August 2005 Issue

The Case of the Numismatic Chaplain

James C. Johnston Jr. was born in the historic Oliver Pond House in Franklin, Massachusetts where he has lived for 58 years. He holds B.A. and M.A. degrees in History and is the author of several books. He has also written more than 1,500 articles and monographs in The Numismatist, Linnís Stamp News, The Regional Recorder, and other publications.
   Johnston was a teacher in the Franklin system for 34 years and has been associated with Johnston Antiques since 1962. He is a well known appraiser of antiques, books, fine arts, stamps, and coins. He is a founding member of the Massachusetts Suburban Antique Dealers Association, a member of the American Numismatic Association, and the American Philatelic Society. He has also been President of the Franklin Historical Society since 1985.

    Johnston is also a well known lecturer whose topics cover a wide range of social history, antiques, coins, stamps, and the fine arts, as well as, politics and political and military history.


 The Case of the Numismatic James C. Johnston Jr.

In 1854, a most amazing event occurred. The Japanese, whose island empire had been closed to the outside world for more than two and a quarter centuries, signed a trade treaty with the United States at Kanagawa.

Frontpiece of Hawks' Book on Perry's Expedition to Japan.
Frontpiece of Hawks' Book
on Perry's Expedition to Japan.
Up until that time, only the Dutch had been allowed to trade with the Japanese. Nagasaki was the port set aside for the bulk of this trade. Before the Tokugawa Shoguns (the powerful real rulers of Japan) closed Japan to foreign trade. Up to that time, the Portuguese had been very active in Japanese life and trade.

The Portuguese missionaries were pushing the Catholic faith among the inhabitants of the empire with some degree of success. Now that posed a real problem for the Japanese power structure, because at the apex of theocratic rulership was the Mikado or emperor. The emperor was a god descended directly from Jimmu, the first god-emperor of Japan who created the island-empire by dipping a jewel encrusted spear into the sea. The water dripping from the spear formed the various islands of Japan.

Christianity taught that there was but one god and that the emperor was not he. So there's the rub. To the Shogun, Tokugawa, the solution was simple. Just decapitate all the Christians, toss out the Portuguese, embrace the Dutch at Nagasaki who were not interested in anything but trade and making money, and close to Japan to the rest of the world. Thus Japan was closed for more than two hundred years to the west.

For a Japanese citizen to leave the country and then return was punishable by death. For an outsider to intrude into the country was punishable by death. To allow Japanese coinage out of the country was punishable by death. Here then is our story.

The United States wanted to open Japan to the west. We wanted a treaty. The Treaty of Kanagawa was the result of the work of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858). Perry firmly educated himself and his officers in proper Japanese protocol and etiquette. For example, Perry would never allow himself to be visited by any Japanese not of very high rank. To deal with an inferior in Japanese society would be to lose face and all credibility.

Perry's Flagship off Jamestown St. Helena
Perry's Flagship
off Jamestown St. Helena .
Perry also brought the most powerful fleet ever seen in the Pacific up to that time to Japan to overawe the Shogun and his government. Power would also earn the respect of the Japanese. With the expedition, were scholars of all sorts who wrote exhaustive reports on all they saw. Eventually their work would be edited by Dr. Francis L. Hawks in a three volume work called Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to The China Seas and Japan, Performed in The Years 1852, 1853, and 1854 Under The Command of Commodore M.C. Perry, United States Navy. The title goes on a bit more, but I think you get the idea.

Commodore Perry pictured in a contemporary print by a Japanese artist.
Commodore Perry pictured in a
contemporary print by a Japanese artist.
There was also a fourth volume of maps. The set was printed for the members of the United States Senate by Beverley Tucker in 1856 and beautifully illustrated with hundreds of plates. Some were in full color.

There were two separate voyages to Japan by Perry. The first was to deliver a proposal from President Millard Fillmore to the Shogun, and the second voyage was to sign the treaty and overawe the Japanese with a huge trade fair on the beaches of Lew Chew consisting of: a half-size model railroad train, a full size Ferriswheel, all sorts of industrial machinery, and trade goods of all sorts. Along with American whiskey, the Japanese wanted all they saw and signed the trade treaty without too much fuss.

