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Under orders from American President Millard Fillmore (1800-1874), Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858) commanded an expedition to Japan in the 1850s. After more than 7 months at sea, Perry and his squadron finally reached Uraga, at the entrance to Edo (Tokyo) Bay in Japan, on 8th July 1853.

The Perry Expedition carried a letter from the President of the United Sates to “the Emperor of Japan” (in fact, meaning the Shogun)[1]. This letter was drafted in 1851 by Daniel Webster (1782-1852), and was signed by President Fillmore. This was accompanied by another letter written by Perry himself. These letters contained the English words ‘religious’ and ‘religion’, though there were no equivalent concepts in Japanese at that time.

The letters were presented by Perry to the Japanese officials on 14th July 1853, at Kurihama (present-day Yokosuka). Chinese and Dutch translations were provided together with the English originals. However, it was the Chinese translation from which the widely-circulated Japanese translation was produced. This was the first time the Japanese had encountered the English language concept of religion.

The original English letters were translated into Chinese by the expedition’s chief translator, Samuel Wells Williams (1812-1884), and his Chinese assistant. The process of translation was not an easy one. William’s Chinese assistant spoke Shanghainese, while Williams could only speak Cantonese at that time. Speaking different dialects, they had trouble understanding each other. In addition, with regard to the generic notion of religion in the letters, the Chinese language had no equivalent either.

Whilst translating President Fillmore’s letter into Chinese, the phrase “religious or political” was interpreted as 政礼, meaning ‘governance and rites’. By the mid-nineteenth century, the English language had already established the notion of ‘religion’ as distinct from ‘politics’. In contrast, the Chinese terms of ‘governance’ (ching) and ‘rites’ (li) did not have the same binary relation as ‘politics’ and ‘religion’, and carry very different nuances. Whilst ching implies the ruling of a territorial country by the imperial authority, li denotes the code of human conduct encompassing both the private and the public realms. Li renders the general sense of propriety and etiquette, which cannot be confined in the modern western notion of ‘religious’.

The Japanese version of the letter inherited the Chinese phrase 政礼 (governance and rites) in place of the English phrase “religion and politics”. When it came to be bilaterally translated into Japanese, however, the meaning was once again transformed. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Chinese ideograph, ching政, was read in Japan as matsurigoto, which is derived from the word matsuri, meaning ‘to worship’. The concept of matsurigoto indicates that the purpose of human governance was “to celebrate the deities who created the realm and the people” (165). It contained an element which can be regarded as ‘religious’ in the modern sense.

As for the Chinese concept of li (rites), it was read as rei in Japan. While the Chinese concept of li represents the Confucian concept of propriety, in mid-nineteenth century Japan, the notion of rei was understood as norms of respecting existing social hierarchy. In this conceptualization, it is very hard to regard rei as the equivalent to the western notion of ‘religious’ as distinct from ‘political’. The Protestant notion of private faith, as articulated by the term ‘religious’, was bilaterally translated into the Japanese concept of rei, as a set of cultural codes which encompassed the entire social practices, including governance.

A similar transformation of meaning can be found in the process of the bilateral translation of Perry’s letter which accompanied President Fillmore’s letter. Whereas Williams used the term li to translate the adjective ‘religious’ in Fillmore’s letter, he chose the Chinese word kiáu教, for the noun ‘religion’ in Perry’s letter.

As Williams’ own publications in Sinology indicate, the mid-nineteen century Chinese notion of kiáu was much broader than the Western concept of religion as private faith. For example, the definition of kiáu in Williams’s 1856 dictionary is: “To instruct, to teach, to show how; to command, to order; precept, principle, rule; doctrines, tenets; a religious sect, a school, or those who hold to the same opinions” (144). In addition, kiáu indicates a kind of hierarchical harmony between the old and the young, and between ruler and subjects (372). It is also a kind of teaching to be transmitted from the old to the young, and from ruler to subject (372). The notion of kiáu was much broader than the Western category of religion, with a strong sense of ancestral traditions, which included families and the state.

The Chinese character for kiáu was employed in the Japanese translation of Perry’s letter. In the Japanese language, the same ideograph is read kyō. It is also pronounced oshie. As kiáu does in Chinese, the Japanese notion of kyō or oshie refers to the generalized idea of teaching or teachings. However, the Japanese concept of kyō or oshie seems to have moved away from the strong hierarchical connotation which is apparent in its Chinese meaning. For the Japanese, it meant a kind of systematic knowledge constituting the basis for public morality and the outward form of state ritual (161). In this sense, it was likely that such things as the constitutional systems and state ceremonies in Europe and America, would have been categorized as kyō by the Japanese (162). In this light, the tacit distinction between religion and the magistrate, which Perry made in his letter, almost completely disappeared in the Japanese version.

Following on from the Perry Expedition, President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) appointed Townsend Harris (1804-1878) in 1855, to be America’s first consul to Japan. Harris opened the first US Consulate in Japan in 1856. He successfully negotiated the Treaty of Amity and Commerce (also known as ‘Harris Treaty’) of 1858, in which he inserted a clause on ‘religion’.

The American projection of ‘religion’ onto Japan in the mid-nineteenth century was an integral part of America’s Christian imperialism, powered by its self-belief in its divine mission in the world. The generic idea of ‘religion’ was brought to Japan by the Perry expedition, and subsequently by Harris, in this cultural context. These issues are fully examined in my forthcoming article, ‘American Imperialism and the Japanese Encounter with “Religion”: 1853-1858’, which will be published this year in the special issue of the Sapienza University of Rome’s Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni.

[1] Perry mistakenly thought the Shogun was an emperor, while the Japanese historically conceptualized the Shogun as the Emperor’s military commander.