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When Perry Unlocked The “Gate of the Sun”

July 2024
22min read

Japan’s feudal, shut-in history suddenly came to an end when the bluff American commodore dropped anchor in Tokyo Bay

Throughout the mid-1830’s there raged in American naval circles, as veil as in Congress when defense appropriations came up, a debate on the wisdom of introducing into our sail-driven frigate fleet a revolutionary new method of propulsion—steam. Most captains as well as congressmen were opposed to the innovation. It was costly. It was uncertain. Sailors knew nothing about machinery and did not want to learn. There had even been a near-mutiny when a Navy crew refused to hoist out firebox clinkers from an experimental floating battery designed by Fulton.

Throughout the mid-1830’s there raged in American naval circles, as veil as in Congress when defense appropriations came up, a debate on the wisdom of introducing into our sail-driven frigate fleet a revolutionary new method of propulsion—steam. Most captains as well as congressmen were opposed to the innovation. It was costly. It was uncertain. Sailors knew nothing about machinery and did not want to learn. There had even been a near-mutiny when a Navy crew refused to hoist out firebox clinkers from an experimental floating battery designed by Fulton.

Finally an aggressive four-striper, respected as the younger brother of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry of 1812 fame and as a tough quarter-deck sundowner and innovator in his own right, used the influence of his name and family to help persuade Congress to authorize two experimental vessels. One of these was launched as U.S.S. Mississippi, a hybrid sail-and-steam frigate one-third larger than the hallowed Constitution and mounting, under her canvas and above her thrashing paddle wheels, ten huge pivot guns. The ship and her promoter and first commander, Matthew Calbraith Perry, were destined together tor a unique place in world history.

Broad-beamed, she was fast and steady in all weathers-a deep-sea cruiser of a range and power phenomenal in those days. At Vera Cruz in the Mexican War her guns, firing new-style explosive shells rather than conventional ball, silenced the harbor forts in short order when Perry took her in close. She became the showpiece of the United States Navy, presenting her black topsides at ports around the world in over a quarter-million miles of cruising. For his part the formidable Perry—now a commodore as his brother had been—became the Navy’s reigning hero. So it was fitting that just this ship and just this commander should set out together on still another mission, Ibr which this time there was no precedent—the effort of the U.S. government in 1853 to open by massive persuasion the gates ol Japan, hitherto hermetically sealed. Who could tell: the Mississippi’s big guns might again come in handy.

In the first days of that July, Nipponese fishermen working the mid-summer waters off Honshu in their bobbing junks met a startling sight. Four American men-of-war, two bearing sail and two making thick, ominous smoke, came plowing toward the forbidden coast at Cape Sagami, within sight of the mists that veiled sacred Mount Fuji. In the van, big wheels churning and guns run out, steered the Mississippi and the Susquehanna , the latter flying the Commodore’s broad pennant. The squadron was heavily freighted with two years’ provisions, a cargo of gifts (including even a miniature railway), interpreters, wines, liquors, ammunition, small arms, cutlasses, and an embossed letter of friendship from President Millard Fillmore to the Emperor of Japan.

Aboard the squadron, as it approached the gnarled shores where such things as buoys, lights, beacons, pilots, or reliable charts were unknown, everything was taut and ship-shape. This was to be expected under Old Matt Perry, for he was famed as the Navy’s leading disciplinarian. Bayard Taylor, a handsome young world traveler and roving reporter of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune , who had been taken aboard at Hong Kong and given the temporary rank of master’s mate in order to help write up the expedition’s story, told of the still drill required of the crews by their gravel-voiced commodore: the daily calls to general quarters amid empty seas; the drum rolls and fife calls summoning all hands to run out guns, repel imaginary boarders, and rig pumps to douse hypothetical fires; the roar of topside commands over nonexistent battle smoke; and the bands ordered to play “Yankee Doodle” alter simulated victories over Oriental attackers who had not materialized.

All that actually met the mighty expedition were those few frightened fishermen. “As the squadron sailed up the coast,” the official narrative has it, “eight or ten junks hove into sight, and two or three of them were observed soon to change their course and to turn back toward the shore, as if to announce the arrival of strangers. … The Mississippi , in spite of a wind, moved on with all sails furled at the rate of eight or nine knots, much to the astonishment of the crews of Japanese fishing junks … who stood up in their boats and were evidently expressing the liveliest surprise at the sight of the first steamer ever beheld in Japanese waters.”

