The court had not yet recovered from the shock of Perry’s unexpected visit when it was informed by the shogunate on September 19 that a Russian fleet of four ships, under the command of Vice Admiral E. V. Putiatin (1803–1884), had entered Nagasaki Harbor. On his arrival, Putiatin announced to the officials in Nagasaki that he had brought from his government a letter concerning trade between the two countries. His orders had initially called for him to proceed to Edo and conduct negotiations there, but the Russian government later decided it would be better to show respect for Japanese law by proceeding to Nagasaki, the port designated for intercourse with foreign countries, in this way establishing a contrast with the Americans, who had brazenly sailed into Edo Bay.
Soon after the arrival of the Russian ships, various Japanese dignitaries came aboard along with a Dutch interpreter. They were informed by the captain of the Pallada that Vice Admiral Putiatin had brought a letter from his government to the Japanese government. There was also a note for the Nagasaki magistrate that, it was said, should be delivered immediately. After some hesitation, the officials accepted the note. It contained a declaration in extremely polite language of the profound respect for Japanese law that had impelled the Russian fleet to call at Nagasaki rather than Edo. This was a mark of the czar’s ardent desire for harmonious relations between the two countries. The officials at once sent word to Edo reporting the arrival of the Russians and asking whether or not to accept the letter from the Russian government. After waiting some time for an reply, Putiatin sailed to Shanghai to pick up supplies and perhaps to find additional orders from his government. When there was still no answer even after he got back from Shanghai, he announced that he had no choice under the circumstances but to go to Edo.
The alarmed Nagasaki officials sent word by fast messenger to Edo, mentioning how much more accommodating the Russians were than the Americans and suggesting that the Russians might be used to blunt the edge of American demands. They added that if the Russian overtures were met with the usual suspiciousness, Japan risked incurring the enmity of a country that was twice as big as the United States.
Shortly before the messages from Nagasaki reached Edo, the shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi died, and the senior officers of the shogunate, in mourning and faced with organizing a new regime, did not get around immediately to responding to the problem of how to answer the Russians. After considerable debate, they decided to accept the letter from the Russian court, falling back on the precedent established by accepting the American president’s letter.
The letter (in Russian but with translations into Chinese and Dutch) from Count Karl Robert Nesselrode, the minister of foreign affairs, expressed his hopes for establishing peace and good relations between the two countries, for settling the disputed border between Japan and Russia on the island of Sakhalin, and for opening ports to trade. Most senior members of the shogunate favored accepting the Russian requests, but Tokugawa Nariaki, the shogunate’s adviser on maritime affairs, was strongly opposed, and the discussions dragged on. The shogunate finally agreed that the best course was to delay.
Putiatin grew increasingly impatient over the failure of the shogunate officials to return with an answer from Edo, as promised by the Nagasaki officials, and threatened again to sail to Edo if they did not appear within five days. Four days later, the tardy officials … arrived with the shogunate’s reply to Nesselrode’s letter. First, it said, the establishment of the border was a difficult matter that would require considerable time to determine. Maps would have to be drawn, consultations made with affected parties, and so on. Second, the laws of their ancestors strictly prohibited opening the ports. However, in view of world developments, the government did recognize the necessity of opening the country, but a new shogun had just taken office and the situation was still too confused to give an immediate answer. Reports would have to be submitted to Kyōto and to the various daimyos. After due consideration of the issues, they expected to be able to come up with a proposal in three to five years.
It is apparent from the message’s wording how desperately the shogunate wanted to stall off a decision; but even more important was the admission that despite the long tradition of isolation, the Japanese now had no choice but to open the country. This awareness of the change in world conditions was not communicated to the court, however, because of the anticipated outraged resistance by Emperor Kōmei.
Putiatin was disappointed by the reply. He moved now to the offensive, informing the shogunate’s representatives that with the exception of the southern part of the island of Sakhalin, all the islands north of Etorofu (Iturup) were Russian territory. Tsutsui replied that Japan had possessed Kamchatka as well as (it went without saying) the Kuriles and Sakhalin. He proposed that shogunate officials be dispatched to Sakhalin the following spring to ascertain the situation. In the meantime, the Russians would be free to obtain firewood and water at any place on the Japanese coast except for the vicinity of Edo. He promised also that if Japan made trade concessions to another country, they would apply to Russia as well.
Putiatin was still not satisfied, but he left Nagasaki early in the first month of 1854, saying he would return in the spring. The most influential men in the country were by now aware that the policy of isolation could not last much longer. As early as the seventh month of 1853, as we have seen, Kuroda Nagahiro, the daimyo of Fukuoka, had formally proposed lifting the ban on constructing large ships. In the eighth month, Shimazu Nariakira, the daimyo of Kagoshima, sent a letter urging the shogunate to purchase ships and weapons from Holland. Abe Masahiro (1819–1857), the chief senior councillor (rōjū shuseki) of the shogunate, who had long advocated building ships that (unlike the small fishing boats that operated off the Japanese coast) were capable of making ocean voyages, decided on October 21 to lift a prohibition that had been in effect for more than 220 years. The shogunate ordered several steam warships from the Dutch, and soon several domains started building large ships, intended for the shogunate. In August 1854 the shogunate decided on the flag to be flown on the new ships: a red sun on a white ground.