Harris Treaty

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  • Signed: 1858/6/19
  • Japanese: 日米修好通商条約 (Nichibei shuukou tsuushou jouyaku)

The Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and Japan, also known as the Harris Treaty after US Consul Townsend Harris, was the first treaty signed between Japan and any of the Western powers to establish formal diplomatic relations in the modern/Western sense.

It came on the heels of the Convention of Kanagawa signed with Commodore Matthew Perry in 1854, similar conventions signed with the British and the Russians, and a formal commercial treaty with the Dutch. Signed on 1858/6/19 (July 29) by Harris and representatives of the Tokugawa shogunate aboard the USS Powhatan anchored in Edo Bay, the treaty provided for the exchange of consuls, the opening of a number of ports, and certain freedoms and protections for Americans resident in Japan, among other provisions. Tairô Ii Naosuke ordered the Treaty to be signed despite the reigning emperor explicitly saying he did not support this move; combined with Naosuke's naming Tokugawa Iemochi the next shogun despite the Emperor's (and many daimyô's) support for Tokugawa Yoshinobu, this caused considerable resentment and anger among certain factions.[1]

As with other treaties of this time, copies were produced in the English, Japanese, and Dutch languages; however, where the Japanese had previously insisted on the Chinese or Japanese version being the official wording to follow, here it was the Dutch version that was to be considered the original. The Harris Treaty also differed importantly from earlier treaties and conventions in that it was signed by the shogun himself, making it the first treaty to mark the beginning of formal diplomatic relations; prior to this, the shogunate had insisted that no one higher than the rôjû would sign such agreements, and that in doing so, the shogunate was adhering to its policies of maritime restrictions, and was not entering into formal diplomatic relations with any new diplomatic partners.

The Treaty of Amity and Commerce was followed shortly afterwards by similar treaties with the Netherlands, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France, granting the same privileges to each through the notion of most-favored nation status.

A mission would be dispatched to Washington in 1860 to exchange the ratified copies of the Treaty; this 1860 Japanese Embassy to the United States would be the first Japanese formal diplomatic mission to any Western country.

Provisions of the Treaty

The treaty firstly established that the United States would appoint a diplomatic agent to reside in Edo, as well as a number of consuls to reside at and oversee activities at the treaty ports; in return, Japan was free to appoint a diplomatic agent to be resident at Washington, as well as to dispatch consuls to major American ports. Further, the diplomatic agents and consuls of both countries would enjoy freedom of movement within one another's countries; the treaty did not provide for freedom of movement for regular citizens.

The President of the United States would, if requested, serve as a mediator in discussions or disputes between Japan and any of the European powers, and Japanese ships would enjoy aid and assistance from American ships, or American consuls in foreign harbors. This formed an early context, or initial precedent, for President Theodore Roosevelt to serve as mediator in the negotiations which led to the Treaty of Portsmouth which ended the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.

A series of ports would be opened to American ships, including Shimoda and Hakodate which were already opened, Kanagawa (Yokohama) and Nagasaki as of July 4 1859, Niigata as of Jan 1 1860, and Hyôgo as of Jan 1 1863. Six months after the opening of Yokohama, Shimoda was to be closed to American consular residence and commercial activity. Within the treaty ports, Americans were to be free to lease land, purchase buildings, construct homes, businesses, and places of worship, and to worship freely, but were prohibited from building any sort of military fortifications. The Japanese were prohibited by the treaty from building any sort of fence or wall around the American settlements which would prevent free movement in and out of the settlement. Americans were also to be free to reside in Edo as of Jan 1 1862, and in Osaka as of Jan 1 1863, and to be free to engage in commercial activities in those cities without the intervention of Japanese authorities. The article on freedom of religion not only provided for protections for the Americans, but also provided that Americans were prohibited from damaging Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples, and from otherwise insulting or injuring Japanese religious practices or objects of worship.

Stipulations were given for the areas within which Americans were to enjoy freedom of movement; in most of the ports, this was to be an area of 10 ri (expanded from seven at Shimoda and five at Hakodate), with exceptions for Hyôgo and Osaka, as Americans were to be prohibited from coming within 10 ri of the Kyoto Imperial Palace, an exclusion zone which in effect prohibited Americans from the entire city of Kyoto in the process. The area of freedom of movement around Nagasaki was also designated separately. Those convicted of certain crimes were to lose their privileges of free movement and/or of residence within Japan.

Extraterritoriality was granted to Americans in Japan, who would be tried in American courts even for alleged crimes against Japanese, while Japanese were to be tried in Japanese courts even for crimes against Americans. American consular courts were to be made available for Japanese to file civil lawsuits against Americans, and Americans were to be free to file suits in the Japanese courts, against Japanese defendants.

The Treaty banned the importation of opium into Japan, and surrendered tariff autonomy,[2] containing a variety provisions specifying the types and rates of taxes to be paid for imports and exports, as well as providing for foreign currency to be accepted throughout the country as equivalent to Japanese currency, per its weight in gold or silver. It provided, also, for the Japanese government to be able to purchase ships and other military equipment and materiel, and to hire American naval and military men, scientists, and craftsmen. This set the foundation for the Meiji period hiring of a number of oyatoi gaikokujin - foreign experts in the sciences, arts, politics & governance, and military matters - to aid in or guide Japan's modernization/Westernization efforts.


  • Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 176.
  • Mitani Hiroshi, David Noble (trans.), Escape from Impasse, International House of Japan (2006), 273-283.
  1. Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan, Oxford University Press (2013), 53.
  2. Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan, Oxford University Press (2013), 51.