Then the black-hulled squadron, with leadsmen in the chains, moved slowly into the strait that leads into Yedo Bay [now Tokyo Bay], while mists lifted from the rice paddies, villages, and ridges on either side. Angry guard boats ornamented with black tassels swarmed about. The flagship made a signal: “Have no communication with shore: allow none from shore.” Anchors rattled out as the ships came in line abreast of the narrows. In the moment when the echoes died away, all Japan’s age-old, shut-in history suddenly ended, to be followed by another chapter—one that in turn was to close just 92 years later when another American warship, over twenty times the bulk of Perry’s side-wheeler, anchored in the same bay to receive the total surrender of the empire that had turned on the republic that had first awakened it from medieval slumber.

Old World nations generally look on diplomacy as a fine art and have been served by generations of professionals schooled in its forms and graces. On the other hand, our own American tradition, reared in isolation, has been to discard that idea and to see in diplomacy something of an alien luxury weighted from time to time with sudden necessity. So we have let ourselves be represented abroad over the generations by a unique amalgam of trained and amateur talent ranging from scholars and eminent sportsmen to deserving meat packers. Of our choices few have been more original than that of the brassbound commodore asked to conduct one of the most demanding and delicate diplomatic negotiations in our history; in terms of results achieved, few choices have been more brilliant.

A fact our schoolbooks sometimes neglect to teach is that Perry’s expedition, undertaken by special de cision of President and Cabinet, was at bottom an act of aggression and a virtual challenge to war. Perry’s genius, for all his bluster and his pivot guns, lay in his preventing an actual war and in achieving a peaceable agreement that surmounted immense barriers of language, culture, suspicion, and ignorance and afforded satisfaction and respect all around. In bringing this about, he was diplomatic enough to know that he must yield on some points—more than the fire-eaters at home liked—in order to persuade the Japanese to yield on others. The question was which points to barter and whose face to save. No one had trained Old Matt Perry to be a diplomat. He came by the art instinctively, by dint of extraordinary human comprehension and native wit—qualities without which even the bestschooled ambassadors fail.

The American Republic had sought to isolate itself from dynastic Europe, only to find itself in 1850 moving out beyond its own continent into the far Pacific. For its part, the Japanese Empire, after some unhappy experiences with European traders and missionaries, had isolated itself in 1825 from virtually the entire outside world. The difference between the two withdrawals was that Japan’s remained recessive while America’s became aggressive. Under the encrusted shogun who ruled in the emperor’s name, Japan virtually declared the nineteenth century out of bounds. Ships of foreign infidels were prohibited under pain of armed attack from entering Japanese ports, while Japanese subjects were similarly prevented from sailing further from the islands than junks, carefully limited to coastwise she, could carry them. This, thought the shogun, would keep their sacred soil and customs inviolate for all time to come. The Japanese failed to reckon with Yankee whalers, now scouring the nearby seas, or with American merchantmen bound for Canton and anxious for a port of call for business, coaling and provisions, or with the California gold rush, now bringing masses of Americans to the Pacific water’s edge, eyes turning toward the Orient.

Moreover, they failed to realize the drive and bumptiousness of these white devils five thousand miles away. While the samurai went through their ancient rituals with silken robes, paper banners, lacquered swords, and weird cardboard headgear, in America such words as these were resounding: “It is our Manifest Destiny to implant ourselves in Asia” (The New York Herald ); “The apparition of the Caucasian race rising upon the Yellow race … must wake up and reanimate the torpid body of Asia. … The moral and intellectual superiority of the White race will do the rest” (Senator Thomas Hart Benton); “The ‘Gate of the Sun,’ as the islanders call their empire, must open voluntarily or perforce. … The time has come for it in the providence of God” ( The Presbyterian Review ).

Finally, the old courtiers of Yedo failed to understand one of the first rules of aristocracy—courtesy—and it was this that was to prove their immediate undoing. When shipwrecked American seamen or vessels in distress sought succor on their shores, the Japanese made short shrift of them, jailing whole crews as suspects, interlopers, and spies, thereby giving the American State Department a splendid opportunity to point out that this sort of thing just wouldn’t do: the rights of nations also involved elementary human duties, and Commodore Perry was coming to clarify this matter—and to obtain open ports and coaling stations, to boot.

