Some of the most riveting moments in history happen when two wildly different worlds meet for the first time. Today, one of the most common tropes in our books and movies is first contact with aliens from another world. But science-fiction doesn’t have to speculate too hard about what mankind’s response to that moment will be like. We already know.
For much of the world’s history, people with differing values, languages, cultures, and religion were largely separated by the sheer size of the world. But as technology advanced, the world began to shrink, and these often-conflicting cultures started to collide into each other, often violently.
|A Japanese man aboard the USS Susquehanna|
By the 1850’s, Japan had managed to hold the world at bay for centuries, isolating itself in its secluded string of islands, but some weren’t content to let it stay closed off forever. A brand-new nation, the United States of America, decided to take action to bring Japan out of its shell. And they were willing to use force to do it.
The American Commodore placed in charge of the expedition pulled his terrifying, black warships into the forbidden waters of Tokyo Bay, turned his guns toward the Japanese cities lining the shore, and demanded Japan open its doors. The showdown between these two alien worlds began.
This week in history we backtrack 163 years to March 31, 1854, to look at the arrival of Commodore Perry’s black ships to Japan, and the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa.
In 1841, a 14-year-old fisherman named Manjiro and four of his friends set off in a small fishing junk. A sudden storm caught them by surprise, blowing them far from the shore, and their small boat was torn apart by the angry ocean. The five boys washed up on a small, uninhabited island roughly 250 miles south of Japan.
The boys were in trouble, but being shipwrecked was the least of their worries. They knew that if they were to return to Japan, they’d be executed.
For over two centuries, Japan had sealed itself off from the outside world. Manjiro and his friends had been raised hearing terrifying tales of the barbarians who lived outside of their home islands. They were violent, savage, held dangerous and strange religious beliefs. To insulate the country from the corruption of such backward people, a strict law had been put into place. All other nations were warned in the sternest terms to stay away from Japanese waters. No foreigner was permitted to enter the country, and no Japanese person was allowed to leave. Any Japanese who returned after leaving the country would immediately be put to death.
Manjiro and his friends, by sheer accident, had broken this rigid, long-standing rule, and were now without a country. But returning to Japan wasn’t really an option; castaways on a barren volcanic island, the boys endured five desperate months, eating shellfish, whatever birds they could manage to catch, and drinking rainwater.
Their grim fight to survive was interrupted when a giant ship, the American whaler John Howland, anchored off the island. Instead of being relieved at a potential rescue, the boys were terrified, remembering the legends of the violent barbarians. They initially hid from the strange men with fur on their faces. At length, the American sailors managed to coerce the boys off the island.
The captain of the Howland was named William Whitfield. Whitfield apologetically told the boys he’d be unable to return them to Japan. Both he and the boys knew if Whitfield attempted to take them home, he was risking his ship and crew, and the boys would likely have been killed for the effort.
So, without another option, the five of them sailed on the John Howland toward Hawaii. On route, Whitfield and Manjiro bonded. Manjiro was genial, curious, naturally intelligent and energetic. He quickly started to pick up English and was fascinated by the workings of the ship. Whitfield was a kind man who was entertained by Manjiro’s inquisitiveness and was empathetic to his plight. Whitfield started calling the boy “John,” and Manjiro embraced his new, American name.
When the Howland arrived in Honolulu, Manjiro’s four friends disembarked, determined to make a new life for themselves, but Manjiro asked to stay with Whitfield, who happily agreed.
Upon returning to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, Whitfield’s family adopted “John” Manjiro as their own. The Whitfields afforded every courtesy to their new Japanese son. Very few Asians had ever been seen along the American east coast, and absolutely no Japanese. One Sunday while attending church services, the pastor eyed Manjiro sitting next to the Whitfields and insisted that “John” sit in the negro section in the back of the church. William and his wife were appalled, and they left. They soon found a more tolerant congregation who allowed the family to sit together.
With his natural curiosity, Manjiro dove into his studies, mastering English. He learned navigation and coopering. For a time, he studied at Oxford. His understanding of the world outside of Japan had been completely shattered. But he never forgot Japan, his mother who must now think him dead, and he resolved to one day return.
Returning was going to be dangerous. Japan had been settled in seclusion for generations and seemed determined to remain that way. Their reasons for their isolation were deeply embedded in their history and their cultural and national identity. Their self-imposed exile primarily had to do with religion.
Japan’s religion—like most cultures throughout history—was inextricably intertwined with its culture and government.
