The origin of the Temple seems unclear, though it certainly existed as a Shingon Sect in the latter half of the 16th century on a hill near the present location. Records show that during the era of Emperor Goyozei (1571-1617), the Temple changed its denomination to the Soto Sect.
In 1848, new structures including a 12.6-by-13.5-meter main hall were built at the site where today's Gyokusenji stands. It must have been a gorgeous hall for the deserted fishing village of Shimoda.
The Temple had been standing quietly until August 1855, when the first American Consul General Townsend Harris (1804-1878) landed Shimoda and chose the new and spacious Temple as his residence-cum-consulate. Nowhere else in Shimoda were there any suitable houses to accommodate him and his group. At the same time, he opened the first American consulate in Japan in the Temple.
Japan had long been holding to the national isolation policy since 1636, closing off to foreigners except for the Chinese and the Dutch. It was U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry (1794-1858), however, who pried open Japan's door in 1853 with a fleet of heavily armed black ships, sailing in near the coast of Uraga, the other side of Kamakura of the Miura Peninsula, and negotiated with the Tokugawa Shogunate for a treaty to open up Japan's harbors. He brought President Fillmore's letter addressed to the Shogun, threatening that if refused, Japan would face a losing war. Back then, whaling was booming in the Pacific Ocean. Plenty of whaleboats such as now preserved at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, may have been operating near Japan's coast. (So many wholes were caught by then that whales were near extinction. They used whales oil for light and others. Later, crude oil displaced whales oil.) They desperately needed water, food and coal.
In Tokyo Bay near today's Haneda Airport, Perry fired cannons to show how powerful their arms were. In addition, what he brought with him were modern conveniences like telephones, cameras and a steam locomotive, one-fourth the real size manufactured in Philadelphia. He displayed them to the Japanese. Laying a railway, he made the locomotive really run in front of many spectators. All were amazing to the Japanese and were enough to make them recognize anew how far advanced the American technology was. The government had to decide whether or not to lift the isolation policy. The conservatives insisted on fighting against the foreigners to keep Japan closed, whereas the liberalists demanded to establish diplomatic relations with foreign countries.
A year later in 1854, Japan reluctantly signed the Treaty of Peace and Amity with America and agreed to open two ports: Shimoda and Hakodate in Hokkaido. It was signed at Ryosenji, a Nichiren Sect temple in Shimoda. Following the Treaty, port of Shimoda was made open to American ships, and Townsend Harris was dispatched as the first American Consul General. Accompanied to Harris was Henry Heusken (1832-1861), a Dutch-speaking secretary and interpreter for Harris. He was born in Amsterdam and immigrated into New York in 1853. Back at the time, Dutch was the official foreign language in Japan since the Netherlands was the only Western country Japan had been getting in touch with despite the seclusion policy (it was solely for trade purpose), and few Japanese understood English. At the negotiation table, what Harris spoke had first to be translated into Dutch by Heusken and Dutch-speaking Japanese interpreted it into Japanese for Japanese negotiators. (Note. The Netherlands had a factory in Dejima, Nagasaki. Through this channel, a great deal of Western civilization and technology, medical science in particular, were introduced into Japan despite the isolation policy.)
It should be remembered that the Temple was lenient enough to accept the burial of American marines in the Temple's cemetery, who died while they were in Japan. The first such marine was 21-year-old G. W. Parish from Connecticut, who accidentally fell from a mast of the flagship Powhatan on the day anchoring at the port of Shimoda and died several hours later. He was buried cordially at the Temple on May 5, 1854. This was one reason Harris chose the Temple as the American consulate. Later, four more marines were buried here. Today, there are eight such graves in the Temple's cemetery, five for Americans and three for Russians.
While in Shimoda as the first consul, Harris persuaded the Shogunate to sign a commercial treaty urging Japan to open its market. In December 1857, he met with the 13th Shogun Iesada Tokugawa (1824-1858) in Tokyo, and finally succeeded in entering into the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in July, 1858. It was made of only 14 articles, but secured commercial and diplomatic privileges for America and provided for the opening of five more ports including Tokyo and Osaka, guaranteed the extraterritoriality of American citizens living in those ports and cities. Soon afterward, Japan concluded similar treaties with Russia, Great Britain, the Netherlands and France. To the Japanese, however, the treaties were far from equal and Japan had long to suffer the unequal terms of those treaties thereafter. Japan had no right, for example, to put on trial those foreigners who committed crimes.
With this background, the Temple is well known to the Americans, and ambassadors to Japan often visit here. Even President Jimmy Carter, the First Lady and their daughter Emmy, to name but a few, visited the Temple on June 27, 1979, while they were on official visit to Japan to attend the Economic Summit held in Tokyo.