“Invasion of Japan!” trumpeted New York newspapers when Perry’s squadron set forth. Meanwhile the Times of London, looking down its nose at the presumptuous Yankees, snorted that it wondered “whether the Ernperor of Japan would receive Commodore Perry with the most indignation or most contempt.” Would the mission to bring American reason to the mysterious “half-barbarians” succeed? There were doubting voices even at home. The Baltimore Sun remarked sardonically that Perry would set out “about the same time with Rufus Porter’s aerial ship.”


With such words whirling about him, it was clear to the commander-diplomat that he must bring home a triumph—if not of one sort, then another.

As one officer who had served under him as far back as Mexican War days remarked, Perry was “a bluff yet dignified man, heavy and not graceful, something of a martinet; a duty man all over, held something in awe by junior officers, and having little to do with them; seriously courteous to others. The ship seemed to have a sense of importance because he was on board.” A crewman added, “So long as ye walk a chalk line there couldn t be a fairer man than the Commodore, but God help ye if ye slip off that line!”

Well-born, haughty, meticulously white-gloved and epauletted, sporting magnificently curled eyebrows over his piercing eyes and long, disdainful nose, Perry was the very model of a theatrical admiral—with one difference: he knew precisely how and when to apply his theatrics to the impressionable Japanese. In 1846 a previous American naval visitor to Japan, the undemonstrative Commodore James Biddle in U.S.S. Columbus , had suffered a humiliating rebuff when he was struck or pushed by a Nipponese soldier as he descended into a junk alongside his ship. Biddle had done nothing about it save to say that he would be satisfied if the man were handled under the laws of his own land. The Japanese would have been more impressed if Biddle had forthwith drawn his saber and struck the man’s head off; they looked upon the visitor and the Navy he represented as craven. Matt Perry wasn’t going to have any more of that . Yet neither (and this he kept to himself) was he going to lord it over the Nipponese simply because he had the bigger guns. From the side-whiskered Samuel Wells Williams, whom he had taken aboard as America’s first orientalist and expert in Far Eastern languages, Perry had learned of the kind of thing that was happening on the China coast as roughshod Western concessionaires and their opium-selling local confederates took over. He wasn’t going to have any of that , either.

He must be magisterial and grand, he decided (this was not difficult for the Commodore), but he must also be human. Japan appreciated this—although it took the Japanese several generations to fully comprehend it.

America knew little about Japan on the eve of Perry’s expedition, and Japan knew even less about America. There had been prior contact of a sort; in fact, over a hundred American ships, curious, had at various times dared the approach to the forbidden islands, but usually they were just driven off. In Japan, though officiais tried to squelch even the mention of the sea-borne Yankees, a comparable curiosity had grown as to what Americans were like. Rumors coming from Dutch traders had told of the imminent approach of an American fleet of black ships, and an old ballad went around, very much as had the legends in Montezuma’s Mexico of the advent of strange gods under white sails:

Through a black night of cloud and rain , The Black Ship plies lier way , An alien tiling of evil mien , Across the waters gray . Down in her hold, there labor men Of jet black visage dread; While, fair of face, stand by her guns Grim hundreds clad in red .

So a translation of the ballad by a Japanese scholar runs.

Some more specific information about the Americans was also available. A young Japanese sailor named Nakahama Manjiro, shipwrecked in the Pacific in 1841, had been picked up by an American vessel out of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Under the simpler name of John Mung, he had been brought to the United States as a curiosity [ AMERICAN HERITAGE , December, 1956]. From this experience he had managed to return home and to report that “the people of America are upright and generous, and do no evil. … Refined people do not drink intoxicants, and only a small quantity, if they do. Vulgar people drink like the Japanese. … Husband and wife are exceedingly affectionate to each other, and the happiness of the home is unparalleled in other countries. The women do not use rouge, powder and the like.” But while these discoveries by Japan’s first pro-American greatly whetted the curiosity of the younger generation, they were not prepared for what descended on them on July 8, 1853, near the gates of their own imperial capital.

