In 1852, President Millard Fillmore
of the United States
had decided he was going to open up the incredibly xenophobic
Japan to trade. He wanted to trade coal and have access to Japanese ports, to supplement American ports elsewhere in East Asia, but Japan
would have none of it. Although the rest of the world had moved on, Japan was still operating under a millennia-old system of government, and it was intent on keeping it as long as possible. President Fillmore decided that the renowned Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry
(brother of Oliver Hazard Perry
) would be the man to open up Japan.
Born Matthew Calbraith Perry in 1794, in South Kingstown, R.I., Perry grew up in the company of ships and seamen. He served under his brother Oliver Hazard Perry on the Revenge during the battle of Lake Erie (war of 1812), and rose quickly through the Navy ranks. He commanded his first ship in 1821, and was later assigned to the command of the Fulton, America's first steam vessel, in 1837. Perry was promoted to a captain in 1837, then to a commodore in 1841. He saw action in the Atlantic ocean and during the Mexican war as a fleet commander, and was deemed a suitable choice by President Millard Fillmore in March 1852 to command the East India and China Seas squadron. As part of his duties, he was charged with the difficult task of gaining trade concessions of coal and other goods from Japan, to open up Japanese ports for open trade and to protect the safety of American sailors shipwrecked on Japanese soil. Both Perry and Fillmore recognized the possible lucrativeness of Japanese trade. However, if diplomatic means could not procure an agreement, then he was instructed by President Fillmore to use force.
Perry fully knew the risks involved in such an expedition; the Japanese were isolationist to the point of being xenophobic, and in the past had often greeted foreign trade attempts with an army of skilled yari samurai (spearmen) and no-dachi samurai (swordsmen). However, as a precaution, Perry heavily armed his ships, two of which, the Mississippi and Susquehanna, were among the U.S. navy's strongest steam frigates. Perry also knew the Japanese would be much more willing to negotiate only if they were both impressed and daunted by the Americans. Therefore, the Commodore brought President Fillmore's handwritten letter encased in a rosewood chest with lavishly gilded gold trim. However, no gifts were brought for this voyage; gifts would only be exchanged if all demands were met by the Roju (Japanese governing council) and Mikado (emperor). Fully prepared, mentally and physically for the long Pacific voyage, Perry and his fleet of four ships set off from San Francisco harbor in June 1853, headed for Yedo (now Tokyo) bay.
Arrival in Japan
On morning of July 8 1853, soon after Uraga's fishermen had cast the day's first nets into lower Yedo Bay, Matthew C. Perry's fleet, large black ships with billowing black smoke, sailed into the wide bay which was the entrance to Edo, administrative capital of Japan. At first sight of the ships, the frightened fishermen raced back to the relative security of shore, remarking at the "large, black dragons" in the bay. Word of this "dragon" soon reached Kayama Yezaimon, daimyo (territorial warlord) of Uraga province who raced to the battlement, the clash of the warning gong stil ringing in his ears. Kayama and his entourage of hatamoto (bodyguards) quickly realized the military superiority of the American fleet, as each vessel bristled with cannon much more formidable than his own. Acting quickly, Kayama instucted a samurai to ride to the castle of Abe Masahiro (head of the Roju) in Edo, and tell Shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi that a "barbarian" fleet blocked the mouth of Yedo Bay.
Upon hearing of this barbarian fleet, the captal city of Edo erupted into wild rumours and speculations. Meetings were hastily called among the Roju to discuss this "foreign invasion", and finally, about four hours after the "black dragons" landed, the Japanese sent a fleet of their own galleys to intercept Perry's fleet. They sent their finest ships out, each adorned with flags and banners, and propelled by oars.
Generally unimpressed by this showing, the Americans did not allow any ship to board, until they were convinced that a Japanese navy officer was on board one of the galleys. Then, his credentials proven, an official in the Japanese navy, along with a Dutch interpreter, boarded the Susquehanna. Lieutenant Contee, Perry's aide, informed the official that the Commodore had with him a letter from Millard Fillmore, the President of the United States. Contee then explained to the official that Perry was of high rank in the Navy, so he would only talk to a Japanese official of equal or greater status. The official then left the Susquehanna, and for the next two days Commodore Perry and his fleet lay waiting in Yedo Bay for a response from the Japanese.
