Townsend Harris, 1st Consul General to the Empire of Japan

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Townsend Harris, 1st Consul General to the Empire of Japan

Birthdate: (73)
Birthplace: Washington County, New York, United States
Death: February 25, 1878 (73)
New York, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Jonathan Harris and Eleanor Harris

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Immediate Family

About Townsend Harris, 1st Consul General to the Empire of Japan

Townsend Harris (October 3, 1804 – February 25, 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 US and Japan and is credited as the diplomat who first opened the Empire of Japan to foreign trade and culture in the Edo period. Harris's visit to Japan is the basis for Puccini's opera "Madame Butterfly".

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 [1] in July, 1856, where he opened the first US Consulate at the Gyokusen-ji Temple in the city of Shimoda, Shizuoka Prefecture [2], sometime after Commodore Perry had first opened trade between the US 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 US and Japan and paving the way for greater Western influence in Japan's economy and politics. Townsend Harris had the US Legation relocate at the Zenpuku-ji Temple from 1859, following the Treaty of Amity and Commerce.

He returned to the US in 1861. Upon his departure, senior Japanese diplomat Moriyama wrote to him "You have been more than a friend. You have been our benefactor and teacher. Your spirit and memory will live forever in the history of Japan."[3]

Harris was favorably impressed by his experiences in Japan at the end of its self-imposed period of isolation. He wrote: "The people all appeared clean and well fed... well clad and happy looking. It is more like the golden age of simplicity and honesty than I have ever seen in any other country".[4]

According to a persistent legend, Harris adopted a 17-year-old geisha named Okichi (お吉), who was heavily pressured into the relationship by Japanese authorities and then ostracized after Harris' departure, eventually committing suicide in 1892.[5] However, it appears that Okichi was merely one of Harris' housekeepers[5], and the Kodansha Encyclopedia states that Harris fired her after just three days of work.[6]


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?"[7] Masao Miyoshi asserts in his book As We Saw Them: The First Japanese to the United State (1860) that the restrictive lifestyle for Townsend Harris as ambassador in Japan "had forever molded the opener of Japan into a hermit" for the rest of his life while in New York City.[8]

Harris is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.[7]. In 1986, the nation of Japan presented a gift of a refurbished gravesite including paving stones, a stone lantern, a cherry tree, a dogwood tree, and two commemorative stones, in commemoration of the continuing respect and affection of the Japanese people for Harris.[3]

In popular culture

Harris was portrayed by John Wayne in the 1958 movie The Barbarian and the Geisha, directed by John Huston. Although the primary plot, dealing with Harris's attempt diplomatically to achieve detente between the U.S. and Japan, is essentially accurate, the subplot dealing with the love affair between Harris and Okichi is substantially fictional.[9]

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.

Harris was mentioned by a visiting Japanese dignitary in The Rifleman, in the episode "The Sixteenth Cousin".

Harris is seen in the 47th NHK Taiga Drama Atsuhime. He is played by Blake Crawford.

Harris's visit to Japan is the basis for Puccini's opera "Madame Butterfly".

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Townsend Harris, 1st Consul General to the Empire of Japan's Timeline

October 3, 1804
Washington County, New York, United States
February 25, 1878
Age 73
New York, New York, United States