On 31 March 1854, representatives of the United States and Japan signed a treaty to “establish [a] firm, lasting, and sincere friendship between the two nations.” It called for peace between the two countries and allowed U.S. ships to visit the Japanese ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to buy wood, water, provisions, and coal. In signing the treaty, the United States and Japan were agreeing to treat sailors shipwrecked on their shores humanely and to return them to their own countrymen. The treaty also provided for future deliberation on trade between the two countries.1 While the provisions of that treaty do not appear to be extremely ambitious, the story behind its signing demonstrates what a remarkable achievement it was. More than anyone else, the man responsible for that noteworthy accomplishment was Commodore Matthew C. Perry.
Commodore Perry was faced with a formidable task. The Japanese had effectively sealed their island nation off from the rest of the world for more than 200 years. The United States had tried unsuccessfully to develop relations with Japan before the Perry expedition. In 1832 Edmund Roberts, a special envoy sent by President Andrew Jack- son, embarked on a mission to eastern Asia on board the USS Peacock. Roberts was not specifically instructed to focus his attention on Japan; rather, he was to be “very careful in obtaining information regarding Japan—the means of opening communication with it, and the present value of its trade with the Dutch and the Chinese.”2 On that trip Roberts did not even visit Japan, but on his return to the Far East in 1835, he had more specific instructions concerning Japan, a letter from President Jack- son to the Emperor, and an assortment of suitable gifts. Unfortunately, before Roberts reached Japan, he died ending the mission.
A second attempt to woo the Japanese was made in 1845-46. Commodore James Biddle was sent to Japan to investigate Japanese ports and the government’s willingness to open trade talks with the United States. Biddle sailed with the warships USS Columbus and Vincennes into Edo (Tokyo) Harbor on 21 July 1846, where he presented a “friendly letter” from President James Polk to a minor Japanese official. The Japanese were not at all receptive to the overtures and demanded that the Americans leave as soon as possible. Having failed to achieve any progress toward opening any sort of relations with Japan, Biddle left on 29 July.
Trade with Japan was not the only matter that concerned U.S. officials. As part of their isolation policy, the Japanese incarcerated any deserters or shipwrecked sailors that happened to make it to their shores. In the late 1840s, several U.S. whalers were imprisoned in Nagasaki and had been treated quite brutally. In 1849, Commander James Glynn was dispatched on board the sloop USS Preble with instructions to sail to Nagasaki to secure the release of the Americans. If he failed in that effort, he was to proceed to Edo and present his case to the Japanese government in a “firm, temperate, and respectful” manner.3 On 17 April the Preble dropped anchor in Nagasaki Harbor and Glynn presented his request. He was successful in gaining the release of 14 U.S. whalers from the Nagasaki jails. Ten days later the sloop set sail for Hong Kong, Glynn having made no progress in opening Japan to closer relations with the United States.
By the middle of the 19th century, the reasons for wanting closer contact with Japan became even more compelling. Foreign trade was growing tremendously: between 1829 and 1860, U.S. foreign trade increased by 411%.4 With the acquisition of California and Oregon and the construction of a railroad across Panama, the United States had become a major power along the Pacific rim. The new west could look to build new markets in China and Japan. In 1844, the Treaty of Wanghia opened five Chinese ports to U.S. ships. Even if Japan was not to become a trading partner, steamships traveling to China needed Japanese ports for coaling and resupply.
Whaling also became an increasingly important factor in shaping U.S. attitudes toward the Pacific region. By the 1840s, the bulk of America’s more than 600-ship whaling fleet hunted in Pacific waters. Whale oil and other products produced by the industry were vital to the U.S. economy.5 Whalers in the Pacific faced the obstacles of uncharted waters—difficult to navigate—and limited port facilities. U.S. whalers were not allowed to obtain provisions in Japanese ports, and shipwrecked sailors were frequently imprisoned and sometimes killed as a result of Japan’s Exclusion Decrees. All but one of the whalers rescued by Commander Glynn told him that they had been treated very harshly.6 A report—submitted to the House of Representatives by Commodore David Geisinger in 1850—portrayed the Japanese as cruel and unreasonable.7
The United States thus had several excellent reasons to want open relations with Japan. In 1851, Commodore John H. Aulick, commander of the East India squadron, was selected to lead the next U.S. mission there. He was to carry a letter from President Millard Fillmore to the Emperor of Japan, asking for the safe return of shipwrecked U.S. sailors, rights to coaling stations, and a treaty of amity and commerce. Aulick set out for Japan on the steam frigate Susquehanna, accompanied by the Plymouth and the Saratoga. Before he arrived in Japan, however, a controversy arose concerning allegations of his having been involved in unethical behavior. As a result, he was relieved of his command.
