One hundred-fifty years ago this week, a treaty signed in Japan opening it to America also set in motion a century and a half of close relations between that island country and the Pacific Northwest.

It is hard to comprehend that so much bilateral history condensed into only 150 years.

The year of the treaty, 1854, marked the opening of Astoria's first public school. Not until 1856 was the town of Astoria incorporated. And Oregon won't celebrate its 150th state anniversary until 2009.

Most Americans know the national "big picture" story of how Commodore Matthew Perry sailed in his "Black Ships" into Japanese harbors in July 1853. He demanded a treaty with the US, and departed - vowing to return to sign the treaty.

Upon his return in March 1854, treaty negotiations resulted in the signing on March 31, 1854, of the Treaty of Kanagawa, in the seaside town now called Shimoda.

Photo courtesy Clatsop County Historical Society

"Ranald MacDonald: The Narrative of His Life" chronicles the life and adventures of the Astoria man who played a key role in Japanese-American relations 150 years ago.An element critical to the treaty's success has Astoria roots: Ranald MacDonald, of Astoria, trained the Japanese translators who facilitated Perry's U.S. mission.

MacDonald was the son of the Hudson Bay agent in Astoria (then called Fort George), and a local Chinook tribe princess, daughter of Chinook Chief Concomly.

Growing up, MacDonald fixated on visiting Japan, even knowing he could be killed or put in prison. For some 200 years, foreigners (excepting a few Dutch officials) had been forbidden to visit Japan.

MacDonald, because he was half Native-American, may have been interested in visiting Japan to investigate potential historical links between West Coast Native Americans and people of Northern Asia. He became Astoria's - and America's - first "person-to-person" ambassador to Japan.

MacDonald sailed on the whaling ship Plymouth heading for Asia's Pacific Rim. When near Japan in July 1848, MacDonald, then aged 24, bribed the ship captain to allow him to fake his own shipwreck and drift ashore in a ship's lifeboat. Not surprisingly, Japanese authorities imprisoned MacDonald.

At the time, no Japanese officials could translate English into Japanese or vice versa. While in prison, MacDonald taught English to over a dozen Japanese official Interpreters, who translated Japanese into Dutch and little else. The fact that the feudal Japanese government allowed this training was a signal that Japan knew that changes were coming to their closed, feudal society.

After 10 months of instructing Japanese, and compiling a rudimentary Japanese-English dictionary, McDonald left Japan with other shipwrecked American sailors on an American naval vessel that had arrived solely for this limited purpose. MacDonald remarked later on the kindness he felt toward the Japanese with whom he met.

He left behind Japan's first English-speaking translators. A student of MacDonald, Moriyama Einosuke, was Commodore Perry's official translator on his historic visit to Japan in 1853-54. Other translators trained by MacDonald played important roles during the early years of the Meiji era beginning a decade later, when Japan began modernization.

The psychological shocks from Perry's visit and success securing a treaty opening Japan to Americans ricocheted throughout Japan. Perry's visit and treaty accelerated the fall of the last feudal Tokagowa shogunate in 1867. The new ruler, Emperor Meiji, began to modernize Japan, throwing off its feudal heritage.

Even acknowledging the period of the 1930s and World War II, the strength and breadth of the relations between Japan and the Pacific Northwest is impressive today. Broad economic, cultural, personal, and touristic relations all knit together Japanese and Northwesterners. A plaque dedicated, in English and Japanese, to MacDonald stands in Astoria as a monument to his contributions.

In ceremonies last week, Japanese and American officials honored the close relationship between Japan and the United States in 2004. Gov. Ted Kulongoski issued a proclamation saluting the many links between Oregon and Japan existing today.

People of Clatsop County - who know more about the unlikely story and key role Ranald MacDonald played than do most Americans - also should salute the good work of one of their native sons. Without effective translators, the outcome of those 1854 treaty negotiations might have been different.

Walter Evans III is a Portland lawyer and seasonal resident of Clatsop County.


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