On Perry's ship was a coin collecting navy chaplain. No doubt one of the reasons he wanted duty in this fleet was the chance to collect a type set of Japanese coins. There were almost no Japanese coins in the west because of the prohibition of their leaving the country.

Silver Isshu Gin of 1853
Silver Isshu Gin of 1853.

Silver Ichibu off 1853
Silver Ichibu off 1853.

Silver Ichibu off 1853
Silver Ichibu off 1853.
At this point, the Americans with Perry's fleet had the freedom to visit a good deal of the Kanagawa area. One fine day our chaplain put on his uniform and his sword. He then took himself for a stroll through the streets of Lew Chew.

In those days, any Japanese below the rank of Samurai could be beheaded for any perceived infraction of law, or even decorum, by his social superior. Allowing a foreigner to have Japanese coins could result in such a punishment. This was not an attractive idea for a shopkeeper who was at the lower end of the social scale.

This was the society in which our numismatic chaplain was moving in search of four sided silver and gold coins. He visited shops around Kanagawa in Lew Chew seeking to trade United States gold and silver coins for Japanese pieces without success.

As time passed, the man of god suffered from an erosion of his patience. In one shop, he saw the merchant's coins in a bowl on the counter and once again tried in vain to effect a trade. Once again he was rebuffed.

At this point, the parson drew his sword, placed American coins of greater intrinsic value on the counter, and seized the merchant's bowl. The merchant became hysterical with fear of losing his head. The chaplin beat a hasty retreat to the flagship with his ill gotten treasure while the screaming merchant dashed off to the house of the lieutenant governor of Lew Chew with the story.

The poor man was assured that he had done nothing wrong by the official who took the American coins and told him that his bowl would be returned with its coins intact. The lieutenant governor, who supported a trade treaty with the United States, went out to Perry's flagship to tell the poor shopkeeper's story to the Commodore himself.

Perry received the lieutenant governor with the degree of formality which the situation demanded. When the Japanese official finished the story of the chaplain and the merchant, Perry sent for the numismatic parson. He ordered him to appear with the odd foursided coins and the bowl he had taken from the merchant's shop.

Silver Year Inspired by Western Coinage of the Meiji Period.
Silver Year Inspired by Western Coinage of the Meiji Period.
The man of god appeared shortly and when asked, told the story. Perry asked him if he knew of the consequences to any Japanese citizen who allowed a westerner to obtain Japanese coins. The chaplain squirmed a bit and turned his ill gotten prizes over to the Commodore with apologies.

The lieutenant governor returned the chaplain's coins to Perry. Perry was not a happy man, and most likely sorry that he could not behead the wayward chaplain. Instead he confined him to the ship for the rest of the fleet's stay in Lew Chew and the Kanagawa area.

Shortly after these events seemed to have been resolved, a present for the chaplain arrived on the flagship from the lieutenant governor. It was a sandalwood box, nicely carved, containing some prized Japanese coinage. This gift was received by the chaplain with both gratitude and surprise.

One thing is for sure. This minister was a serious coin collector who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. A collector should have passion for the hobby, but drawing a sword on somebody to get a rare find is a little bit over the top.

Type of coinage traded by Perry's Chaplain at Swordpoint for the poor Japanese
Type of coinage traded by Perry's Chaplain at Swordpoint for the poor Japanese merchant's four sided coins.
Those Japanese coins of the 1850's period are relatively easy to find these days. Almost any good coin show should yield a few dozen or so. Speaking of coin shows, in late July and August, I shall be at the following events: On Sunday, July 24, I shall be at Ernie Botte's Westford Coin Show at the Westford Regency Inn on Rt. 110 in Westford, MA. Rt. 110 is located off Exit 32 from Rt. 495. Show hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

On Sunday, Aug. 7, I'll be in Auburn at Tom Lacey's Greater Worcester Coin Show at the Best Western Yankee Drummer Inn, located on Rt. 12 just off Exit 10 from the Mass. Turnpike. Show hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. On Sunday, Aug. 28, I'll be back at Ernie Botte's Westford Show. I hope to see a lot of you in the month ahead.

I love getting your emails at JAMESCJ508@AOL.COM. Keep writing.


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