On July 10, two days after the arrival of the Americans, the daimyo of Uraga, Kayama Yezaimon visited the Susquehanna. He told the ship's commander that the Americans could not land in Yedo Bay, and that they had to head at once to Nagasaki, the only port in Japan that was partially open to foreign trade. Captain Adams of the Susquehanna informed Perry of this, who did not go up to meet Kayama but instead wrote him a letter. Adams then read the letter, through an interpreter, to Kayama:
"The Commodore will not go to Nagasaki...If this friendly letter of the President
to the Emperor is not received and duly replied to, he will consider his country
insulted and will not hold himself accountable for the consequences."
The Japanese knew well that they were no match for the American warships, so they withdrew their orders to head to Nagasaki. In addition, they had still not supplied a representative of equal or greater status to Perry, so the Americans refused to move until that requirement was honoured. For the Japanese to send a legitimate Emperor or Prince to negotiate with "barbarians" was unthinkable, so they did the next best thing: They sent out Toda Izu, governor of Uraga village, dressed in princely garb and convinced Perry that Toda was indeed "Prince" Toda. The ploy worked, and Perry agreed to meet the "Prince" in person. Meanwhile, the local villagers raced to build a suitable pavillion in which both sides could meet on land.
The pavillion was completed on July 14, and only then did the four ships of Perry's fleet land for the first time. With much pomp and ceremony between the two sides, Perry and a detachment of marines were accompanied by cannon salutes and a marching band. Perry gave the rosewood box containing the President's requests to Prince Toda, and announced that he would return the next spring for the Emperor's answer. If the answer was favourable, Perry said, he would return with many presents; soon after, the ceremony was done which, according to eyewitnesses, lasted barely 20 minutes. Perry and his entourage of Marines then returned to the fleet, which stayed another three days before leaving for America.
Overall, the Japanese were impressed with both the way Perry negotiated and his superiority of arms. Unbeknownst to Perry, his methods of negotiation were nearly the same ones used by the Japanese for hundreds of years: only let people of equal status negotiate, be firm, and make it known that diplomacy is not necessarily the only way to procure an agreement, with implied threats.
Return to Japan
Over the course of the year, the Japanese pondered long and hard on what their answer would be. Usually, the traditional response would be a terse "no way", but by 1853 all was not well in the land of Nippon; due to lavish spending, the shogunate was in financial trouble, and had to raise taxes which led to widespread discontentment and rioting. In addition, Japan had been hit by a series of natural disasters and bad growing seasons, leading to famine among the peasantry (hyakusho). As a result of all these problems, the merchant class came to be more important than even the samurai class, and the social hieracrchy started to break down. A strict authoritarian regime like the Tokugawa shogunate relied heavily on the stablility of the social hierarchy to govern, so when the hierarchy started to break down so did the governing power of the shogunate.
In addition to domestic problems, Japan was also coming under increased pressure from western nations to open up trade. Holland, Portugal, Spain, Russia and especially Britain (whose colonies were rapidly expanding eastward) all approached Japan repeatedly for trade agreements, to no avail. However, Britain and Russia hinted at the possibility of military action, and Japan knew it couldn't stand up to the modern weaponry of the West. As a result, Japan decided to grant America the concessions it sought; forming a treaty with the Americans, the Japanese reasoned, would prevent another European power from imposing even greater concessions and greater threatening Japan's independence and way of life.
An answer in the affirmative waiting for them, Perry's fleet (now enlarged to eight ships) set off again for Japan in February 1854, with lavish gifts on board and expectations high. Upon entering lower Yedo Bay for the second time on February 14th, 1854, Perry and his fleet immediately noticed changes on shore; where once the sleepy fishing hamlet of Yokohama (definite relation to the tire company) stood, there was now an imposing audience hall erected to welcome back Perry. Perry recorded the structure's appearance in his jounals:
"Ornamental screens of cloth had been so arranged as to give a more distinct
prominence as well as the appearance of greater size to the forts and bastions...
the screens were stratched tightily in the usual way upon posts of wood, and
each interval between the posts was thus distinctly marked, and had...the
appearance of paneling. Upon these...panels were emblazoned the imperial
arms,...bearing long, heart shaped petals (chrysanthemum flower)..."
