In July of 1853, United States Commodore Matthew Perry, a no-nonsense veteran of the War of 1812, the Mexican War and the U. S. campaign against pirates in North Africa, arrived in Japan, determined to accomplish his mission. The task at hand was to open Japan to United States trade, by force if necessary, and the first step was to deliver a letter from President Millard Fillmore into the hands of the Japanese emperor. Though the objective may sound simple to a modern reader, Japan, at the time, had been isolationist for around two centuries, with their only foreign contact coming from China and the Netherlands. Nevertheless, Commodore Perry entered Tokyo Bay with four ships and loomed threateningly until the Japanese officials accepted President Fillmore’s letter.
The bakufu of Japan—the government of the Tokugawa Shogun—naturally asked for time to contemplate their options. Commodore Perry agreed, but warned he would return the following year with an even larger naval force. The bakufu officials were startled enough by the Commodore that they requested advice from Japan’s powerful regional rulers, the daimyo. The bakufu’s uncertainty was a sign of weakness that the Tokugawa Shogun would soon regret, and the daimyo, certainly, would not forget the wavering self-confidence of the Tokugawa bakufu. This, however, is quite a digression from Commodore Perry.
Keeping his word, Commodore Perry returned to Japan with a larger fleet. He sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1854 with nine ships, and the Tokugawa bakufu warily let the foreigners enter Japan.
When the two countries met, the Japanese and the U. S. sailors put on a cultural show-and-tell. The Japanese brought Perry to see a sumo-wrestling match—he was unimpressed. On the other hand, the United States brought with them a train, a telescope, a telegraph and a variety of alcoholic beverages.
By March, 1854, the United States had secured itself a trade treaty. The Treaty of Kanagawa allowed U. S. ships to enter the Japanese ports of Hakodate and Shimoda. Also, the U. S. gained permission to set up a consulate at Shimoda. Finally, the conditions of the Treaty of Kanagawa spread to other imperial powers—most notably, Britain, France and Russia. Within four more years, Japan would have eight trade ports open to international commerce, and all it took was the threat of brute force from a United States naval officer.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present (Third Edition) by Andrew Gordon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.