The Opening of Japan: A Three-Part Course with Dr. Gavin Campbell

The Opening of Japan: A Three-Part Course with Dr. Gavin Campbell


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History rarely pivots on a single event. But when Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan in 1853 to negotiate a trade treaty, both the Americans and the Japanese sensed that the Pacific World would be forever changed. This three-part course explores on both sides the people, the background, and the motivations of this key moment.

In the 1630s, the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu issued a series of stern commands: any person caught leaving the realm would be executed. Anyone trying to get in would likewise be dispatched. All trade with the western world would have to go through the Dutch East India Company, and they would have to stay in Nagasaki. For the next two hundred years, these policies allowed Japan to skillfully regulate the pace of its encounters with the larger world. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, the western imperial powers increasingly found these restrictions offensive and arrogant. In 1853, the American navy commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry muscled his way into the shogun’s realm and demanded Japan open to trade. But why? And why had the Japanese government so strenuously resisted trade for so long?

This three-part course examines the US-Japan encounter from both sides. We begin by examining America’s Pacific ambitions. From fur trading in the Pacific Northwest to the Pacific whaling grounds, fate and ambition seemed to pull America ever further west. If Europe was rapidly gobbling up the globe, America decided to stake its own standard in the Pacific. At the same time, however, the Japanese were losing the initiative, as powerful western ships came ever closer. We will examine how the Japanese government tried to adapt to new circumstances, and the internal pressures they faced that made any decision about the Americans doubly perilous.

Lecture 1: Manifest Destiny

Perry departed from an America swelling with pride and ambition. “We are aspiring to the first place among the nations of the earth,” one patriot wrote, “a place which belongs to us as a matter of right.” We will explore Perry’s Japan mission within the soaring sense of America's destiny in the Pacific.

Lecture 2: The Shogun’s World

Americans would flatter themselves that they had opened Japan. But Japan had never been closed. We will examine how, over more than two centuries, the Tokugawa shoguns regulated their nation’s contacts with the western world long before Perry arrived.

Lecture 3: Meltdown

Perry’s arrival alarmed but did not shock the Japanese. The French, the British, and the Russians had already laid out similar demands. But Perry arrived amidst a gathering domestic political crisis that would eventually swamp the shogun and his government.

Gavin received a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and came to Kyoto in 2001. He is a Ph.D. professor of history at Doshisha University. His teaching and research revolve around Japan's cultural encounters with the West, particularly during the Edo, Meiji, Taisho and early Showa periods (1600-1940), and he has published on the history of foreign tourism and of Protestant missionaries in Japan. To further explore Japan's global cultural encounters, he is currently writing a book on the history of Japanese menswear from the 1600s through the early 20th century. He is also an expert on Kyoto geisha culture and a frequent participant in geisha entertainment.

How does it work?

This is a three-part series held weekly and hosted on Zoom. Please check the schedule for the specific dates and times for each lecture.

Is there a reading list in advance?

Though the course is open to participants with no background in this topic there are suggested readings for further investigation. You will receive this soon after course registration.

How long are the lectures?

Each lecture is 90 minutes long with time for Q&A.

How much is the course?

The course is $105 for three lectures.

Is a recording available?

Yes. If you need to miss a lecture, you will be sent a recording after the event.

This course is suitable for all ages

90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.

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