“Popular commotion at the news of ‘a foreign invasion’ was beyond description,” writes a Japanese chronicler. “The whole city was in an uproar. In all directions were seen mothers flying with children in their arms, and men with mothers on their backs. Rumors of an immediate action, exaggerated each time they were communicated from mouth to mouth, added horror to the horror-stricken. The tramp of warhorses, the chatter of armed warriors, the noise of carts, the parade of firemen, the incessant tolling bells, the shrieks of women, the cries of children, dinning all the streets of a city of more than a million souls, made confusion worse confounded.”

Down the bay, meanwhile, gesticulating Japanese ‘officials in guard boats converged to try to stop this ruthless violation of their country’s laws, while a boatload of artists came alongside the paddle-wheelers to record the scene for posterity. The officials tried to clamber aboard, but, in accordance with Perry’s flaghoist, they were held back with bared steel. The artists did better, lingering in the lee of the black ships to catch glimpses of guns, fantastic machinery, marines, and of a gilded, godlike, white-gloved personage whose lieutenants soon made it known that he was the American Lord of the Forbidden Interior.

An old Japanese manual shows how port officials were indoctrinated to deal with unwanted visitors such as these. They were to say, in case an English-speaking ship hove into sight of land, “Ho deyu do” (How do you do?). Next, they were to say, in pidgin, “We are officer in Yudo, and he is interpreter, tell him what you please.” (This, phonetically, came out as “We e-ru ofuhishu-ru in i-doo endo hi isu interupuritoru te-ru himu watto yu-purissu.” ) Then, said the manual, they were to challenge the visitors with such remarks as “Is here anybody wich can understand duch or the Rusch language among the mailing? … From wence come thit ship? … At sea of Jappan the foreigner may not fish. … You must go way with first speedy wind. … It is a great prohibition of Jappan to negotiate with strangers. … We have often warnt your country man, that they must no more come here, what is reason of coming you?”

It was with patter such as this that Japanese officials tried to climb aboard, meanwhile—in case the Americans didn’t understand pidgin—holding up a scroll written in French ordering the ships to leave. The Lord of the Forbidden Interior, secreting himself in his quarters, produced S. Wells Williams and H. A. L. Portman, who, speaking in Japanese and Dutch, tried to make several things clear. First of all, the American commander would receive no one aboard his flagship but a functionary of the highest rank. As his official narrative puts it, Perry had determined “to meet the Japanese on their own ground, and exhibit toward them a little of their own exclusive policy, if they stood on their dignity and assumed superiority, that was a game at which he could play as well as they.”

Furthermore, having read every available book and tract on Japan before setting forth, Perry had been impressed by evidences of Japanese evasiveness, mendacity, and duplicity. So he began by being somewhat mendacious himself. Through the closed door of his cabin he instructed Professor Williams to say that the rank of the American lord whose pennant flew at the foretruck was that of admiral. (The Japanese could not be expected to know that no admiral then existed in the entire American fleet.)

“We have the vice-governor of Uraga aboard,” explained an official in a lacquered hat, coming alongside in a barge. “He is of very high rank.”

But Perry was not receiving any vice-governors, anil as guard boats and the artists edged closer, armed crews manned the rails of his ships. “Why did you not bring the governor?” his interpreter called down.

“He is forbidden to board ships. Will the Lord of the Forbidden Interior designate an officer of rank low enough to talk to the vice-governor?”

Perry, from behind his door, appointed his flag lieutenant. Round one in establishing official relations with the Japanese had been won.

Lieutenant Contee, admitting Vice-Governor Saberosuke on board—the first Japanese emissary to be received on an American ship—began by flatly insisting that “no boats shall hang around our vessels to Watch them.”

“It is Japanese custom,” was the answer.

“We too have our customs, and with men-of-war one of the laws is that no boat is allowed to come within a certain range.”

“What is name of thit ship, how many people, guns?”

”… W7e are armed ships, and our custom is never to answer such questions.”

