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The Russian frigate Pallada that carried Vice-Admiral Yevfimy Putyatin to Japan.
The Treaty of Shimoda of 1855 was signed between the Russianmarker Vice-Admiral Euphimy Vasil'evich Putiatin and Toshiakira Kawaji of Japanmarker in the city of Shimoda, Izu Province, Japan, on February 7, 1855. It marked the start of official relations between Russia and Japan.


In the first half of the 19th century, Japan was a secretive island, isolated from the world by its self-imposed Sakoku trade policy. This period of isolation did not allow any trade with foreign countries, with the two exceptions of Chinamarker and Hollandmarker. Trade with these two nations was strongly restricted. Holland was only allowed to trade from the artificial island of Deshimamarker in the port of Nagasaki. Entering Japan itself was strictly prohibited.

Halfway through the 19th century, many colonial powers found themselves in an economic malaise and needed new markets to trade their over-produced goods with. The colonial powers quickly realised the potential of the Asian market, and with it, Japan. Japan was economically important since it was situated as a gateway to the Pacific Oceanmarker. It also had some strong military advantages. In the 19th century, the colonial powers (USAmarker, Great Britainmarker, Francemarker, Holland, and Imperial Russiamarker) were fiercely trying to gain as much ground in Asia as they could.

Being natural neighbors, Japan and Russia had early interactions before the treaty. There had always been quarrels concerning fishing grounds and territorial claims. Various documents speak of the capture of Japanese fishermen as far away as the Kamchatka Peninsulamarker (полуо́стров Камча́тка). Some of these Japanese captives were taken over the Siberian route to Saint Petersburgmarker. There, they were used in the education of Japanese language and culture. A practice also not unknown to Japan itself, which used Russian captives in a similar way. It illustrated a growing curiosity between the two countries.

Early in the 18th century, Japan was warned of a possible Russian expansion into the Far East. A Hungarian adventurer, named Baron Móric Beňovský, was banished by the Russian Tsar to the Kamchatka Peninsula. However, Beňovský was able to escape and eventually showed up in a Japanese harbor on the sub-tropical island of Amami Ōshimamarker. He alerted the Dutch on the island of Deshima of the Russian threat to the Far East. The Dutch immediately sent his warnings to the Shogun and his advisers (bakufu). The Bakufu immediately responded by appointing intellectuals like Hayashi Shihei to take appropriate defensive measures. The story of Baron Móric Beňovský is a legend. His interactions with the Japanese and his rescue of the inhabitants of Formosamarker out of the hands of the Chinese should not be taken too seriously. Many of the sources appeared to be false or quite simply impossible. But he did in fact alert the Bakufu of the approaching Russians.

In 1778, a merchant from Yakutskmarker by the name of Pavel Lebedev-Lastoschkin arrived in Hokkaidōmarker with a small expedition. He offered gifts, and politely asked to trade, but in vain. A second Russian-Japanese interaction took place in 1792. A Russian naval officer named Adam Laxman (alternately identified as Adam Laksman) arrived in Hokkaidō. First in the town of Matsumae and later Hakodate, he would attempt a first Russian trade agreement with Japan in order to break the exclusive trade rights of the Dutch. The Russian delegation did not succeed. Japan was enclosed in its Sakoku, isolating the country from any foreign contacts, except for Holland and China. The Japanese suggested that Laxman leave, but Laxman had one demand: he would only leave with a trade-agreement for Russia. After a long time and annoyed by the stubborn Laxsman, the Japanese finally handed over a document stipulating Russia's right to send one Russian vessel of commerce to the harbor of Nagasaki. Secondly, it also restricted Russian commerce to Nagasaki. Trade elsewhere in Japan was prohibited. A final note in the document clearly stated that the practice of Christianity inside Japan was prohibited. Laxman returned to Russia. Eventually, the Russians sent their vessel of commerce to Nagasaki, but they were not allowed to enter the harbor. The document was of no value. Should Nagasaki have decided to open its harbor to the Russians, Russia would have been the first Western country to break the trade monopoly of the Dutch. Angrily, the Russians returned to the mainland, not without consequence. Sources speak of at least two Russian officers who burned down Japanese fishing villages and fishing boats on the islands of Etorofumarker. These events introduced the Russian-Japanese dispute concerning the Kuril Islandsmarker. To the present day, this dispute remains.

