Shortly after dawn on 8 July 1853, a squadron of American ships, commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry, appeared off the entrance of Edo (Tokyo) Bay. As the sun burned away the early-morning mist, the American ships steamed into the bay at eight knots with their guns loaded and run out. Thousands of Japanese, who had never before seen a steamer, lined the shore to see the “burning ships.” With their black hulls and clouds of coal smoke pouring from their funnels, they soon became known to the Japanese as “the black ships.”
That evening Perry’s squadron anchored in line of battle, 30 miles from the capital, to begin a chess game of Far East diplomacy, something for which Perry, with his dignified—some would say “pompous”—manner, was ideally suited. Feudal Japan had long resisted contact with the outside world, and Perry had been dispatched to deliver a letter to the reclusive Japanese emperor from President Millard Fillmore, proposing a treaty of “peace and amity” (translation: “open markets”) between the two nations.