In 1274 the terrifying Mongol Empire had set its eyes on Japan. They amassed a huge fleet of black-painted ships to invade the island chain. But as they started to get under way, sudden violent storms arose. Some of the Mongol fleet was lost, and the rest were forced to return to China. Seven years later, the Mongols tried again. This time, as their fleet was navigating Japanese waters, another intense storm suddenly slammed into the black ships. They were battered against coastal rocks, and most sank. Over 100,000 of the Mongol’s massive 140,000-man-army were killed in the storm. The ragged surviving invaders were easily mopped up by the Japanese Samurai.
Ever after, the Japanese looked on both incidents as divine intervention. They reverently called the storms the “divine winds,” the protection of the Gods bestowed upon the chosen people of Japan. The legend was etched in Japanese consciousness so deeply that centuries later when another nation was threatening to invade Japan in a bloody war, young Japanese pilots started sacrificing themselves in suicidal attacks in an attempt to turn the enemy back. The pilots were named after the miraculous storms that had protected Japan from the Mongols. They were called the “divine wind” pilots, or in Japanese, “kamikaze.”
The miracle of the kamikaze was not the only evidence, to the Japanese, that they were favored of the gods. Japan’s state religion was Shinto, an ethnic religion that emphasized balance, connection to nature, and worship of ancestors. According to Shinto belief, the Emperor of Japan was a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess, a living son of deity. The emperor, in practice, held little power (consider him similar to modern-day British royalty), but his role as divine leader of Japan served to unify the Japanese people in a collective, national identity.
Japan’s government was ruled for much of its history by local leaders called Daimyo, who ruled over individual sections of the country, much like feudal lords in Europe. They collected their own taxes and hired their own militaries from a professional warrior class called the samurai. But the Daimyo paid tribute and gave loyalty to the Emperor and true leader of Japan, the Shogun. The Shogun was a hereditary leader who acted as king over the entire nation. In practice, the Shogun reported to no one, but according to Japanese tradition, he ruled at the pleasure of the Emperor.
Japan’s belief in the emperor’s divinity made Shintoism and loyalty to the state indelibly intertwined. Church and state weren’t separate; they were one in the same thing. It was central to their cultural identity, and when that identity was challenged, there was a huge backlash.
Europe, Christianity, and Japan
You’re probably familiar with the “Age of Discovery.” Between the 15th and 18th centuries, explorers—mostly European, but with some notable exceptions like the Chinese treasure fleets—started to spread across the planet. This era kick-started a rush to explore, establish trade routes, and most infamously, to colonize. For the Europeans, all of this was done under the banner of Christianity, and everywhere the Europeans went, they were determined to introduce their religion to the natives.
The first Europeans to arrive in Japan were Portuguese. Explorers were followed by merchants, who were followed by missionaries. Initially, Japan welcomed the new trade warmly. They had been trading with China, Korea, and other Asian civilizations for centuries, and they welcomed the new and interesting goods these strange Europeans were introducing. Within a few years, a taste for European clothing and style stormed across Japan, and both European merchants and Japanese port cities started to see a huge windfall from the new trade.
Portuguese missionaries were meeting with similar success. Christianity (primarily Catholicism, because the missionaries were mainly Portuguese) was avidly embraced by the curious Japanese. The leader of Japan at the time, the famous Shogun Oda Nobunaga, sanctioned the new religion. Within a mere 80 years of the Portuguese’ arrival, it’s estimated that around a half million—10% of Japan’s population—had converted to Christianity.
This was, in part, a pragmatic decision rather than a religious one; Europeans were more likely to do business with local leaders who had embraced Christianity. Daimyo would often force their entire households of families and servants to be baptized. In a couple of cases, Daimyo commanded entire cities to embrace Catholicism, all to draw the attention and wallets of the Europeans.
Part of the reason the Christians found such success in Japan was in the inherent differences between Eastern religious thought and Western doctrines. Shinto, like Buddhism and most other Eastern religions, tended to incorporate other religious ideas, not compete with them. Many Japanese were Buddhist but saw no problem in also believing in Shintoism and the Emperor’s divinity. So, for many of the Japanese who adopted Christianity, it didn’t occur to them that Christian dogma might supplant or erase their other beliefs. The local Buddhist and Shinto monks welcomed the missionaries warmly until they started to realize the Christians intended to displace all other faiths.
The European missionaries weren’t exactly known for moderation or meekness. One of the most successful missionaries was a Spanish priest named Francis Xavier, who reached Japan in the summer of 1549. His efforts there became so legendary, that he was eventually beatified, and today is considered by Catholics to be the patron Saint of Japan. Xavier’s approach, pretty common for Catholic and Protestant evangelists of the time, was strident and dismissive of Japan’s traditional religions.