The race to be the first to have the prestigious honor of opening Japan to the world was still a Russian dream. Tsar Alexander I of Russia had started a worldwide Russian representation mission under the lead of Adam Johann von Krusenstern (Крузенштерн). With Japan in mind, Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov was appointed to the mission. He was the founder of Russian-Siberian trade in fur and the ideal man to convince the Japanese. In 1804, Rezanov got a chance to exercise his diplomatic strength in Japan. On board the ship Nadezhda, he had many gifts for the Bakufu. He even brought along Japanese fishermen who had been stranded in Russia. But Rezanov could not do what so many had tried before him. An agreement was never reached. During the negotiations, the Shogun remained silent for months; next, the Shogun refused any negotiations and finally gave the Russian gifts back. Now Russia acted more assertively, and soon Russian navigators started to explore and map the coasts of the Kuril Islands. In 1819, the Russian colonel Vasily Golovnin was exploring Kunashir Islandmarker on behalf of the Russian Academy of Sciencesmarker. During these operations the Russians clashed with the Japanese. Golovnin was seized and taken prisoner by samurai. For the following 18 months, he was a prisoner of the Tokugawa Shogun and intended to learn more about Russian language and culture, the state of the European power struggle, and Western science. Through Golownin (and the Dutch), Japan could update its knowledge of nations and the world. Golovnin's memoirs (Memoirs of Captivity in Japan During the Years 1811,1812, and 1813) illustrate some of the methods used by Tokugawa officials.

Later on, these unsuccessful attacks would be disavowed by Russia and its interest in Japan would drop for a full generation. This would be the case until the Opium Wars in 1834. The Russian Tsar Nicholas I of Russia realised the territorial expansion of Great Britainmarker in Asia and the expansion of the USA in the Pacific Ocean and Northern America. As a result, he founded a committee in 1842 to investigate Russia's power in areas around the Amurmarker and in Sakhalin. The committee proposed a mission to the area under the lead of Putiatin. The plan was not approved because officials did not believe Russia had great commercial assets to be defended in these cold and desolate places. Nonetheless, a small expedition was set up to go to the Amur region. A small plan, but a step closer to a bigger plan. Japan itself didn't remain untouched by the events in Asia. The highly esteemed China was surprisingly (in the eyes of the Japanese) beaten by England in the Opium Wars. In light of these events, Japan gradually modernized its army with artillery fortresses, artillery schools, and a revision of its coastal defenses. This modernization was supported by the Bakufu, intellectual groups, and even the Japanese emperor himself. Although Japan was in isolation from the outside world, it refused to be blind to Western capabilities and dangers.

Putiatin Mission

A few years later, Russia learned that the U.S. was preparing an expedition to Japan. This expedition, under the lead of Commodore Matthew Perry, would provide more American influence in the Pacific region and Asia. Russia immediately recommenced its former plans to send a mission to the Far East. As was intended before, Putiatin was assigned as lead to the Russian mission. He left Europe with his squadron early in 1853. The order was to return only with a treaty at least as good as the Americans'. Also high on the agenda was a clear statement from the Japanese on what was Russian and what was Japanese in the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin. Putiatin was accompanied by famous Russian writer Ivan Aleksandrovich Goncharov, who served as his secretary. Goncharov was the author of Fregat Pallada (1858), in which he described the details of the voyage and the negotiations. It was a valuable description of how the Japanese received and processed foreign trade vessels and how the Russians viewed this.

Putiatin, having left in haste, saw his personal rival Perry reaching Japan before he himself would. Therefore, in the light of Perry's arrival, he proposed a partnership to Perry. The American Commodore rejected the Russian proposal. On July 8, 1853, Perry appeared in the Tokyo Baymarker. The Japanese government was shocked and throughout the city of Edo there was a heavy commotion. At this very moment, Putiatin was well on his way to Nagasaki and was already between Hong Kongmarker and the Bonin Islandsmarker. He carefully waited for the events to unfold and observed from a distance. Eventually, Putiatin landed in Japan on August 21, 1853. On this very day, Putiatin arrived in the harbor of Nagasaki with his squadron, composed of the mothership Pallada and four other vessels. He arrived in Japan only a few weeks after the departure of Perry's four American war vessels.

The appearance of the Black Ships of Perry in the Tokyo Bay would be the start of a new era in the history of Japan. Note that Putiatin's arrival and his own war vessels on the other side of Japan around the same time certainly contributed to the foreign pressure on Japan and its Sakoku. However, Perry and Putiatin were offered a clear "no". Records on how Putiatin and Japanese officials negotiated are rare and vague. Perry's negotiations were recorded and, for obvious historic reasons, well-preserved. Perry's negotiations are analogous with those of Putiatin and thus serve as a good comparison. Furthermore, the results of Perry's mission would benefit all future foreign delegations in securing treatys, including those of the Russians. In his visit, Perry handed over the demands of American President Millard Fillmore to the Bakufu, to the great discontent of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi

