The bombardment of Shimonoseki by the French warship Tancrède, Jean Baptiste Henri Durand-Brager, 1865.
Map of the allied attack on Shimonoseki, in September 1864.
The USS Wyoming battling in the Shimonoseki Straits against the Choshu steam warships Daniel Webster, Lanrick and Lancefield.
PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: The Choshu daimyo (warlord) vs. the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Straits of Shimonoseki, Japan
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The Choshu daimyo sought to prevent foreign vessels from trading with Japan.
OUTCOME: United States, Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands successfully joined in a naval effort to neutralize the daimyo’s resistance and to ensure open trade with Japan. The conflict greatly facilitated the opening of Japan.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Western allies, 17 warships, crewed by some 5,000 men who put ashore a loading force of 1,400 British, 350 French, 250 Dutch, and one squad of American troops; strength of daimyo’s forces, unknown
CASUALTIES: Few among the allies but including at least 5 Americans killed, 6 wounded and 13 British killed, 50 wounded; daimyo casualties unknown, but probably heavy in proportion to the numbers engaged.
TREATIES: Treaty of 1864 with the daimyo of the Choshu clan
In the mid-19th century, the northern shore of Japan’s Straits of Shimonoseki was controlled by the Choshu clan, whose daimyo threw his support behind the Japanese political faction that advocated the expulsion of all foreigners from the country. In accordance with this view, two of the daimyo’s ships attacked an American vessel anchored at the entrance to the strait, on June 26, 1863. This attack was followed the next month with assaults on French and Dutch ships from shore-based artillery. The U.S. Navy responded by sinking two of the daimyo’s vessels, and a French warship bombarded a village, razing it, and destroyed a shore battery. These actions did not deter the Choshu daimyo, whose batteries continued to fire on any foreign vessel that approached within range.
In March 1864, the British consul at Edo (Tokyo) organized other Western powers to make a concerted armed response to the daimyo’s actions, the object being to force Japan to abide by existing trade treaties. On September 5, 1864, a coalition flotilla of 17 warships from Great Britain, the United States, France, and the Netherlands advanced into the Straits of Shimonoseki and methodically pounded shore batteries along the Choshu coast. After three days of bombardment, all the artillery positions had been destroyed. Having neutralized the daimyo’s ability to resist, the allied naval commanders, at the mouths of their cannon, negotiated a treaty with the daimyo, whereby he guaranteed the safe and free passage of foreign trading vessels and agreed not to fortify the straits and to allow open trade at the port of Shimonoseki. The treaty also levied a large indemnity on the Choshu government.
The brief “war,” resolved by a small flotilla, had a profound effect on Japan. It ended the last resistance to foreign trade and foreign influence; indeed, it triggered an opposite trend: the embrace of many aspects of foreign culture, particularly where technology and weaponry were concerned. From this point on, Japan became an industrial and military force to be reckoned with.
Further reading: W. G. Beasley, trans. and ed., Select Documents on Japanese Foreign Policy, 1853–1868 (London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1955); Grace Fox, Britain and Japan, 1858–1883 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969).