Xavier’s style was noted by historian George Feifer:
“[Xavier] made no effort to understand the religions that were in place when he arrived. . . The soon-to-be-saint saw them as Satan’s work, to be ‘overthrown without compromise or sympathy.’”-George Feifer, Breaking Open Japan
The troubling developments from the Christians became worse when the Daimyo and the Shogun realized that differing Christian sects condemned and competed with other Christian sects. Intense conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, and even between Jesuits and Franciscans, two different orders within the Catholic Church, arose within Japan. The Shogun became increasingly exasperated at the European preachers.
The Japanese revered and worshiped their ancestors and most were either unable or unwilling to believe in the concept of hell—that their forefathers were burning in misery and eternal punishment. This disturbing idea seemed like sheer nonsense to them. The sacredness of a family’s honor and heritage was a closely-held belief within both Japanese religion and culture and was in direct contention with this fundamental Christian teaching.
The Europeans were quickly spreading into all corners of the world, and the Japanese were awakening to the threat they posed. Their trepidation turned to alarm as Spain began to colonize the nearby Philippine Islands, violently subjugating the archipelago’s native peoples in the process.
Japan began restricting trade to specific southern ports, hoping to stem the flow of European influence into the country. One Spanish sea captain, angry that he was being turned away from a now-closed port, warned the local officials that if Japan resisted Spain, they may end up like the Philippines. To add pressure to his threat, the captain showed the Japanese a map of Spanish conquests around the world.
The map was dotted with Spanish-controlled colonies. Alarmed, they asked him how Spain had been able to attain this sprawling worldwide empire. He told them that countries marked for conquering were softened by the introduction of Christian missionaries, “and when they have made considerable progress, troops are sent [with] not much trouble.” (Quote from John Robertson, Japan: From Shogun to Sony 1543-1984)
The growing Japanese suspicion of Christianity became realized when word reached the Shogun that Christian preachers were teaching that spiritual authority (the authority of Catholic priests and bishops) superseded the authority of the Daimyo or even the Shogun.
But that wasn’t even the worst of it; according to the Christian preachers, the followers of Jesus were to believe only in the Christian God, and no one else. Xavier’s insistence that Shinto, Buddhism and other closely held beliefs were “Satan’s work” had a particularly insidious ramification for the Japanese. Christians refused to believe that the sacred emperor of Japan, the descendant of the Sun Goddess, herself, was divine. They dismissed him as a pretender, a fake. No belief could have been better designed to subvert and damage Japanese society and national identity.
When the Shogun learned of these dangerous Christian doctrines, he declared that the missionaries were “pernicious, most undesirable.” He expelled all foreign missionaries from Japanese shores, forbidding them to return.
Initially, only the European preachers were forbidden, but Christianity had begun to degrade Japan’s entire social structure, and conflicts increasingly arose between Japanese Christians and the local Daimyo. Clearly, something had to be done, and Japan had just been given a Shogun willing to take drastic steps to fix the problem of Christianity.
In the early years of the 17th Century, a new family rose to power in the shogunate and began the Tokugawa dynasty. The third shogun of the dynasty, Tokugawa Iemitsu, instituted draconian measures to quell any further outside contamination into Japanese culture. Not content with the expulsion of the foreign ministers, the new Shogun outlawed Christianity entirely. Any person who would not repudiate their beliefs was executed. But this was only the warm-up. In 1635, he issued the Sakoku Edict.
Sakoku, in Japanese, means “closed country,” though some have interpreted it as “country in chains.” The edict barred all Europeans from entering into Japan and officially ended trade with almost all foreign nations. It instituted strict penalties for the practice of Catholicism and other forms of Christianity and even offered a bounty for those willing to turn in Christians practicing in secret. The edict forbade all Japanese from leaving the country, under pain of death. Japan’s brief exposure to the outside world had been extremely destabilizing and Tokugawa was doing all he could to deny any more foreign corruption.
Two years later, a peasant rebellion began to grow in and around Nagasaki. It’s known to history as the Simabara Revolt. The revolt happened to take place in the south, where Christianity had been most prevalent. When they began to revolt against the government, the Christians among them felt free to come out of hiding, and as they met Japanese troops in battle, they made battle cries to Jesus and Mary while wearing crucifixes and crosses. The revolt was not religious in nature; like most moments of civil unrest, it had more to do with access to food and a sluggish economy. But seeing the brazenness of the Christians among the rebels convinced Tokugawa that it had been a religious uprising. The Shogun’s forces demolished the rebels, and nearly some 37,000 people were killed.
Thousands of the dead were thrown into a giant mass grave. The Shogun directed that a sign be hung above it. It read:
“So long as the sun shall warm the earth, let no Christian be so bold as to come to Japan; and let all know, that the king of Spain himself, or the Christian’s God. . . if he violate this command, shall pay for it with his head.”
