The Tycoon of Japan: The Japanese Origins of the Word Tycoon

The Tycoon of Japan: The Japanese Origins of the Word Tycoon

The word tycoon conjures up images of wealthy industrialists–or at the very least Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly. It may not summon the image of a Japanese warlord, yet that is the original meaning of the word. Tycoon is derived from the Japanese word taikun (大君, Great Prince), a term used to refer to the Shogun. The story how it entered the English language is one of a crisis of communication and the fancy of an American Secretary of State.

When Commodore Matthew Perry arrived off the shores of Japan in 1853, his mission was to open the country to American trade. Japan had been a closed country where foreigners were not allowed since the early 1600s under a policy of seclusion, or sankoku (鎖国). The policy was not absolute but had prevented the United States and other countries from attempting to open trade.

Upon his arrival near Edo (modern day Tokyo), Japanese officials attempted to order Perry to leave for Nagasaki, the only port that foreigners could enter. Perry refused and demanded he be allowed to deliver a letter from President Millard Fillmore to the Emperor of Japan. Japanese officials were at a loss as to how to reply to his demand as American intelligence on Japan was flawed. Although there was an Emperor, it was the Shogun who held real power in Japan. Perry however, was not to be dissuaded. He insisted his letter be accepted by emissaries of the Emperor or he would resort to violence. The Commodore had taken to heart the advice of Captain James Glynn, who had led an earlier attempt to open contact with Japan. Glynn recommended any future negotiations be backed up with a show of force. It was partly for that reason that Perry arrived with what is now modern day Tokyo Bay with four ships, two of them steam powered and belching black smoke into the skies. The black painted hulls of the squadron and black smoke gave the ships their enduring Japanese name: the kurofune (黒船), the Black Ships.

In advance of the expedition, Perry had new Paixhan guns installed on two of his ships, each one capable of lobbing explosive shells deep into Edo from his position offshore. Fire was the greatest threat the city of wood and paper faced and an assault by the American ships would devastate Edo. Japanese officials, fully aware of the damage Perry’s fleet could inflict, were at a diplomatic quandary. The Shogun was technically only a military commander, as a direct translation of the word shogun (将軍) indicated, hardly the rank Perry demanded to contact. In order to impress upon the Commodore the high rank of the Shogun, the term taikun, or Great Prince, was used. Taikun had been used before in diplomatic exchanges between the Shogun and other nations. Perry accepted the emissaries of the Great Prince and handed over his letter. He returned the next year and with the signing of the Convention of Kanagawa, Japan opened to American trade.

Perry’s mission was an immediate sensation in the United States. In recognition of his command, Congress awarded him $20000, worth $500000 in 2016 dollars. Perry spent the final years of his life writing a three volume report of the expedition entitled Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan. He died shortly afterwards in 1858. Excerpts of the report were published in American newspapers and the word tycoon was regularly used to refer to the leader of Japan.

Secretary of State John Hay was particularly taken with the term, as it bore with it connotations of power and the stereotypical concept of a mysterious and distant Asia. As such, he used it to refer to President Lincoln, calling him the Tycoon. From Hay’s penchant to call Lincoln the Tycoon and the repeated use of tycoon in the American press, the word entered popular culture. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the word Emperor was used for Japan’s leader. Tycoon remained in the vernacular, keeping the connotation of an important person. However, it was not until after World War I that the word came to specifically mean a business magnate.

As for Perry, his role in Japan’s opening and eventual transformation has not been forgotten. He appears occasionally in anime, such as Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei where he is portrayed as being unable to stop opening things.

References

  • The History Of How A Shogun’s Boast Made Lincoln A ‘Tycoon’ – http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/10/14/232119964/the-history-of-how-a-shoguns-boast-made-lincoln-a-tycoon
  • John Hay and John Nicolay in the White House – http://library.brown.edu/cds/lincoln/Lincoln_Hay/whitehouse.html
  • The Capital of the Tycoon: Three Years Residence in Japan by Sir Rutherford Alcock.

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