The officer selected to replace Aulick was Commodore Matthew C. Perry. An officer with vast experience in both naval warfare and the art of diplomacy, Perry had negotiated with the Capuda Pasha, the Kingdom of Naples, the President of Liberia, African chiefs, and Yucateco leaders during the Mexican War.8 Despite his experience, or maybe because of it, Perry neither sought nor wanted to lead the mission to Japan. The 58-year-old commodore, as one of the most senior officers in the Navy, believed he deserved command of the Mediterranean Squadron, where he would be able to have his family with him.9 When his last appeal for that command was denied, Perry accepted command of the Far East Squadron with the same enthusiasm and commitment to accomplishing the mission that had so characterized his career.
Perry immediately set to work with unflagging energy to make every preparation possible to maximize his chances of succeeding on what seemed an impossible mission. Perry selected ships that he knew from experience were reliable and would impress the Japanese. Perry also handpicked officers he had worked with in the past and were known to be competent and trustworthy. He especially wanted officers with the intellect to make scientific observations in addition to their regular duties. Perry preferred younger enlisted men who would have the physical strength to endure the long voyage and would not need the incentive of flogging to perform. Perry enlisted a French chef to make exotic meals that would impress foreign officials, and an Italian bandmaster to train and conduct Perry’s flag musicians. Music would both maintain the morale of his crews on the long voyage and impress the Japanese.10
Perhaps the most important preparation Perry made was personal. He sought every piece of information about Japan that he could find. Perry visited and corresponded with the few Americans who had been to Japan. He talked with whaling captains who had sailed in Japanese waters. He contacted the Dutch for information and purchased charts from them at a cost of $30,000." Perry also obtained copies of all U.S. and European books about Japan that could be found. To gain even more insight into the Japanese, Perry decided to visit Lew Chew (Okinawa) before sailing to Edo. That would give him a chance for a “dry run” before dealing with the Japanese.
Before departing the United States, Perry purchased a wide range of expensive gifts to help the Japanese learn more about America and, perhaps, to make them more receptive to negotiation. He took Audubon elephant folios worth $ 1,000 each, champagne, whiskey, Colt small arms, mirrors, French perfumes, farming implements, clocks, stoves, a daguerreotype camera, a telegraph set, and a one- quarter scale working steam locomotive with tender, a coach, and tracks.12 Perry wanted to be sure the Japanese officials appreciated the technological superiority of the United States.
Part of his mission, as Perry understood it, was to “obtain intelligence which will enable us to know more of this singular government.”13 The commodore believed that the Japanese engaged in “crooked diplomacy” and practiced “falsehood, tricking, and deception.”14 To make any progress, he believed, he would have to deal with the Japanese in a very direct manner, never allowing them any opportunity to use deception or procrastination to stand in the way of his objectives.