No one had ever talked like this to the Japanese before. What came next was even more formidable. The lieutenant explained that his commander had brought a letter from the President of the United States to the Emperor of Japan, and that he wished a suitable officer sent on board to receive a copy of it, in order that a day might be fixed for formal delivery of the original. The Vice-Governor, no doubt uneasily aware, as he stood in his silks aboard U.S.S. Susquehanna , that his head might come off on his return to shore unless he persuaded the white devils to leave, countered that in any case the American squadron must quit Yedo Bay and proceed down the coast to Nagasaki, the only port where foreign business could be transacted. In reply to this he was told that the American admiral had come here purposely because it was near the capital; that he would not move on to Nagasaki; that he expected the letter to be properly received where he was; that “his intentions were perfectly friendly, but that he would allow no indignity.” Moreover, if the guard boats were not removed at once, they would be dispersed by force. The unhappy Saberosuke removed them at once. Round two was won.

At this distance the attitudes Perry struck on that first day in Japan smack of the saber-rattling that was to mark American diplomacy in many outlying seas during the second half of his century. Yet actually his mission cast its shadow even further ahead and looked toward a time of East-West equality and friendship. Everything depended on how Perry read his instructions—which admittedly were perhaps the most sweeping yet tantalizing ones ever given an emissary of the United States.

On one hand President Fillmore’s State Department had told him to impress upon the Japanese that the approach of Americans into their area was inevitable and to demand that they abandon their policy of enmity. This was an ultimatum, no less, as the President himself hinted when he described Perry’s ships as “persuaders.” On the other, the Commodore was warned that his mission was “necessarily of a pacific character” and that he was not to use force except in self-defense. In his contact with the Japanese, “who are said to be proud and vindictive,” he was to be at the same time “courteous and conciliatory” and “firm and decided.” He was to “submit with patience and forbearance to acts of discourtesy … by a people unfamiliar with our ways,” yet he was to allow no insult. This, said the directive, placed in his hands “large discretionary powers"—which indeed it did, including the power to destroy himself by a misstep in either direction. Finally, after having virtually washed its hands in advance of any blunders its emissary might commit, Washington bethought itself again and handed him the sop that “any error of judgment” on his part might be viewed with “indulgence"—i.e. he might escape court-martial after all if things went wrong.

Such self-contradictory orders, by the challenge they offer his own inventiveness, can either paralyze an envoy or make him. They made Perry.

His first duty as a commander, of course, was to guard his ships against attack. No coastal batteries had yet fired on him from the surrounding headlands. Yet as he lay at anchor and night approached, the possibility remained that war lords might yet converge in the hills to descend upon him with every weapon at their command. Perry was of a steeled, suspicious nature, yet not more so than the occasion required. For as news of his arrival spread, precisely this sort of surprise attack was being weighed by the shogun’s council, which on the appearance of the American squadron had been seized with a panic little less than that of the common people of the capital.

In the days that followed, while the government was floundering over what to do or say, its agents on the spot practiced their own Oriental variety of psychological warfare, sending out to the ships negotiators bearing deceptive instructions, false names and imaginary titles. They went to elaborate lengths to ensure that when Perry was received on shore, he would be conducted only to a makeshift building constructed for the purpose and would not be permitted to defile the sacred premises of official Japan. In this Gilbert and Sullivan masquerade, however, the shogun’s men found themselves matched by a comparable American actor whose bluff airs concealed his own extraordinary guile. Perry would, in fact, have made an ideal admiral of Japan.

While inquisitive eyes ran over his ships and their armament, it was explained to Perry that months—many months—would pass before he could expect to receive an answer to the President’s letter. Very well, he replied, with a look of infinite patience; he had time and would take his ships to the China coast for the fall and winter and come back for the answer early the following year. Some of his officers dropped the implication that he might then return with an augmented force.

Before leaving to give the rulers time to think, Perry made one splendid appearance at the landing place they had grudgingly prepared for him at Kurihama. On the appointed day, all his ships took station in line offshore to guard against possible treachery. All his officers donned full dress, while bannered Japanese barges hovered about and silken screens bearing the imperial arms were set up on land. Then fifteen U.S. cutters and longboats, bearing officers, pipe-clayed marines, sailors in Sunday blues, and two bands, rowed to the temporary wharf. Captain Franklin Buchanan of U.S.S. Susquehanna jumped ashore from the lead boat, being, as the official chronicle puts it, “the first of the Americans who landed in the kingdom of Japan.” Surrounding the three hundred Americans as they formed into line stood thousands of Japanese warriors in their long, loose vestments, bearing swords, bows, lances, spears, and matchlock guns. Behind them gathered peasants and their womenfolk. Escorted to the newly built reception hall, the American commander and his suite took places on red-covered seats opposite two imperial princes and their retinue, while braziers burned in mid-July amid the suffocating, total silence. Two tall, especially chosen Negro crewmen bore the decorated boxes containing President FiIlmore’s letter and other documents and placed them before the huddled Japanese—again in utter silence. The princes then bowed and rose, giving the signal to the Commodore to return to his boats and re-embark, “the bands meanwhile playing our national airs with great spirit.”

