“If that double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale-ship alone to whom the credit will be due; for already she is on the threshold.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)
By the 1850s Japan had been closed to the west for more than two centuries, since the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who had incited insurrection were expelled in 1639. Christianity was banned and Japanese converts executed. The Japanese also banned guns. Thereafter they lived in peace under the rule of the shoguns, and developed a unique and glittering culture.
Chinese and Koreans came to trade, but the only westerners allowed in were the Dutch, who argued that they were a mercantile nation and not Catholic. A trading colony of 20 Dutch merchants was based on the artificial island Dejima off Nagasaki. Dutch ships arrived annually – most years, anyway – with goods to sell, leaving laden with Japanese wares. Thus the Japanese were able to buy western technology – telescopes, even a daguerreotype camera – and established schools of ‘Dutch learning’ in which scholars spoke and read Dutch, and pursued western knowledge.
No other foreigners – and certainly no westerners – were allowed to approach the country; those who sailed close were driven away, and Japanese people who were shipwrecked abroad were not allowed to return on pain of death (though over time these strictures were relaxed a little).
The end of isolation
The Japanese were not to be left in peace for much longer: Britain, France and other European nations were empire-building, spreading their tentacles across the globe. In 1808, after France had captured the Batavian Republic (as the Netherlands was, briefly, known) during the Napoleonic Wars, the British ship Phaeton sailed into Nagasaki harbour under the Dutch flag, thinking that the Japanese could be fooled.
The shogun’s government responded with a ‘no second thoughts’ edict: all foreign ships that approached Japanese shores would be destroyed. After the First Opium War (1839–42), Japan was aware of British incursions into neighbouring China, and feared a similar attack. But the Crimean War was looming, setting Britain and France against Russia. That left the way open for the relatively young United States of America to get involved.
In the US, the California Gold Rush was reaching its peak. The whaling industry was booming. Americans lit their homes with whale-oil lamps, used baleen whale bones to stiffen crinolines in women’s dresses, and lubricated industrial machinery with whale oil. For several decades, whaling ships from New England had plied the rich waters around the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido but were prohibited from putting in for supplies, and sailors shipwrecked in Japan were imprisoned.
In November 1851, US president Millard Fillmore instructed Commodore Matthew Perry to deliver a letter to the Japanese emperor demanding that American vessels be allowed access to ports of call to take on coal and water, and that castaways be treated humanely. The Dutch king Willem III wrote to the shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi, warning that an American expedition was on its way. However, the shogun’s ministers decided to play down such news in order to avoid provoking panic.
The Japanese experience
“The broad streets of the shogun’s capital are packed with people running about in panic”
On the third day of the sixth month in the Year Kaei 6, fishermen plying their nets in the Uraga Channel saw four huge ships, looming “large as mountains” and travelling “swiftly as birds”, speeding into the channel leading to Edo (now called Tokyo), the shogun’s capital. Terrified, they sculled off to raise the alarm.
Guard boats swarmed out to confront the ships, but the intruders drove them off with pikes. Kayama Eizaemon, police magistrate in the port of Uraga, shouted up that the ships must go to Nagasaki, the only place foreign ships were allowed. Through interpreters the American commander replied that he would do no such thing. He had a letter to deliver to the emperor, and gave the Japanese three days to arrange for its reception by an official of appropriately high rank.
Kayama noted the huge Paixhans gun (the first naval weapon to fire explosive shells) aimed at Uraga, and counted 70 large-calibre cannons. Of 100 cannons defending Edo Bay, the shogunate had only 11 of comparable calibre.
State of emergency
When the shogun’s ministers received the news, they declared a state of emergency and mobilised troops to protect Edo Castle. The Japanese were dismayed to see small boats being lowered from the American ships and nosing towards Edo, a huge steamer surging along behind them.
Panic seized the city. “Smiths busy themselves making armour, helmets, swords and spears,” wrote a local reporter. “Men and women who live near the sea coast, both samurai and commoners, have begun to evacuate with their young and old. The broad streets of the shogun’s capital are packed with people running about in panic as they carry furniture and possessions.”
Anguished discussions took place in Edo Castle. Should attempts be made to expel the intruders? Was such action even feasible? No one wanted to accept the American letter under duress. And who should they send to receive it? It was clear that the Americans knew nothing about Japan, and certainly not that the emperor was an irrelevance – a pope-like figure living in seclusion in Kyoto. The Japanese could play on that ignorance.
Just in time to meet the American ultimatum, Kayama took a message to the ships saying that Toda Izu, prince of Sagami and an official of “very high rank equal to that of the Lord Admiral”, would receive the president’s letter. Perry was satisfied, and Toda – actually the governor of the very small town of Uraga – was highly amused at his promotion.
By now the roads south of Edo were packed with gun carriages, carts carrying arms and provisions, and packhorses led by porters. The price of rice and armour had gone through the roof. There had been no fresh fish for three days. “It is as if the whole town was to be burnt to ashes this very moment,” the court doctor noted in his diary.
Six days after the arrival of the ships, Kayama delivered a letter “from the emperor” (written by chief minister Abe Masahiro), authorising Toda Izu to receive the president’s letter the next day.
Carpenters worked through the night to build reception halls hung with colourful flags and banners. Next morning the Americans moved their ships menacingly close to the beach. More than 5,000 samurai stood to arms.