During his careful study of the Japanese, Perry paid particular attention to results of previous diplomatic encounters with them. He resolved to “adopt an entirely contrary plan of proceeding from that of all others who had hitherto visited Japan on the same errand.”15
The Biddle mission in particular offered several valuable lessons for Perry. He thought Biddle had been wrong to give his letter from the President to a “bottle washer.” Perry would confer personally only with a “functionary of the highest rank in the empire.” Biddle allowed his ships to be surrounded by Japanese guard boats and tolerated hundreds of Japanese to come freely on board his flagship and intimidate his officers and crew. Perry would allow the Japanese to visit his warship only in small numbers, after their ranks had been established and if they had business to conduct.16 The Japanese had traditionally dealt with ships entering their harbors by offering them free provisions and firmly demanding that they leave at once. Perry resolved to accept nothing from the Japanese without fair payment.17
Commodore Perry’s conduct on the Japan expedition has sometimes been criticized as being pompous, overbearing, and ever imperious. But to Perry, that was perhaps the most important lesson he had learned from the mistakes of others. The “show” was at least as important as any other facet of his mission. Perry wanted to demonstrate to the Japanese that he, as a representative of the President of the United States, demanded to be treated with the respect due an equal. He promised himself that he would “demand as a right and not to solicit as a favor those acts of courtesy which are due from one civilized nation to another; to allow none of those petty annoyances which have been unsparingly visited upon those who had preceded me.”18 To achieve that goal, he carefully orchestrated his negotiation strategy and his general deportment so that the Japanese would know that they were not dealing with just another foreign merchant. He would “out-Herod Herod in assumed personal consequence and ostentation.”19
Perry arrived in Japan on 8 July 1853 with a squadron of four warships, the steam frigates Susquehanna and Mississippi, and the sloops-of-war Saratoga and Plymouth. That squadron did not arrive at Nagasaki as had been the normal practice, but dropped anchor in the Uraga Channel at the opening of Edo Bay. While his mission was peaceful and his only goal to present the President’s letter and then leave, the Japanese were understandably apprehensive at the sight of Perry’s “black ships.” The U.S. ships were about ten times larger than the biggest Japanese junk; the Susquehanna and Mississippi were both steam powered, something the Japanese were seeing for the first time. Their menacing presence was far too close to Edo to be ignored.
The Japanese responded to that threat in their usual manner. They sent guard boats to surround and board the foreign warships; they sent a “bottle washer” to demand that the Americans leave; and they offered free provisions on the condition that the warships leave immediately. Perry, however, did not react to those Japanese moves in the usual manner. The Japanese guard boats were ordered away from the warships with an implied threat of force if they did not comply. No one was allowed to board the U.S. ships without first being identified and having business to conduct. Perry refused to see the Japanese vice governor of Uraga and demanded to see someone of cabinet-minister rank. The offer of free provisions and the suggestion that the Americans could better conduct their business at Nagasaki were rejected.20 Perry was playing by a different set of rules.
Perry refused to let the Japanese dictate the conditions of negotiation. He had a letter from the president of the United States to the Emperor of Japan or his secretary of foreign affairs and he would deliver the original to none other. He made it clear that if that friendly letter was not received and replied to, he would “consider his country insulted” and would not hold himself accountable for the consequences.”21 The Japanese were confronted with someone who would not be easy to get rid of.
On 14 July, Perry was to meet ashore with Toda, Prince of Izu, and Ido, Prince of Iwami, to deliver the letters. Perry took full advantage of the event to impress the Japanese. He was escorted by about 400 officers, sailors, and Marines who required 15 boats to take them ashore. Officers wore full official dress uniforms. The landing party included two bands, one Navy, the other Marine. The U.S. flag and broad pennant were carried by two sailors “who had been selected from the crews of the squadron on account of their stalwart proportions.” On either side of Perry “marched a tall, well-formed negro, who, armed to the teeth, acted as his personal guard.”22 Like the flag bearers, Perry’s personal guards were selected carefully for the greatest impression on the Japanese.
The President’s letter was presented to the Japanese representative with equal pageantry, wrapped in folio form, bound in blue silk velvet with the seal of the United States—encased in gold—attached by cords of silver and gold silken threads. The letter was housed in a beautiful rosewood box whose lock, hinges, and other mountings were made of solid gold.23
No discussions were held during that first meeting. Perry was well aware of the customary unhurried character of Japanese diplomacy. His only intention was to deliver the letters and return later for a reply. The Japanese, too, were anxious to see the Americans leave as soon as possible, and forcefully asked Perry to leave when the letters had been delivered. Perry did not leave right away, however. He would leave on his schedule, not theirs. He informed the Japanese that he intended to leave in a few days and return in the spring for a reply. In the meantime, Perry took the Mississippi deeper into the bay within just a few miles of Edo itself, making surveys of the waters and demonstrating that he would travel wherever he wished. On 17 July, the four warships left Japan.
time Perry’s squadron included eight ships to provide an even greater demonstration of U.S. naval power. The squadron anchored off Kanagawa, farther up the bay from Uraga. The negotiations would be held in a temporary structure built just for the occasion near Yokohama. This time the landing party included more than 500 officers, sailors, and Marines, all fully armed, accompanied by three bands. It took a total of 27 boats to move that assembly ashore. Once there, Commodore Perry followed with suitable salutes.
