Terada, Komura and Me:
History is about people
Like so many kids, I never much liked History in school. I got good grades because I could spit back the required data, but nothing stuck. I do remember making a great plaster map of Bolivia in grade school, or was it Brazil? The rest was a long drone of voices from the backs of teachers at the front of the classroom I don't remember a single history teacher by name, except the one who taught a semester on the popes of the Middle Ages in college. If any course could set off the boring buzzer, that should have been the one. Instead, the professor, like all good educators, managed to get out of the way and let the wild exciting stories of that era swarm all over us.
I became a local history writer a few years ago because, after half a lifetime on the Seacoast, I knew almost nothing about my own region and wanted to learn. I learn best by doing things, going places, by immersing myself in a topic to the point of drowning -- then clambering back to reality by writing about the experience.
The other day I got a call from the Yomiuri Shimbun. The caller said he represented Japan's largest newspaper with 10 million daily readers. He'd seen my history articles on the Internet, and could I possibly give their New York bureau chief Masaomi Terada a quick tour of historic Portsmouth? The editor wanted to learn first-hand about the famous Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Japanese tourists treat the Portsmouth Navy Yard, where the document was signed, and Wentworth-by-the-Sea Hotel, where the treaty delegates stayed, with reverence.
I didn't have a clue about the Treaty. Sure I'd seen the famous photos, a dozen stiff delegates facing off around a rectangular table. Although he never showed up in New Hampshire, President "Teddy" Roosevelt orchestrated the event from his New York summerhouse and won the Nobel Prize for his efforts. He is often shown posing with 6' 7" Russian diplomat Sergius Witte and 5' 4" Jutaro Komura from Japan. I'd even seen ancient films of the huge military parades through downtown Portsmouth, and the delegates buzzing around the Seacoast in sleek modern towncars, courtesy of the US government. But for some reason, the story didn't stick with me. Too obscure, too far away. This, I figured, was my one opportunity to make it real.
"Sure, I'll do it," I promised, and that night, like a kid cramming for an exam, I stuffed myself with dry Saltine-flavored facts. By morning I was a bleary-eyed encyclopedia.
I knew, for example, that by 1905, after a fierce year of fighting, the Japanese had the Russians on the ropes. They had halted what Westerners like Roosevelt saw as a fearsome period of Russian expansion under the czars. When the Russians attempted to get reinforcements to Vladivostok, the Japanese had picked off 19 of 20 Russian battleships as they steamed through the strait between Japan and Korea. The war had been a nightmare for the Russians, but Czar Nicholas had a seemingly endless supply of young soldiers. Japan, with limited forces and their homeland at risk, had much to lose if the war continued. Both sides wanted an end, Roosevelt had an idea, and New Hampshire was about as far from the battlefield as anyone could imagine.
For more than a month the delegates lived in the luxurious Wentworth Hotel, commuting to the boxy "Peace Building" at the nearby Navy Yard. It was hot. There was an infestation of mosquitoes. There was also an infestation of reporters. The first truly modern media coverage of any war brought writers from 120 worldwide newspapers to the scenic New Hampshire coast. Twenty-five new telegraph lines were installed for them. Outgoing Witte became a media darling - attending church in Kittery, holding press conferences - and soon won emotional support from the American public. Komura was less comfortable with the press and unaccustomed to the ways of the West.
The Russians made many small very public concessions early in the negotiations, but ultimately refused to budge on key issues. They would not give back land. They would not pay Japan $50 million in restitution. The czar was ready to resume the war and the treaty came down to an 11th hour decision. The Japanese emperor was nervous about renewed war and a possible confrontation with China. In the end, although Roosevelt appeared to side with the Japanese, he advised Minister Komura to relent on all his requests. With a nod from the Mikado, Komura relented and peace was declared!
Witte was ecstatic, prayed openly and burst into tears. Americans loved the show. The city of Portsmouth and the nation celebrated an historic new treaty. Roosevelt was a hero. But the Japanese delegates and the Japanese public felt tricked, even betrayed by the bully American president.
"You see, we thought we had won the war," Mr. Terada told me as we sat in the comfortable lobby of the Portsmouth Sheraton a day later. Japanese cartoons of the period show a Japanese warrior preventing a hungry Russian bear from devouring the world. American and European cartoons, however, show a tiny puppet-like Japanese delegate sitting by Witte's gigantic knee or kowtowing in the presence of mighty Roosevelt. Witte soothed the Japanese by announcing, "There are no victors here." Komura would likely not have agreed. Having done his government's bidding, Terada explained to me, Komura returned home to angry Japanese mobs. He died soon after.
