Friday, July 01, 2005

11: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 11

In 1854, Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United State Navy sailed into Tokyo Bay with four wooden ships that belched black coal smoke from one stack and white clouds of steam from another. Until that time, Japanese exposure to western ways, and ships had been limited to the wooden merchant and exploration vessels that sank in Japanese waters and cast their surviving seaman onto Japanese shores. These shipwrecked mariners, now including the occasional American, had begun appearing in the early 16th Century when Spanish ships were crossing the Pacific from the Americas to the Philippines, and beyond, and Portuguese explorers had sailed around Africa, past India, and north from the Spice Islands to the coast of China itself. On occasion, a western merchant ship would call on the Japanese Shogun in a vain attempt to negotiate a trade agreement. The Japanese would have none of it. They traded with the Indochinese, the Chinese, and the Koreans, and that was that.

Perry changed that attitude in a blink. Awed at what they saw, and recognizing the technology of the Americans as far superior to anything previously known, the Japanese succumbed and granted Perry a treaty, opening one port to American ships for trade, and promising to return any shipwrecked American seamen to any U.S. vessel visiting that port.

Over the next fifty years, the Japanese would make one of the most remarkable societal changes ever seen in world history. A feudal, closed society where the Emperor served as a titular head of state under the power of the Shogun, the Emperor Meiji wrested control from the Tokugowa Shogunate, and set a course of change that swept the island nation from the crown to the lowest peasant. By the 1880s, Japanese educators were writing essays about Japan’s role in Asia, and by the end of the half-century since Perry’s arrival, they had become a major player on the world stage, trading with the U.S., and European nations, establishing not only a political presence in the world, but a political will at home. By 1905 they were embroiled in a war with a major European power, and in the historic naval Battle of Tsushima Straits, they defeated the Russian fleet using steel ships fashioned after those of the United States Navy. Indeed, it took Theodore Roosevelt to negotiate a Treaty of Peace between the two nations. Once Russia was out of the way, there really was not another power present in the whole of the Pacific other than the U.S. Suddenly, Japan could trade with the world, instead of just the Chinese. Cramming their own Industrial Revolution (and other revolutions of equal significance) into that 50 year period, the Japanese opened up entirely and became a full fledged member of the world community.

Their appetite for trade was voracious. Trading silk, coal, timber, rice, fish and minerals, the Japanese began to import steel from the U.S., rubber from French Indochina, and oil from Dutch Indonesia. Because they were on the winning side of World War I, they were given the former German enclaves in China. It was an entry into the Chinese mainland that they would later exploit in the years leading up to World War II.

Post World War II trade began with the rebuilding process. Routes over the sea were re-established after the convoys of the war had moved them to more remote regions to escape enemy threats. By the end of the 20th century, the airplane had taken over from the ship as the chief method of making shipments of a small size between continents, or countries, even intra-national shipments.

At the end of the 20th Century, the most remarkable event in the history of trade occurred: the introduction of e-commerce.

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Next: Part Twelve
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