The Japanese response was reluctantly positive. They agreed to provide provisions, fresh water, and coal to U.S. ships at predesignated ports. They stated that they would treat shipwrecked sailors humanely and would re-
Perry clearly was pleased at the progress that he had made. In a letter to his wife, Perry wrote that the “pageant was magnificent and I am the only Christian that has ever before landed peacefully on this part of Japan or in any part without submitting to the most humiliating degradation.”24
Perry returned to Japan for his reply and to negotiate a treaty, not in the spring, but on 13 February 1854. That turn them unharmed as soon a possible. The Japanese remained adamant, however, in their refusal to open their country to trade with the United States. Perry was surprised at the Japanese objection, noting that, “If you open your country to commerce, it will bring to you great profit.”25 But the Japanese were apparently uninterested in profits, and so Perry dropped the point.
The only matter still to be discussed was the question of which Japanese ports would be open. The Japanese, of course, proposed Nagasaki. To Perry, this was completely unacceptable. It would be too much like the agreement the Japanese had with the Dutch. Perry wanted Uraga— or Kagoshima—Tesso, and Lew Chew.26 The Japanese countered with Shimoda in the south and Hakodate in the north, to which Perry agreed. Even though there was no agreement on trade, Perry had convinced the Japanese to accept a U.S. consul to help resolve disputes between the Japanese government and the Americans. The Japanese also agreed to open trade with the United States in the event they opened trade with any other state.27
Even without the hoped-for trade agreement, Perry was understandably happy. He noted that “the government of the United States may well claim the honor of being the first to open friendly and independent relations with a nation hitherto claiming the right to entire exclusion from all foreign intercourse.”28
Perry was able to succeed where others had failed through a combination of diplomatic and military skills. As a diplomat, he was patient, dignified, and direct. As a military figure, Perry was a thoughtful strategist who carefully orchestrated every aspect of the mission. He effectively used his role as the commander of an impressive naval squadron to pressure the Japanese into negotiation through a demonstration of superior U.S. military power. Perry learned from the mistakes of his predecessors rather than repeating them.
1. W. G. Beasley, ed. & trans., Select Documents on Japanese Foreign Policy: 1853-1868 (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), pp. 119-22.
2. David F. Long, Gold Braid and Relations (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), p. 238.
3. Ibid., p. 242.
4. John H. Schroeder, Shaping a Maritime Empire. The Commercial and Diplomatic Role of the American Navy, 1829-1861 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), p. 5.
5. Ibid., p. 143.
6. Robert Erwin Johnson, Far China Station (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1979), p. 46.
7. Schroeder, op. cit., pp. 143-44.
8. Samuel Eliot Morison, “Old Bruin" Commodore Matthew C. Perry: 1794- 1858 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967), p. 270.
9. Ibid., p. 272.
10. Ibid., p. 275.
11. Sidney Wallach, Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Sea and Japan. Francis L. Hawks, comp. (New York: Coward- McCann, Inc., 1952), p. xvii.
12. Morrison, op. cit., pp. 279-80.
13. Matthew C. Perry, The Japan Expedition 1852-1854: The Personal Journal of Commodore Matthew C. Perry. Roger Pineau, ed. (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1968), p. 69.
14. Ibid., p. 65.
15. Ibid., p. 92.
17. Ibid., p. 159.
18. Ibid., p. 92.
19. Ibid., p. 159.
20. Ibid., pp. 93-94.
21. Ibid., p. 96.
22. Matthew C. Perry, Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan. Francis Hawk, comp. Vol. 1 (Washington, DC: A.O.P. Nicholson, Printer, 1856), pp. 254-55.
23. Perry, Personal Journal, op. cit., p. 98.
24. Morrison, op. cit., p. 335.
25. Ibid., p. 370.
26. Perry, Personal Journal, op. cit., p. 170.
27. Beasley, op. cit., pp. 121-22.
28. Perry, Personal Journal, op. cit., p. 176.