The main object of worship is a sedentary statue of Shaka Nyorai flanked by two attendant Monju Bosatsu (Manjusri Bodhisattva in Skt.) at its left and Fugen Bosatsu (Samantabhadra Bodhisattva in Skt.) at its right, forming the Shaka Trinity. The Temple does not have records to show when and by whom those statues were carved. Also enshrined in the hall are a standing statue of Jizo Bosatsu (or Ksitigarbha in Skt.) and Yakushi Nyorai (Bhaisajyaguru vaiduryaprabha in Skt.)
Before Harris opened the Consulate here, the hall was remodeled to a great extent. All enshrined statues, Buddhist altar fittings, articles and related accessaries were moved to a separate structure, wherein religious services were performed. Harris did not allow to hold funeral ceremonies in the Temple. On the occasion of villagers' death, the Temple had to perform funeral services at parishioners' home. The left-hand side room of the hall with a space of 13 square meters was remodeled for Harris' bedroom and another 13-square-meter room on the right was for Heusken's. Others were converted to office and reception rooms. In addition, priest's living quarters were occupied by five Chinese servants Harris brought.
Townsend Harris Memorial Hall
In the center of this hall are life-size models of Harris and a kimono-clad lady, probably Okichi (see below), catering to him. On display are mostly Harris related materials such as tools he used, his writings, etc. While Harris was living here, he once fell sick. Tokugawa Shogunate sent one of the best physicians for him to Shimoda. What Harris asked for at the time was cow's milk. Back then, the Japanese did not have custom to drink cow's milk, and were surprised to know Harris drank it. But, they learnt cow's milk helped Harris recover from the sickness and they began to drink it. In front of the main hall is a monument with the relief of a cow, which indicates that the Temple is the birthplace of milk production.
Born in Hudson Falls, upstate New York in 1804 as the youngest of six brothers and sisters. He joined his brother in 1817, who was a chinaware trader in Manhattan. An enthusiast of education, he became the president of the New York City Board of Education in 1846 and contributed to establishing the City University of New York the next year. To commemorate his achievement, the university has the Townsend Memorial Hall in its campus. After 1846, he began to show interest in trades with Asian countries, setting foot on Shanghai in 1853. Hearing the news that Commodore Perry succeeded in signing the Treaty of Peace and Amity with Japan, he applied to the government for a post of the first American consul in Japan. Staying in Japan for six years, he left for America in 1862. At the time of his arrival to Japan, he was obviously an unwelcome guest. When he left for America in 1862, however, the 14th Shogun Iemochi Tokugawa (1846-1866) was unwilling to part from him. In remembrance of years of friendship, he conferred a fine Japanese sword on him. Harris came back home to Manhattan amid the Civil War, and presented the sword to Ulysses S. Grant. His life in Manhattan was not always happy. Founding the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, he died 16 years later in 1878 and was buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York city. He remained unmarried all his life.
He never saw his homeland again. In 1861, Prussian envoys came to Japan with an aim to conclude a similar treaty with Japan. Heusken served the envoys as an interpreter. But, he was assassinated by a Japanese rightist samurai on his way back to American consulate in Tokyo. The Shogunate paid a compensation of US$10,000 to Heusken's bereaved family.
Shimoda and Townsend Harris may remind almost all Japanese of a famous story relating to a young lady who was forced to serve Harris at night. Shortly after Harris began to reside in the Temple, a 17-year-old girl named Kichi was called for to attend on him. It was a sheer shame for a girl to be a mistress, let alone for a foreigner. There aren't enough records or evidence to show how long she served Harris so as not to expose her to public disgrace. Nor did she say herself anything about her rendezvous. Some says she was with him for only a week, while others insist roughly four months. Her life after parting Harris was not happy at all and she took her own life by leaping into a river in Shimoda in 1890 at age 49. Memorial service takes place on March 27 every year at the site where she drowned herself. She was called "Tojin O-kichi in Japanese, or "O-kichi of the foreigner" in contempt of her deed, and her affairs with Harris were often dramatized and novelized. (Note: "O" of O-kichi is an honorific.) However, Kichi was not the only woman who served the foreigners at the Temple. During the three-year period Harris stayed in Shimoda, there were four more young girls, one for Harris and the other three for Heusken. At the time both began to reside at the Temple, Harris was 53 years old and Heusken was 23.
The Time magazine carried an article regarding Okichi in November 2004.
In September 2008, a drama based on Okichi's story was played at Vienna's Theater in der Josefstadt under the title of "Die Judith von Shimoda", which was made by Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), a German poet, playwright, and theatre director. The original story was written in 1930 by Japanese playwright Yuzo Yamamoto (1887-1974). Shimoda is the name of the city where the Temple is.
(Updated April 2010)