Samurai, Shoguns & the Age of Steam

Ron Clough shows how the arrival of the railway in Japan helped break down suspicion of foreigners and ushered in the country’s modern industrial expertise.

In 1853 Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the U.S. Navy arrived with a small fleet in Tokyo Bay and coerced the Japanese into bringing to an end a period of 250 years of self-imposed seclusion. This seclusion had not been total, and knowledge of developments in other parts of the world had been brought to Japan via Dutch and Chinese traders who had been granted licenses to trade at Nagasaki, Japan’s only official gateway to the outside world, and also from a few Japanese castaway sailors lucky enough to have avoided execution on their return - the almost invariable fate reserved for those feared to have been contaminated by contact with foreign lands.

The government of the Tokugawa shoguns, the military caste who controlled the Emperor, was therefore well aware of the ominous advance of Western power towards the East, and of the defeat of China, from which much of its culture derived, by superior European technology in the Opium War of 1841. In this way, even before Perry’s arrival, the Japanese knew of the existence of railways. The first confirmed mention of railways appeared in 1846 in the Fusetsu-sho (regular reports of activities outside Japan presented by the Dutch to the shogunate), which referred to a French plan to build a railway across the Isthmus of Panama, and they were mentioned fairly regularly after that.

In 1851 Nakahima Manjiro, a returned shipwrecked sailor fortunate enough to have escaped the usual execution, gave an account of a railway journey he had made in America in his Narratives of a Castaway:

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