Anglo-Japanese Convention of 1854

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  • Date: 1854/8/23 (Oct 14)

The Anglo-Japanese Convention of 1854 was an agreement signed by British Rear Admiral Sir James Stirling and Nagasaki bugyô Mizuno Tadanori, opening the ports of Nagasaki and Hakodate to British vessels, as well as granting most favored nation status and several other provisions.

The convention came as the result of a series of miscommunications, and it was not in fact Stirling's aim, in traveling to Japan, to seek such a treaty. Britain and France had declared war on Russia earlier in the year, and were now actively opposing Russia in the Crimean War. Stirling, commander of the Royal Navy's China Squadron, was dispatched to the waters around Japan to seek out and attack Russian ships and fortifications, or to at least work to suppress their activities. He arrived at Nagasaki on 1854/int.7/15 (Sept 7) aboard the HMS Winchester and three other ships, with two chief objectives: one, to find and attack the ships of Yevfimy Vasilyevich Putyatin, and two, to determine Japan's position in terms of providing safe harbor, repairs, and supplies to ships of both these warring nations (Britain and Russia). He was not empowered to negotiate any true diplomatic agreements, let alone a formal treaty.

If anything, Stirling expected the Japanese to assert their neutrality in the war, and to most likely deny harbors to warships from either country. However, having just finished dealing with Commodore Perry, Japanese authorities presumed that the British were here to demand similar concessions, and most especially in light of the outcome of the Opium War, were fearful of the repercussions of resisting British demands. These preconceptions, combined with misunderstandings generated by the process of interpretation across multiple languages, resulted in the Japanese initiating negotiations towards a fuller treaty with the British, which would set up provisions for the fuller opening of ports to British ships, as had been arranged with the Americans.

Stirling brought his own Japanese interpreter, a castaway named Yamamoto Otokichi, from China. Otokichi was not well-educated, however, and could not read or write kanji. Dutch East India Company factor Jan Hendrik Donker Curtius and senior Dutch-language interpreter Nishi Kichibei served as interpreters as well, with all of the negotiations in Japanese & English being translated via Dutch. While Curtius was dedicated to behaving neutrally, and logistically had little opportunity to significantly alter the documents (in part because the British had their own people capable of reading and translating Dutch themselves), historian Mitani Hiroshi writes that Nishi had a history of abbreviating and otherwise altering the tone or content of what he was interpreting, to the point that Putyatin himself had had Nishi removed from serving as interpreter during his negotiations with the Japanese. The documents presented by Nishi to Mizuno and the other Japanese officials thus did not accurately reflect the limited nature of Stirling's interests, and instead represented Stirling's desires and intentions similarly to those of Perry.

Stirling stated the core of his purpose as being that since the Royal Navy planned to make war upon Russian ships in the waters off Japan, and since engaging in such violence within Japanese ports would be inappropriate, he was here to inquire as to the Japanese government's position regarding these matters. He had hoped, perhaps, to see the Japanese refuse to supply, repair, or otherwise provide service to Russian warships temporarily, for the duration of this war, even if it meant the British would also be denied such services. However, misled by their own presumptions about the British, and by Nishi's translations, Mizuno and his men brushed aside these more specific concerns to instead focus on discussing a treaty after the pattern of that agreed to with Perry. The end result was the opposite of that which Stirling expected, the Japanese opening their ports to both Russian and British ships, even though this meant Japanese provisions would then be used to repair and supply ships on both sides of a conflict, which would then use those provisions to war upon one another.

Following three sessions of negotiations, held on 1854/8/13 (Oct 4), 8/18 (Oct 9), and 8/23 (Oct 14), the Anglo-Japanese Convention was drafted in its final form and signed on 8/23. It provided for British ships access to Nagasaki immediately, and to Hakodate beginning 50 days from Stirling's departure, in order to acquire firewood, water, and other necessary provisions, and in order to perform repairs. British ships were permitted at other ports only in case of distress, weather, and the like, and their crews were to be subject to Japanese law; anyone in violation of Japanese law could be denied entry to Japanese ports. Finally, there was a "most favored nation" clause, stating that if Japan were to open other ports to ships of other nations, these would have to be opened to British ships as well. As was the case with the Convention of Kanagawa signed with Perry earlier in the year, however, there were some points where differences in wording between the different languages' versions of the document, or simply differences in understanding or interpretation, created leeway for considerable differences in what each side believed they had agreed to. One such key element in this treaty was that while the Japanese wording explicitly focused on the issue of providing British access to any ports other nations had access to, the British understanding of the document was a bit broader, including the extension to the British of more or less any and all privileges, freedoms, or rights offered to other nations.

Stirling was not a diplomatic official, was not properly empowered to be entering into such agreements, and was neither expert in diplomatic or legal wording, nor in the precise political or policy desires of his government. As a result, this Convention, which was both conducted unexpectedly and in an unauthorized manner, and which did not contain any provisions allowing for formal trade relations, was deeply unpopular among many key elements of British government and society.


  • Mitani Hiroshi, David Noble (trans.), Escape from Impasse, International House of Japan (2006), 222-232.