Honoring a Man Who Helped Open Japan to the West

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The observance lasted but a few minutes. For that brief ritual, the visitors had traveled nearly 7,000 miles — from Shimoda, Japan, to Brooklyn, U.S.A. It might seem a long way to go to lay flowers on the grave of someone who has been dead these last 130 years. Not if you’re from Shimoda, though. Not if the grave is that of a New Yorker named Townsend Harris.

Many of you may now be wondering, Townsend Who?...

But in Shimoda, on the Izu Peninsula about 85 miles southwest of Tokyo, he is what Japanese would call ijin: a major historical figure.

“From kindergarten, students learn automatically about Townsend Harris,” Shimoda’s mayor, Naoki Ishii, said through an interpreter. “Shimoda people share the spirit of Townsend Harris.”

Perhaps a little background is called for. Forgive us for squeezing a century and a half of history into a couple of paragraphs, but that’s what passes for erudition in a column.

In 1853 Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States steered his fleet of “black ships” into the southern end of Tokyo Bay, spelling the end of more than two centuries of Japanese self-imposed isolation.

Three years later, under an appointment from President Franklin Pierce, Townsend Harris became the first American consul-general in Japan, setting up shop in Gyokusenji, a Buddhist temple in Shimoda.

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