"The people were not told the whole story. They felt we had lost face," Terada explained.
The Japanese, according to one historian, had beaten every Russian except Witte, and been triumphant everywhere except Portsmouth. Ironically the famous Portsmouth Treaty marks the beginning of what we call the Japanese era of Imperialism. Japan fades from the US radar screen, and reappears decades later at Pearl Harbor in World War II. Nobody's making a direct causal connection here, but the treaty that bears our name is more complex than it appears. History is always more complex - and interesting - than it appears in the textbook.
But time, while it blurs facts, heals wounds. I may have been the tour guide, but Terada was the teacher as we wound our way through the Seacoast in his rented Japanese-American car. The treaty was literally hosted by New Hampshire and the managers of the local hotels who covered all the costs - their eyes focused on glittering tourist dollars to come. Both the Rockingham Hotel and Wentworth-by-the-Sea were owned by local tycoon Frank Jones until his death in 1902. Jones had long offered them to presidents as the perfect convention spot, better even than the White Mountains where the convention was almost held.
First we hit the Portsmouth Athenaeum to review a significant collection of Russo-Japanese war books that are housed on the top floor under the watchful gaze of a portrait of Frank Jones. Then we zoomed by the Rockingham where the massive press corps stayed in 1905, and off to New Castle. Terada stared sadly at the bleak shell of the endangered Wentworth Hotel. For the Japanese, this site is an historic shrine.
"Can't your state of New Hampshire do something to save this building?" he asked.
"It doesn't exactly work that way in New Hampshire," I said. But the more I tried to explain our no- tax structure, the sweepstakes, the state's hands-off policy on historic monuments, the principle of live-free-or-die - the more confused I got.
After passing through the appropriate red tape, we got a private tour of the famous Peace Building at the Navy Yard. Unlike the Wentworth, it's on federal land and looks pretty much as it did at the turn of the century. Two small rooms have been set aside as a museum to the Treaty of Portsmouth. Terada and I reviewed the artifacts and snapped photos.
"I don't quite understand," Terada said politely at last. "Is Portsmouth Shipyard in New Hampshire or in Maine?" Ouch! I tried to explain the 200 year old border war between Kittery and Portsmouth, but it didn't come out right. I imagined how the story would sound to 10 million Japanese readers in the morning.
Among the artifacts was the chair used by Minister Komura during the treaty negotiations. With appropriate military permission, I asked Terada to sit in the famous chair so I could take a digital photo. He did so, hesitating at first, then beamed toward the camera. History, I could feel in my gut, was coming alive; the dusty story that had long been without meaning was taking on human scale. Terada, in return, asked if I would sit for a similar photo. There was a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt on the wall near by. I tried not to emulate his confident pose.
Terada and a friend and I had lunch at the Ceres Bakery. The tuna, he said, was very good. We talked of war and peace, of heroes and villains, of cell phones and cameras. He worried, openly again, about the Wentworth Hotel. We said we worry too.
At the time of parting, I came bearing gifts - my booklet about the history of Portsmouth, a T-shirt, a video. Terada was profuse with his thanks and reluctant to receive all the items.
"You are too generous," Terada said, but it seemed the other way around. He had come all that distance to visit my town. I had barely traveled two miles as the crow flies from my Portsmouth nest.
"You have brought me a greater gift," I explained with clumsy formality, the way one does to people who speak multiple languages and come from far away. He nodded as we shook hands, and this time, at last, I felt I had telegraphed my message home. I got a quick fresh glimpse of that distant war and this local treaty through his eyes. All the way from Japan, Terada brought a missing piece of Portsmouth. That makes him one of the best history teachers I've ever had.
By J. Dennis Robinson
To visit the Peace Building, contact the museum department at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard 207-438-2320.
For further reading: (1) Peter Randall, There Are No Victors Here: A Local Perspective on the Treaty of Portsmouth, Portsmouth Marine Society, 1985; (2) Eugene P. Trani, The Treaty of Portsmouth: An Adventure in American Diplomacy, University of Kentucky Press, 1969; (3) Raymond A. Esthus, Double Eagle and Rising Sun : The Russians and Japanese at Portsmouth in 1905, Duke University Press, 1988.
Copyright © 2000 SeacoastNH.com
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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