U.S. Legation, Japan

Above is a recently acquired cover with "U.S. Legation, Japan" imprint. Research revealed several interesting features. The first point of investigation was the addressee. Although somewhat difficult to read, it is addressed to "E.M. Van Reed Esq., No. 93. Yokohama." Eugene M. Van Reed is a well documented resident of Yokohama, Japan. Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, he arrived in Yokohama on June 30, 1859 and worked as a clerk in the American Consulate at Kanagawa. He also worked for Augustine Heard & Co. and as a trader. Later he served as Consul General of Hawaii. In 1861 Sadahide produced the woodblock print of Van Reed shown below.

The envelope addressed to Van Reed specifies his address as "No. 93, Yokohama." In the early 1860's, Yokohama has a designated section of the city for foreign residents. The map below shows the location of building number 93.

The next point of investigation on the cover was to determine the location of the "U.S. Legation, Japan." Townsend Harris was the United States Minister to Japan in the early 1860's and his legation was located in Yeddo (Tokyo). In this period Harris and his staff were the only American residents at Yeddo with the majority of Americans living in Yokohama or the other treaty ports. After comparison, it was determined that the address on the envelope was in the hand of Townsend Harris.

Van Reed attempted to sign a private treaty with the Prince of Satsuma to handle their foreign trade. This didn't come to fruition when the Japanese negotiator for Satsuma was arrested. As Townsend Harris had not been consulted regarding the matter, and felt Van Reed had usurped his authority, Harris tried to curtail Van Reed's activities. The letter that was enclosed in this cover may well have involved their ongoing dispute. As Townsend Harris departed Japan on June 30, 1862, the cover must have been sent before that date.

The final point of the investigation was to determine how the cover was sent from Tokyo to Yokohama. There is very limited information about internal mail handling in Japan at this period. Americans rarely traveled without Japanese accompaniment and travel was extremely limited. The usual method of conveying messages was by Japanese Yakunins (samurai officials). Presumably this cover was carried by such a courier onboard a Japanese vessel for the short trip from Yeddo to Yokohama.

This cover is the earliest example of mail carried within Japan that I have record of excepting Naval communications.

Richard Frajola (December 15, 2005)