In this challenge, students explore Japan’s foreign relations by assessing the implications of proposals by American President Fillmore to open Japanese society to the international community. Students write a response to President Fillmore from the perspective of Emperor Komei.
A. Determine the most significant change regarding trade and relations that the United States President Fillmore asked Emperor Komei of Japan to consider in Fillmore's letter dated November 13, 1852.
Introduce persuasion techniques
Set the context for this challenge by inviting students to consider what they might do or say when someone has something they greatly desire but the other person is unwilling to share. For example, a student may want to borrow a friend's fashionable outfit or a new video game. Record suggested ideas for persuasion strategies; e.g., use a flattering tone and polite language, threaten, offer something of value to the person, point out the merits of the sharing.
Introduce the historical context
Provide a brief overview of the following aspects of Japan’s foreign policy during the Edo period:
- the Emperor controlled foreign trade
- only certain ports were allowed to handle specific kinds of products
- China and the Dutch East India Company had the right to visit Japan for commercial purposes
- other Europeans who landed on the shores of Japan were put to death without trial or imprisoned or expelled.
Explore U.S. foreign relations persuasion strategies
Point out that by the mid 1800s, the United States was interested in trading with Japan. Invite students to imagine the perspective of the United States at that time. What might the American President do or say to encourage Japan to change its policies about international trade and to become a trading partner? Discuss and record students’ suggestions.
Read President Fillmore’s letter
Present students with the letter dated November 13, 1852, from American President Fillmore to Japanese Emperor Komei sent via Commodore Matthew Perry and his Black Ships. Provide students with a copy of President Fillmore’s Letter (Background Information). Read the letter aloud to the class. As you reread the letter, discuss unfamiliar vocabulary; e.g., squadron, dominions, abstain, tranquility. Compare the actual proposals contained in President Fillmore’s letter with students’ suggestions.
Summarize and rate each proposal
Direct students to work with one or more partners to highlight the key proposals made by President Fillmore. Ask students to record a summary of the proposals. Direct students to look at the impact of these proposals based upon the Japanese perspective of the time as seen through the eyes of Emperor Komei.
Invite groups to consider the possible impact of each proposal on the following aspects of Japanese society:
- political well-being—adequate influence, self-determination, social order
- economic well-being—income from trade, importing of needed goods, good standard of living, job creation
- social well-being—cultural integrity: cultural connections, national identity, cultural expansion, satisfaction of basic needs.
Caution students about assessing a historical time period from a modern-day, Western worldview. Remind them that people in the past acted and behaved as they did in the context of the times.
You might want to adapt the chart Rating Each Effect in Rating Options (Support Material) to structure and assess this activity.
B. Write a likely response by Emperor Komei’s officials to President Fillmore based upon the Japanese perspective of the time.
Prepare formal response
After groups have completed their analyses, direct students to write, individually, a formal response to President Fillmore’s letter. Ask students to base their letters on the Japanese perspective as articulated by the Emperor of Japan. Students are to present and justify the likely Japanese position on each proposal.
Develop with the class the criteria for a likely response. Suggested criteria include:
- historically accurate—includes documented facts and is plausible for the time
- specific details—contains clear and precise details
- portrays historical worldview—shows understanding of the mindset and attitudes during the time period.
Invite students to share their letters with each other. Then share and read aloud the actual response by the Japanese authorities in Japanese Reply to President Fillmore (Background Information). Identify the common points and differences between students’ letters and the historical response. Help students understand why the Japanese authorities might have responded as they did.
Extension: Anticipate Commodore Perry’s response
Invite students to examine Perry’s response to the Japanese reply in Letter and Response of Commodore Perry (Background Information). Ask students to speculate on how Commodore Perry might have responded to the student-developed letters.