SAG HARBOR, NEW YORK — Sag Harbor, New York. - On November 12, 1843, Capt. Mercator Cooper sailed the whaler Manhattan from this village at the end of Long Island, headed for the far Pacific. In March of 1845, he headed back toward the United States after a successful hunt, 19 kills, near the Kuril Islands.
He stopped at a small rocky island, hoping to find some turtles to vary the pork and sweet potatoes menu of his crew. Instead, sailors from the Manhattan found 11 emaciated men in rags living in a cave. The 11 immediately threw themselves face down on the ground. Nobody could understand a word of each other's language.
It was obvious the men were shipwrecked sailors. Cooper and his counterpart, Tokunojo, the leader of the castaways, did some navigation with sticks in the sand, and the American offered to take these small men 200 miles back to their home port, Edo -- which is now called Tokyo.
The American knew that Japan was closed to the world, but he did not know that Japanese sailors who made any contact with foreigners were considered contaminated and routinely executed if they returned home. Amazingly, two days later on the high seas, the Manhattan came upon another shipwrecked Japanese crew drifting in their shattered boat. Now he was bringing 22 men to Edo.
Cooper wrote that he had two objectives: ''The first was to restore the shipwrecked sailors to their homes. The other was to make a strong and favorable impression on the government in respect to the civilization of the United States and its friendly disposition to the Emperor and people of Japan.''
He wanted trade. The Americans had been trying to open Japan to foreign trade for a long time. But the last ship bringing home castaways, the Morrison in 1837, had been shelled and forced away. Cooper was luckier. Japanese officials came aboard, thanked him profusely, then in sign language -- a finger across the throat -- warned him any white man who left the ship would be beheaded.
Shogun Ieyoshi Tokugawa presented gifts to Cooper, with this message: ''Never come to Japan again.'' Cooper said the wind made it impossible to sail on the day appointed for departure. The shogun had the Americans towed 20 miles out to sea by 1,000 rowboats. This tale of the hermit empire is told in ''The Shogun's Reluctant Ambassadors'' by Katherine Plummer, just published by the Oregon Historical Society.
Cooper came away with good maps of Japan, which were then used by Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy on the 1853 voyage that finally opened Japan to world trade. And this week it is former Lt. George Bush trying to do the same thing -- again.
We have always had this trouble communicating with the Japanese -- or them with us. We did all right for a while after Perry's opening, but soon enough, in historical terms, we fought a terrible war over the control of trade and trade routes in East Asia. The Japanese fought it their way, planning in secret, dissembling in negotiation and launching a sneak attack. We fought it our way, obliterating them.
And we may do it again. This is a face-off of two extraordinarily xenophobic nations, both simply convinced that they are better than anyone else. The history of my country tells me that we will go to war, under one pretext or another, before accepting a significant and seemingly permanent reduction in our standard of living.
The history of Japan, as I understand it, tells me that it will (may already) prepare in secret for the possibility of armed conflict with the United States -- or to counter the negotiating leverage of overwhelming American military superiority. Some Asian leaders, I am certain, will tell Bush in private this week that they believe the Japanese are doing research on new generations of post-nuclear weapons -- laser beams, for instance.
This would be insanity, of course. But so is much of the history of the world. And the United States would be insane to allow itself to be Japan's market of first resort until the dollars ran out. As the Japanese would have to be insane not to understand that Americans talk tough only up to a point -- then we get tough, very tough. Once the United States starts down the path of righteous war, we are almost impossible to stop.
If ever two nations seemed doomed to repeat history by not understanding the past, it is the United States and Japan. We have seen the enemy and it is both of us.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.