Brooklyn Museum - Commodore Matthew Perry's "Black Ship"
Picryl description: Public domain photo of Japanese painting, free to use art, no copyright restrictions image.
On July 8, 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry led his squadron of two steamers and two sailing vessels into the harbor at Tokyo Bay, seeking to re-establish for the first time in over 200 years regular trade and discourse between Japan and the western world. Perry, on behalf of the U.S. government, forced Japan to enter into trade with the United States and demanded a treaty permitting trade and the opening of Japanese ports to U.S. merchant ships. As American traders in the Pacific replaced sailing ships with steamships, they needed to secure coaling stations, where they could stop to take on provisions and fuel while making the long trip from the United States to China. The combination of its advantageous geographic position and rumors that Japan held vast deposits of coal increased the appeal of establishing commercial and diplomatic contacts with the Japanese. American whaling industry too - sought safe harbors, assistance in case of shipwrecks, and reliable supply stations. At the time, many Americans believed that they had a special responsibility to modernize and civilize the Chinese and Japanese. In the case of Japan, missionaries felt that Protestant Christianity would be accepted whereas Catholicism had generally been rejected. Other Americans argued that even if the Japanese were unreceptive to Western ideals, forcing them to interact and trade with the world was a necessity that would ultimately benefit both nations. Perry was not the first westerner to visit the islands. Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch traders engaged in regular trade with Japan in the 16th and 17th centuries. Persistent attempts by the Europeans to convert the Japanese to Catholicism and their tendency to engage in unfair trading practices led Japan to expel most foreigners in 1639. For the two centuries that followed, Japan limited trade access to Dutch and Chinese ships with special charters. Perry arrived in Japanese waters with a small squadron of U.S. Navy ships, because he and others believed the only way to convince the Japanese to accept western trade was to display a willingness to use its advanced firepower. At the same time, Perry brought along a variety of gifts for the Japanese Emperor, including a working model of a steam locomotive, a telescope, a telegraph, and a variety of wines and liquors from the West, all intended to impress upon the Japanese the superiority of Western culture. His mission was to complete an agreement with the Japanese Government for the protection of shipwrecked or stranded Americans and to open one or more ports for supplies and refueling. Displaying his audacity and readiness to use force, Perry’s approach into the forbidden waters around Tokyo convinced the Japanese authorities to accept the letter. Perry's small squadron was not enough to force the Japanese to agree to foreign demands, but the Japanese knew that his ships were just the beginning of Western interest in their islands. Russia, Britain, France, and Holland all followed Perry's example and used their fleets to force Japan to sign treaties that promised regular relations and trade. Tokugawa Japan into which Perry Sailed Japan at this time was ruled by the shôgun ("great general") from the Tokugawa family. The Tokugawa shogunate was founded about 250 years earlier, in 1603, when Tokugawa leyasu (his surname is Tokugawa) and his allies defeated an opposing coalition of feudal lords to establish dominance over the many contending warlords. But while Tokugawa became dominant, receiving the title of shôgun from the politically powerless emperor, he did not establish a completely centralized state. Instead, he replaced opposing feudal lords with relatives and allies, who were free to rule within their domains under few restrictions. The Tokugawa shôguns prevented alliances against them by forbidding marriages among the other feudal lords' family members and by forcing them to spend every other year under the shôgun's eye in Edo (now Tôkyô), the shogunal capital — in a kind of organized hostage system. It was the third shôgun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, who enforced isolation from much of the rest of the world in the seventeenth century, believing that influences from abroad (meaning trade, Christianity, and guns) could shift the balance that existed between the shôgun and the feudal lords. He was proven right two centuries later when change came in the form of Perry's ships. Japan's Response The Japanese had no navy with which to defend themselves. Upon seeing Perry's fleet sailing into their harbor, the Japanese called them the "black ships of evil mien (appearance)." Many leaders wanted the foreigners expelled from the country, but in 1854 a treaty was signed between the United States and Japan that allowed trade at two ports. In 1858 another treaty was signed which opened more ports and designated cities in which foreigners could reside. The trade brought much foreign currency into Japan disrupting the Japanese monetary system. Because the ruling shôgun seemed unable to do anything about the problems brought by the foreign trade, some samurai leaders began to demand a change in leadership. The weakness of the Tokugawa shogunate before the Western demand for trade, and the disruption this trade brought, eventually led to the downfall of the Shogunate and the creation of a new centralized government with the emperor as its symbolic head. Perry first sailed to the Ryukyus and the Bonin Islands southwest and southeast of the main Japanese islands, claiming territory for the United States, and demanding that the people in both places assist him. He then sailed north to Edo (Tokyo) Bay, carrying a letter from the U.S. President addressed to the Emperor of Japan. By addressing the letter to the Emperor, the United States demonstrated its lack of knowledge about the Japanese government and society. At that time, the Japanese emperor was little more than a figurehead, and the true leadership of Japan was in the hands of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The following spring, Perry returned with an even larger squadron to receive Japan’s answer. The Japanese grudgingly agreed to Perry’s demands, and the two sides signed the Treaty of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854. According to the terms of the treaty, Japan would protect stranded seamen and open two ports for refueling and provisioning American ships: Shimoda and Hakodate. Japan also gave the United States the right to appoint consuls to live in these port cities, a privilege not previously granted to foreign nations. This treaty was not a commercial treaty, and it did not guarantee the right to trade with Japan. Still, in addition to providing for distressed American ships in Japanese waters, it contained a most-favored-nation clause, so that all future concessions Japan granted to other foreign powers would also be granted to the United States. As a result, Perry’s treaty provided an opening that would allow future American contact and trade with Japan. Although Japan opened its ports to modern trade only reluctantly, once it did, it took advantage of the new access to modern technological developments. Japan’s opening to the West enabled it to modernize its military and to rise quickly to the position of the most formidable Asian power in the Pacific. At the same time, the process by which the United States and the Western powers forced Japan into modern commercial intercourse, along with other internal factors, weakened the position of the Tokugawa Shogunate to the point that the shogun fell from power. The Emperor gained formal control of the country in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, with long-term effects on the rule and modernization of Japan.