“When a lame man sees others walking, he wishes to walk too; but how shall the pedestrian gratify his desires when he sees another one riding? We have all our lives been going hither to you, unable to get more than thirty degrees east and west, or twenty-five degrees north and south; but now when we see how you sail on the tempests and cleave the huge billows, going lightning speed thousands and myriads of miles, scurrying along the five great continents, can it not be likened to the lame finding a plan for walking, and the pedestrian seeking a mode by which he can ride?”
In April 1854, Yoshida ShÃ´in (1830-1859) and Kaneko Shigesuke approached J.W. Spaulding, captain’s clerk of the Mississippi, in the harbor of Shimoda. They handed over a document, written in classical Chinese, in which they expressed their ardent desire to sail to the West. Commodore Perry, well-known for heading the “Black Ships” to Japan and, as it were, putting an end to Japan’s self-chosen seclusion, reluctantly denied their request. He felt assisting Japanese to break their country’s laws – travel abroad was still prohibited at the time – would endanger his negotiations with the ShÃ´gunate.
“A few days afterward, some of our officers in their strolls ashore ascertained that there were two Japanes confined in a cage at a little barrack back of the town, and on going there were found to be the persons who had paid the midnight visit to our ships, and they also proved to be my unfortunate friends of the letter. They did not appear greatly down-cast by their situation, and one of them wrote in his native character on a piece of board, and passed [it] through the bars of his cage, to one of our surgeons present …”
“Regarding the liberty of going through the sixty States [Japanese provinces] as not enough for our desires, we wished to make the circuit of the five great continents. This was our hearts’ wish for a long time. Suddenly our plans are defeated. ... Weeping, we seem as fools; laughing, as rogues. Alas! for us; silent we can only be.”
- from the piece of board the two encaged men gave the Americans.
Yoshida ShÃ´in lived another five years. He was finally extradited to Edo and executed in 1859 – not, as far as I know, because of his attempts at going abroad, but for his continuous and extreme plotting and scheming, as well as teaching, against the ShÃ´gunate, driven by his unfailing loyalty to the emperor whose glory he aimed to restore. He was one of many young Japanese who thought that Japan was lagging behind, in danger of being subdued by foreign powers just like China, and who resolved to meet the challenge and to go abroad – in Yoshida’s case, with the ultimate purpose of reestablishing the Japanese emperor’s glory.
One of Yoshida’s students, Masaki TaizÃ´, later came to study at Edinburgh; stories that he told about his teacher made their way into Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Familiar Studies of Men and Books” (scroll down to “CHAPTER V – YOSHIDA-TORAJIRO”). Here’s a fairly detailed account of early Japanese encounters with Perry and his likes. All quotations above are taken from Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi (ed.): “Modern Japanese Thought”, Cambridge University Press 1998.