After Perry sailed away, the rulers of Japan were impelled to do something they had never dreamed of before, namely, to ask the advice of their subordinates up and down the country as to how to proceed next. This was the first searing effect of the American visitation, a prophetic interruption in absolute dictatorship. Messengers were rushed out to the feudal chieftains along the length of Honshu, soliciting their opinions. They debated and communed with their ancestors.

Some wanted to fight. One of them, the Prince of Mito, promptly wrote back that there were no less than “ten reasons in favor of war.” First, he said, “the annals of our history speak of the exploits of the great, who planted banners on alien soil; but never was the clash of foreign armies heard within the precincts of our holy ground. Let not our generation be the first to see the disgrace of a barbarian army treading on the land where our fathers rest.” Secondly, he argued, the Americans might introduce “the evil sect” of Christianity. Furthermore, the Americans might wish to obtain Japanese treasures in exchange for “trashy articles” of trade. Valiant samurai, he added, were assembling to fight the enemy; would it be politic to disappoint them? Moreover, the “haughty demeanor of the barbarians” at their anchorage had provoked the illiterate populace; could the government afford to lag behind? And finally, wasn’t this an opportunity to revive flagging Japanese spirits dulled by a too-long peace?

Yet there remained the question of what to fight the barbarians with. Japan had no navy, only weak shore defenses, and there was very little money in the exchequer. “Without warships I feel uneasy with regard to any scheme for pursuing them,” argued Lord Ii of Hikone, as well he might. In the end, amid the sputter of conflicting opinions, the shogun’s council took the easiest way out—it temporized. Japan, said its decree, was “to evade any definite answer” to the Americans and in effect to play a game of cat and mouse with them. Eventually, it was hoped, the visitors would become discouraged.

The following February the Lord of the Forbidden Interior was back—this time not with four ships but with all of ten, pennants flying, wheels turning, gun muzzles out, crews formed up amidships, and all approaching in faultless alignment. The Japanese had suspected that an armada like this might descend upon them, although they had few inklings of the difficulty Perry had encountered in mustering it on the China coast. They did not know of the barnacled condition of his veteran ships, of the depletion of his crews through disease, desertion, and the end of enlistments, or of his squabbles with the Navy Department to get more ships and men. That winter of waiting, twelve thousand miles removed from Washington, had been a sore test for Commodore and men alike. But morale had revived as the squadron, now raised to the size of a fleet, weighed anchor again in the China Sea. Although Perry’s orders were stern, frigates raced each other for first place. “For seven days we kept side by side with the Macedonian under shortened sail, the store-ships following with every stick of canvas spread,” recounts an officer of U.S.S. Vandalia . “At night sometimes advantage was taken by both parties of the darkness to clap on forbidden canvas, and daylight sometimes surprised them before they had it removed.”

But off the headlands of Yedo Bay, the Commodore ordered all his ships into line in order to give their second entrance into its glassy waters the precision of a diplomatic march. “The whole bay became filled with black ships,” reports a Japanese chronicler. The artists came out in force. Obviously the American Lord was going to have to be given an answer.

This occurred at a viceregal ceremony on March 8, 1854, at Yokohama, from which we may date the opening of regular relations between the two great powers of the Pacific. This time Perry mustered all of 27 boatloads of men supported by three bands, while the Japanese in resignation erected five buildings and assigned the shogun’s chief minister to receive him. American marines, their bayonet-tipped rifles at “Present arms!” stood stiffly in a double file as Perry proceeded magisterially to the Treaty House between richly costumed Japanese officials under streamers emblazoned with their own heraldic beasts. At the moment he crossed the threshold, on a signal as precise as it was brilliant, his ships let loose a twenty-one-gun salute in honor of the Emperor, followed by one of seventeen guns for the chief of the high commissioners, while the Japanese ensign was broken out at the masthead of Perry’s flagship.

