end of its period of isolation:

Returning to New York

As reported in the New York Times, when he was interviewed in 1874 by someone recently returned from Japan, his first question was, "What do the Japanese think of me?"

Harris is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

In popular culture

Harris was portrayed by John Wayne in the 1958 movie The Barbarian and the Geisha, directed by John Huston. Its plot, dealing with a love affair between Harris and a Japanese woman, is substantially fictional.

Harris also appears as the main character of several episodes of the satirical Japanese manga-based anime, Gag Manga Biyori as a desperate man with a thick accent attempting to outshine Commodore Perry's arrival in a black-hulled ship in 1853, while making preparations for finalizing the Treaty of Peace and Commerce.



  • Cosenza, Mario Emilio. (1930). The Complete Journal of Townsend Harris First American Consul General and Minister to Japan. New York: Doubleday. 10-ISBN B00085QAZQ [reprinted by Kessinger Publishing Company, Whitefish, Montana, 2007. 10-ISBN 1-432-57244-X; 13-ISBN 978-1-432-57244-0]
  • Dulles, Foster Rhea, "Yankees and Samurai: America’s Role in the Emergence of Modern Japan, 1791-1900", Harper & Row, New York, 1965.
  • Griffis, William Elliot. (1895) Townsend Harris, First American Envoy in Japan. New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company. ...Click digitized, full-text copy of this book
  • Perrin, Noel (1979). Giving up the gun. Boston: David R. Godine. ISBN 0879237732.

See also

External links

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