Townsend Harris & Zenpuku-ji Temple

Back in June last year I reviewed the rather poor 1958 film ’The Barbarian & The Geishaas part of the Films Set In Japan feature on this site. The main man in that film was Townsend Harris played by a fairly under-par John Wayne. It may have been Commodore Perry who first opened trade between the US and Japan in 1853 but it was Harris who became the first Consul General to the Empire of Japan three years later.

By 1859 the American government had set up in one of Tokyo’s oldest temples, Zenpuku-ji temple which is at 1-6-21 Moto Azabu and wasn’t exactly easy to find the other day with  just the address code and no map! I must have cycled round the area many times trying to locate it before taking a chance up some side street where I eventually found it.

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These temple grounds have a monument in the centre dedicated to Harris which was one of my reasons for visiting this place. From successful New York merchant and minor politician to the first US Consul General to Japan, Harris negotiated the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1858 and basically opened up Japan to foreign trade and culture in the Edo period. The America-Japan society dedicated the stone monument in 1936 on the spot where the first American legation set up. Of course there is still a level of discrimination against foreigners in Japan but its nothing compared to the enormous hostility that Harris experienced so many of us can be thankful for his impact. He can be held responsible for Western influence in Japan’s economy and politics which can be read as a mix of good or bad things depending on your perspective!

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For me, it was the film that brought the name of Townsend Harris to my attention and though the primary plot is essentially true the love affair subplot is a work of fiction and perhaps one of those things where a theatrical and artistic license is used to make the story more appealing to cinema audiences.

In the movie, Harris has a romance with a geisha named Okichi but there is no evidence that this is true. Still, their story is one of folklore. Harris died in New York in 1878 and, according to legend, Okichi committed suicide in Shimoda in 1892.

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Another reason for taking in this place was to see something with an estimated age of 800+ years. The oldest ginkgo tree in Tokyo with a girth of 10m is housed within the cemetery ground lying beside the shrine. The grave of the man on the 10,000 yen note is also somewhere in this place but I didn’t bother hunting that down.

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Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘The Barbarian And The Geisha’ (1958)

You Only Live Twice‘ or ’Walk Don’t Run‘ may be the more famous of the older films set in Japan but I recently encountered one from nearly a decade before those. Of course I was very much aware of John Wayne as an enduring American icon before watching this but I had never seen any of his films in full and it seems that this particular one was a little different to his signature ones.

Chatrooms here in Japan are often full of foreigners living here complaining about all manner of things but if they think they are sometimes discriminated against then its nothing compared to the enormous hostility that Townsend Harris (John Wayne) and his helper Henry experienced when he was sent to 19th century Japan to serve as the first U.S. Consul-General in this country.

To the directors credit the film doesn’t do what many international films set in Japan do and have everyone speaking English all the time. There are significant amounts of Japanese dialogue with a voice-over updating the story throughout and Harris relies on his sidekick Henry to translate which is a common way for foreigner visitors to communicate here yet rarely used in films.

As the title implies the barbarian Harris attracts the attentions of a Geisha and sure enough we see the Geisha in performance; dancing, singing, playing the koto and entertaining to the sounds of the mysterious Orient. Her initial hostility and dislike inevitably turns to mutual respect and love. However, this human story only plays a small part in the scheme of things for the bigger picture is of the clash and conflicting interests between Japan; a traditionalist, internalised, isolationist country and the externalised rising nation of America.

 

There are some dramatic scenes regarding cholera epidemic and the destruction of the town which results in Harris going to Edo to convince someone or another to open up the country. Japan just wants to be left alone but Harris, being a man who gets things done through the power of words and persuasion rather than brute force, tries to convince Japan that it is a nation importantly located at the crossroads of international shipping.

With the film being set long before the accelerated growth in the country it is quite nice to get a glimpse of Japan from a different era to what I know. The film was a bit of a box office flop and its maybe easy to say why as it’s plot isn’t too strong and the romance of the film isn’t exactly gonna set your heart racing. However, it does cover the intended topic with relative ease and the visual elements of the picture are sufficient enough to help you get through the 100 minutes without reaching for the remote control.