Four days after the departure of Commodore Perry from Tokyo Bay, the Shogun died due to a sudden illness. The political scene in Japan now was an empty one. The Rōjū ("Elder") Abe Masahiro, who in fact had all the political power within the Bakafu, surprisingly counseled the daimyos, aristocrats and even the Imperial Court. This was not done, especially because the Bakufu never allowed any interference into their governing activities. It was perceived as a sign of incompetence and would be the beginning of the end for the mighty Bakufu who had reigned for hundreds of years. The aristocrats, daimyos, and emperor gave negative advice: to reject the demands of the Americans and to resist any foreign interference. And so this was also the case for the Russian proposals. Putiatin and Perry had a somewhat differing approach to negotiating with the Japanese. Perry stressed the power of the American marines and the possible consequences for Japan. Perry threatened the Japanese that if the Bakufu would give a negative answer, the 100 Kurobunes already on their way would force an opening of Japan. Putiatin chose a more diplomatic and strategic approach in the hopes of undermining the American efforts. Russia offered protection against the Americans in case of an American attack. There was only one condition, an agreement on trade. Putiatin stayed for three months in Japan, as opposed to the relatively short stay of Perry. Perry had left as quickly as he had come. Putiatin left Japan in November 1853 and sailed for Shanghai with the same promise as the Americans. Namely, that he would return in the Spring to receive the answer of the Bakufu.

He kept his word and returned in January 1854 to continue his negotiations. At the end of February, he sailed to Okinawaandmarker finally to Siberiamarker, where he had to change flagships: from the Pallada to the Diana. The Russian delegation was back in Japan in late 1854, much later than the Americans. The Americans had succeeded in opening Japan with the Treaty of Kanagawa in early 1854. Furthermore, in 1854, the French and British were doing a manhunt in the Sea of Okhotskmarker and the Japanese Seamarker for Putiatin and his squadron in order to destroy it. To prevent a Russian treaty and Russian influence deep in Asia, the British approached the Bakufu to ask for Japanese neutrality should the British attack the Russians. Because of a bad translation, the British obtained an unintended Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty in 1854. The French and British would never find Putiatin.

On December 23, 1854, the big Ansei Tokai Earthquake shook Japan and surroundings. It had an estimated magnitude of 8.4 Richter. A 7-meter-high wall of water destroyed 900 homes in Shimoda and even more along the Pacific coastline of Japan. Putiatin's ships, carefully hidden and docked in Shimoda, were also destroyed. The Russian delegation now found itself stranded in Japan. During the tsunami, before the ships were destroyed, the Russian vice-admiral Putiatin ordered his forces to rescue the Japanese from the water. However, the flagship Diana was heavily damaged and would eventually sink. In an attempt to study the Russian way of building vessels, the Tokugawa ordered Japanese carpenters to build a new ship with Russian help. And so Putiatin was able to sail back to Russia, on May 8 1855, onboard the Russian-Japanese vessel, baptised Heda. The significance of this event is found in the fact that, for the very first time in Japan's history, a long-term project was established with a Western nation comprising Russians and Japanese under a same cause. This was extraordinary in a time of Sakoku which obviously was coming to an end.

Treaty of Shimoda

Three days and one tsunami after the destruction of Putiatin's fleet, the Japanese and Russians continued with their negotiations. Russia wanted the treaty because it needed Japan to further develop Siberia. Russia had expanded its empire from Europe over Siberia and Alaskamarker, all the way into northern Californiamarker on the American continent. In order to stimulate the development of these far away territories, it desperately needed an ideally situated country like Japan for local trade. Another, almost timeless reason was the USA. Russia wouldn't allow itself to lose any power to the Americans, who had obtained a treaty of friendship with Japan in early 1854 thanks to Commodore Perry. The Japanese found Putiatin to be a civilized and righteous man. Putiatin remarked to his Japanese colleague Tsutsui:

"If we would compare our age, you have the wise age of my father for I only have the age of your son. I offer my hand so I can serve my father and this way will not lose the way of trust."

On 7 February 1855, the long-awaited Russo-Japanese treaty of friendship was signed at the Chōraku-ji Templemarker in Shimoda by Putiatin as Russian Imperial Ambassador and Japanese representative Controller Toshiakira Kawaji. The treaty was based on mutual trust and understanding and would be the start of relations between the two countries. The treaty comprised a trade agreement which opened three Japanese harbors to Russia, one more than the Americans had. Article V stipulated that trade would be performed through the harbors of Hakodate, Nagasaki, and Shimoda. These harbors would provide goods and reparations. Also worth mentioning is Article VI, allowing Russia to appoint consuls in Hakodate and Shimoda. Furthermore, the treaty also partially defined the northern borders of Japan. The Northern Territories were a great burden in Russian-Japanese relations.

The Russo-Japanese border in the Kurile Islands was drawn between Etorofu and Uruppumarker. Everything north of this line was Russian, and everything south was Japanese (Etorofu, Kunashir, Shikotanmarker and the Habomaismarker).

Both parties also agreed to consider Sakhalin subject to both Russian and Japanese influence. Russia would therefore destroy its military base in Ootomarimarker in the south of Sakhalin.

Even though the treaty defined an agreement concerning the Kuriles, it remains a point of contention to the present day.

See also


  1. A.A. Preobrazhensky, “Pervoe Russkoe Posolstvo v Iaponiiu” (“The first Russian mission to Japan”)

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