A thunderous salute erupted from the ships as Perry, showing his face for the first time and accompanied by two enormous black bodyguards, stepped ashore between lines of soldiers, while the American band played ear-splitting music. In the pavilion Perry handed two letters to Toda, telling him he would return next spring for an answer.
The government assumed that the crisis had passed. But next day the ships steamed to within seven miles of Edo Castle, sounding their foghorns. Japanese ministers met, dressed in battle gear, and mobilised troops, while spectators gathered to gaze at the monstrous ships, offering fruit to the men on board.
The end of the beginning
Finally, the American ships prepared to leave. Kayama delivered presents – rolls of silk, fans painted with erotica – though he noticed that the Americans turned up their noses at these works of art. The Americans gave presents in return and Kayama, who had enjoyed his period in the limelight, pantomimed how much he’d miss them.
Huge crowds gathered to watch the American ships sail away after their 10-day sojourn. After they’d gone the Japanese burnt the American presents on the beach at Uraga. Perhaps they would not return; after all, previous foreign intruders had never reappeared.
Just 10 days after the fleet left, the shogun died suddenly. Natural or not, his death seemed a bad omen.
The American experience
“The visitors were enchanted by the civility of the Japanese and the beautiful countryside”
As Commodore Matthew Perry’s two heavily armed steamships and two sloops steamed into Uraga Bay, fishermen fled for shore “like wild birds at a sudden intruder”. The ships dropped anchor and levelled their huge Paixhans gun at Uraga.
Boats rowed by “tall, athletic men, naked save a cloth around the loins” surrounded the ships but were driven away; only one two-sworded official and his interpreter were allowed aboard. The main go-between was Kayama whom, with his elaborate silk garments embroidered with gold and silver peacock feathers, the Americans took to be the governor of Uraga. Even so, Perry stayed out of sight, asserting that he would speak only with a man of the highest rank.
Every day thereafter except the sabbath Perry sent survey boats sculling towards Edo with the heavily armed Mississippi steaming behind. Japanese defences were not as formidable as Perry had feared, reinforcing his plan to force them to bend to his will by threatening their capital.
Perry warned that if the Japanese refused to receive the American president’s letter, he would “not hold himself responsible for the consequences”. Finally Kayama replied that “the emperor had appointed one of the chief counsellors of the empire” to receive the letter at Uraga.
As morning dawned, the Americans saw newly built pavilions decorated with flags and banners, and soldiers in lacquered hats, short skirts and sleeveless frocks. Japanese officials wore brocaded silk overgarments trimmed with yellow velvet and embroidered with gold, as splendid as “at some joust or tourney”.
At 10 o’clock, heralded by a 13-gun salute, Perry stepped into a white barge accompanied by 250 marines. He marched ashore between two huge black sailors to a roll of drums, followed by two cabin boys carrying rosewood boxes wrapped in scarlet cloth holding the letters. While the band played ‘Hail Columbia’ the procession followed Kayama up to the reception hall where an armchair was ready for Perry.
Toda received the letters, one from President Fillmore pledging friendship and requesting the opening of relations, the other Perry’s instructions to open negotiations on a treaty of amity. Perry told the Japanese that he would return in April or May with more ships, “as these are only a portion of the squadron”.
The Americans collected shells from the beach and compared swords with the Japanese soldiers (though garnering hostile looks from some spectators) before marching back to their ships to the strain of ‘Yankee Doodle’.
The following day, Perry ordered the ships closer to Edo, and despatched the survey boats. Crowds gathered along the shore, offering water and peaches while the Americans shared tobacco. The visitors were enchanted by the civility of the Japanese and the beautiful countryside, with its thatch-roofed villages, extensive cultivation and intensely green groves of trees. They steamed to within seven miles of Edo, where they could see crowds of junks and low buildings.
Next day the squadron returned to its earlier anchorage. Kayama delivered gifts to the Americans including fans painted with “hideously distorted and lackadaisical pictures of Japanese ladies”, which the Americans found distasteful. They selected gifts of higher value to return.
At daybreak on 17 July, 10 days after the arrival of the American fleet, people gathered to watch the parade of ships off Cape Sagami, with a thousand boats gathered to bid the Americans farewell.
Aftermath of the encounter
Perry returned in March 1854 with nine ships, and forced the Japanese to sign a treaty opening the ports. Other nations rapidly demanded similar concessions.
In 1856, Townsend Harris arrived at Shimoda, declaring himself the first American consul general to Japan. For two years he negotiated, wheedled and threatened until the Japanese allowed him to meet the young shogun in Edo. There he forced a trade treaty on Japan – the first of many. James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, arrived shortly afterwards to sign a similar treaty for Britain.
The arrival of the newcomers had created upheaval in Japan. Chief minister Abe had needed to consult with the 260 daimyo (warlord princes) on the critical issue of how to deal with the intruders – which fatally undermined his authority. The result was a breakdown of order in Japan and the overthrow of the shogunate. In 1868, a mere 15 years after Perry’s first visit, the teenage emperor Meiji became the figurehead of a new government – and modern Japan was born.
Lesley Downer is the author of many books on Japan. Her new novel The Shogun’s Queen (Bantam, 2016) begins when Perry’s ‘black ships’ are sighted off the coast of Japan
This article was taken from issue 1 of BBC World Histories magazine, published in December 2016