When the smoke had rolled away, the dazzled Japanese were quite in the master showman’s hand—or so it seemed. Yes, they said, while His Majesty the Emperor could not of course give satisfactory answers “at once” to all the American proposals, their government was disposed to enter into some friendly arrangement with the United States. In fact (this after some prodding by the Commodore), a treaty of amity might be in order, opening two ports to American commerce as a beginning, and guaranteeing our citizens consular protection.

Then commenced the ceremonial feasting and drinking that was to become the final hazard of Perry’s historic expedition. The Japanese began it at the Treaty House by drinking off whole cups of sake bottoms up, explaining to the Americans that it was a Japanese custom for the host to drink first. There was nothing for the Americans to do but follow suit. Soon after came a return engagement on board the American flagship, for which Perry had set aside “live bullocks, some sheep, and a supply of game and poultry.” The Japanese swarmed aboard to indulge also in the Commodore’s supplies of French wines, champagnes, whiskey, and punch, becoming “quite uproarious” as they proposed healths and toasts (so the official report says) and “shouting at the top of their voices” over the din of the bands and entertainers. Then, when the feast was over, the alcoholized guests astonished their hosts by spreading out long rolls of paper in which they proceeded to wrap up every scrap of food they could lay their hands on, tucking them away into their robes as they entered the longboats. One titled visitor even made off with five saltcellars.

Before this joyous climax there occurred the ceremonial presentation of American gifts for the Emperor and his officials. They included examples of American art and technology, from muskets, swords, clocks, telescopes, farm tools, lifeboats, and a telegraph station to four volumes of Audubon’s Birds of America , one hundred gallons of Kentucky bourbon, and a miniature locomotive, tender, and passenger car complete with tracks. The Lilliputian train, in particular, was a smash success in a country which had barely entered the horse-and-buggy era; when it was set up near the Treaty House crowds of Japanese screeched with delight every time the American engineer tooted the whistle as he came around the bend. As for the whisky, most of it went straight to the Emperor’s palace, where it served further to reduce effective resistance to the barbarian invaders.

In exchange the Japanese offered the Americans, among other rewards, a special evening performance by prize wrestlers—immense, pot-bellied men encased in rolls of blubber who charged at each other like mastodons, to the mingled delight and amazement of Perry’s crews. “All of a sudden they gave a yell and sprang … grasping at the armpits, and kept shoving, yelling, tugging, hauling, bawling, twisting and corvetting about, with seemingly no aim whatever,” a superior U.S. lieutenant recorded, adding that their style, or lack of it, was something he wasn’t accustomed to.

In the end, after such jollifications, Perry got his treaty. It was not as sweeping a one as enthusiasts back home had demanded—in fact, the Japanese recovered in time to surround it with many a reservation—but it did at least open the door of Japan. The hosts hedged on the matter of allowing commercial credit to Americans or of admitting American women at the treaty ports, and on these points Perry yielded, knowing this would all come with time. On the other hand, when the Japanese proposed that American mariners on landing “shall have no intercourse with the Dutch and Chinese,” who enjoyed some strictly circumscribed privileges ashore, Perry shot back imperiously, “The Americans will never submit to the restrictions which have been imposed upon the Dutch and Chinese, and any further allusion to such restraints will be considered offensive.”

The final upshot was this, as expressed in Article One of the Treaty of Kanagawa [March 31, 1854]: “There shall be a perfect, permanent and universal peace, and a sincere and cordial amity, between the United States of America on the one part, and the Empire of Japan on the other, and between their people, respectively, without exception of persons or places.”

As later generations learned to their regret, this article was not always to be observed. But while Perry in opening Japan may also have opened Pandora’s box, who could then tell what might someday spring forth from it? The Commodore sailed home, proud, revered even in Japan by literate subjects who had come to think it was high time their country was opened up, his holds filled with their gifts and souvenirs, to receive the homage of his fellow citizens as if he had won another war. He had in fact done just that—a war against ignorance and ingrown backwardness—and he had won it without firing a shot.


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