Perry was then given the signal to land, and set off in a barge with the captain of the Susquehanna, Cpn. Buchanan, one hundred marines and about one hundred other sailors. Once they reached the northern shore (near Yokohama), Kayama Yezaimon (daimyo of Uraga) directed them to the new, lavish reception area. Indeed, the building had been hastily erected, as the timbers and boards of pine wood were green and numbered, as if they had been fashioned previously and brought to the spot all ready to be put together. With all the dignitaries now on land, the meeting could now begin.
Perry and his aides were seated directly opposite the "Prince" of Uraga, Toda, and another fake prince, "Prince" Ido of Iwami. The rosewood box containing the President Fillmore's letter (in fact, the President was no longer Millard Fillmore; it was now democrat Franklin Pierce, unbeknownst to the Japanese) was given back, accompanied with several other letters in Japanese script. Thus began the negotiations, and thus ended this particular ceremony. Perry and his entourage returned to the Susquehanna to review the letters.
Negotiation and Celebration
Negotiations between Perry and the "Princes" began on March 8, and after moving in a favourable direction, Perry's lavish gifts were presented in a long, elaborate ceremony five days later on March 13; every high ranking Japanese official received a clock, a sword, a rifle and a revolver, plus at least five gallons of whiskey. However, the gifts for the rulers of Japan were much more elaborate. Some of their presents were:
Of course, the gift-giving was mutual. Japan reciprocated by giving Americans valuable art works, such as bronzes, lacquer-ware, silks, pottery, and delicate bamboo and paper constructions. Despite the excellent artisanship of these objects, the Americans were not impressed. Said one official,: "it was a poor display, not worth over a thousand dollars...our railroad engine car alone cost several times their total value". However, not to be outdone, the Japansese were not finished with their gift presentations. They also presented the Americans with over 120 sacks of rice, weighing one hundred pounds each. Perhaps what was remarkable was not the rice itself, but the manner in which it was transported - by a column of 50 sumo wrestlers, each carry a 100-pound sack under each arm, and in some cases a third sack between their teeth. However, rather than be impressed by this show of brute Japanese strength, Commodore Perry was reportedly disgusted, and thought the whole affair grotesque.
Of course, not to be outdone by Japanese strength, Perry immediately ordered a counter-display of close order arms-drill on the beach, followed by a shipboard exercise which involved repulsing an imaginary boarding-party with small arms fire,
dousing an imaginary fire with force pumps, and firing a real broadside.
Immediately following this display of sabre-rattling was a banquet of sorts, whereby good cheer and hospitality were experienced by both sides. In a classic American tradition, whether with British, Native American or Japanese, the Americans got the Japanese officials completely and utterly hammered with many different kinds of alcohol. Described one American officer, "when clean work had been made of champagne, madeira, cherry cordial, punch and whiskey, we gave them a mixture of catsup and vinegar which they seemed to relish with equal gusto." There was also much dancing, toasting and the like. No one knows what the higher Japanese authorities thought of the party, but nevertheless four days later they signed a 12-article "Treaty of Amity and Friendship", also called the Treaty of Kanagawa, granting Americans all the concessions they sought, including the trade of coal and the opening of key ports.
Return to America
Perry, the new American hero, returned to America amid much fanfare and celebration. He was awarded $20,000 from Congress ( a massive sum of money in those days), which he used in part to publish his first-account narraration of his travels, the three-part "Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan.", published in 1856. Commodore Perry died two years later, in 1858, of an illness.
Impact of the Treaty
The economic benefits from the Treaty were minimal, but the social impact was large, especially in Japan. The ports of Shimoda, Hakodate, Nagasaki and Yokohama were now open to Americans, and they were flooded with Western merchants, businessmen, travellers and adventure-seekers. The Japanese, their eyes open to the new Western world, pushed for greater changes and began to make direct contacts with Westerners for guns, technologies and other innovations, forseeing the end of the Shogunate. The Tokugawa Shogunate still managed to retain power until 1867, when tensions broke and the military dictatorship was overthrown, being replaced with the young Emperor Meiji, who rapidly reformed Japan and turned it into a naval power within thirty years. It could be argued that, without Commodore Perry's intervention, Japan would have remained the world's backwater well into the 20th century.
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