By Naval History and Heritage Command
Modern international partnerships are essential to global peace and prosperity. One of America’s most enduring partnerships is with Japan, sharing strong economic and security ties that trace their beginning back to 1791 when explorer John Kendrick became the first known American to visit Japan, spending 11 days there. The Far East nation, however, was a bit reluctant in opening its harbors to commerce. While the United States was an ardent pursuer to develop a relationship, Japan coyly rejected the upstart nation’s advances.
After two requests, in 1846 and 1848, failed to convince Japan to sign a treaty of commerce and protection with the United States, President Millard Fillmore decided to send in the big gun to get the job done: Commodore Matthew C. Perry. The career naval officer was more than up to the challenge of the mission, which was to have Japan agree to open its harbors to commerce, set up a “coaling base” for coal-driven steamships to restock their supply, and to ensure shipwrecked American sailors received fair treatment and could return to the United States in a timely manner. Perry’s long and distinguished naval career included commanding the African squadron from 1843-1844 while suppressing the slave trade. He knew the mission to Japan would be one of his greatest achievements, if he was successful.
Perry certainly knew how to make an entrance. When the veteran Navy officer cruised his squadron of four steamships into Japan’s Edo Harbor in early July 1853 — with coal-fired black smoke belching from the stacks — it made quite the impression on the Japanese who had never seen these “giant dragons puffing smoke.”
Wary of the black ships bristling with menacing armament, the Japanese government showed little interest in opening trade talks with Perry. Since the mid-19th century, Japan had been a closed society, resistant to diplomatic and commercial contact with most of the outside world. The isolationistic policies of Japan were primarily due to military threats from European nations and the influence of Western people who spread Christianity and cultures different from the Japanese. The only Europeans allowed into Japan were the Dutch, and that was only one ship per year. A few Chinese traders had privileges as well. The empire of Japan was flourishing at this time, so its leaders did not see the need to establish relationships with other countries.
Perry, with his side-wheel steamer USS Mississippi and three other black ships – USS Plymouth, USS Saratoga, and USS Susquehanna in what is now Tokoyo Bay — met with Japanese officials over the text of the proposed commercial and friendship treaty, but when he was directed to sail for Nagasaki where the Dutch had a small trading post, Perry refused, demanding permission to present the letter from President Fillmore and threatening to use force if denied.
While Perry waited in the harbor, the Japanese realized they were unable to resist Perry’s modern weaponry so they permitted him to land on the 14th to present his letter. After he presented the letter, Perry promised the Japanese he would return for a response.
In February of 1854, Perry returned to Japan with a larger squadron, this time with seven ships – four sailing ships and three steamers – and with 1,600 men. The Japanese were concerned by the American ships so they initially activated harbor defenses and mobilized soldiers to reinforce the forts and batteries near Edo in case of an attack.
After a tense standoff, Perry landed for peace and trade talks on March 8, 1854, and began to negotiate with the Japanese to establish a trade agreement. After almost three weeks of long and intense negotiations, Perry signed the Treaty of Kanagawa on behalf of the United States that established a permanent friendship between the two countries. The signing of this treaty signaled the end of almost 200 years of Japanese isolation.
The treaty opened two ports to American ships at Shimoda and Hakodate, and granted American ships permission to buy supplies, coal, water, and other necessary provisions. It also ensured American ships that wrecked on the Japanese coast would receive help and protection. The United States would also be given permission to build a consulate in Shimoda.
Commodore Perry received a gift of $20,000 by Congress for his success at breaking Japan’s barriers from the rest of the world. He wrote a 3-volume history of his adventure in Japan in 1855. He died on March 4, 1858 in New York City.
But his visit to Japan, in spite of the somewhat threatening nature of it, lives on. Each year, the port city of Shimoda holds a “Blackship Festival,” or Kurofune, celebrating Perry’s arrival and opening trade to the west, an event that no doubt enriched the lives of the people living in those port cities. Shimoda’s festival is held in mid-May, which includes the parading of U.S. Naval marching bands and characters dressed like Commodore Perry and shogunte officials to Ryosenji Temple.
In the United States, Perry’s hometown of Newport, R.I., also celebrates a “Black Ship Festival,” thanks to its “Sister City” relationship with Shimoda. The 31st festival in Newport will be held July 17-19, while the 75th celebration was held in May at Shimoda.
Cover artwork courtsey of the Brooklyn Museum of Art: Asian Art Collection: Commodore Matthew Perry’s “Black Ship”Credit Line: The Peggy N. and Roger G. Gerry Collection.