So Japan receded in the world’s view. They only traded with China, Korea, and, interestingly enough, Holland. The Dutch were generally anti-Catholic, which was welcome news to the Japanese, but even better, they were considered an unassertive trading country content to mind their own business. Still, no Dutchman was allowed to enter the country, itself. All trade was limited to a single port in Nagasaki and was carefully monitored by local authorities.
In isolation, Japan had something of a cultural renaissance. With Tokugawa’s strict social order and extreme isolationist foreign policy in place, the country began to see a great deal of economic growth, and with it, a flourishing of art, drama, music, and other cultural achievements. The nation remained at peace for what one historian has suggested to be the longest single period of peace in humanity’s history. It seemed that putting the “nation in chains” had been a wise decision.
For over 200 years, Japan remained solitary and aloof. To the outside world, a mystique arose around this exotic, mysterious nation, but they also perceived it as backward and cowardly. Even in Holland, Japan’s lone European trading partner, very little was known about the island nation. Curiosities were piqued, and as the world grew, unwanted guests inevitably started knocking on Japan’s door.
As the 19th Century dawned, Japan was still tightly tucked behind their laws, and largely remained unaware that the outside world was changing radically. Occasionally, their Dutch trading partners would bring them reports of what was happening in the world, but Japan placidly ignored most of it, content to remain separate.
But the rest of the world was being remade in the Industrial Revolution. International trade, which had been a huge part of the global economy for centuries, exploded exponentially. New technologies resulted in new kinds of cloth, new styles of clothes, new ways of transporting perishable goods, new machinery that made farming and industry more efficient. Faster, larger ships were built to deliver all of these goods across the world. The capital city of Japan, Edo (the city we now know as Tokyo) had long held the distinction of being the largest city in the world. (Though it’s fairly unlikely any residents of Edo were actually aware of that fact.) But with all the new technology radically altering daily life across Europe and North America, populations were exploding. London quickly passed by Edo in size, and hardly hesitated in its growth for years. Paris and other European centers of industry weren’t far behind.
Unsettlingly, Japan started to feel results of these changes. The number of foreign ships spotted from Japan’s shores seemed to be growing exponentially. Fishing and especially whaling was progressing to an industrial scale, and Russian, British, and American whaling ships were constantly trawling the stormy waters off of Japan’s northern islands in pursuit of precious whale oil.
|A Japanese watercolor of the American whaler Manhattan|
Most alarming, though, was the increase in traders and official diplomats trying to gain entry into Nagasaki and elsewhere, hoping that the centuries-old Sakoku policy might be reconsidered. Within a 75 year period, Japan turned away 72 ships. By 1807, ten of those ships had been sent by the newly-established United States of America. Japan rejected them all, but as more ships came, the Shogun determined to enact sterner measures. In 1824, he instituted the Edict to Repel Foreign Vessels, which directed the Japanese to drive away foreign ships by any necessary means. It soon became colloquially known as “shell and repel.”
The edict reiterated that all foreigners who landed on Japan soil “must be arrested or killed.” The Shogun reminded his people why that was necessary:
“All Southern Barbarians and Westerners, not only the English, worship Christianity, that wicked cult prohibited in our land. Henceforth, whenever a foreign ship is sighted approaching any point on our coast, all persons on land should fire on and drive it off. . . Never be caught off guard.”
During this time, Japan maintained a thriving fishing economy, but to be a fisherman was a dangerous proposition. The government had long forbidden the construction of boats large enough to sail across the sea. This meant that the further a Japanese fisherman ventured from the shore in pursuit of a catch, the less safe their small fishing junks became. The junks, which were usually flat-bottomed and had a shallow draught, could not handle rough water at all.
In 1837, the American merchant ship Morrison stumbled upon shipwrecked Japanese fishermen on a small island off the coast of China. The Japanese sailors were hesitant to return to Japan on a foreign ship, knowing they could be executed. But the Americans saw in the castaways another opportunity to ingratiate themselves with the Japanese, and maybe open up trade.
|Japanese depiction of the Morrison.|
With six Japanese men on board, the Morrison confidently set sail for Edo. When they neared the town of Uraga near the mouth of Edo (now Tokyo) Bay, a shore battery opened fire on them without warning. The captain of the Morrison turned his ship as fast as he could and left. Reports of the incident eventually reached Washington DC, which incensed the Americans; the Japanese would fire on an unarmed, peaceful ship trying to return its own citizens? It was stupefying.
But the Americans would have more chance for outrage; in 1846, five years after young Manjiro was saved and adopted by Captain Whitfield, the American whaler Lawrence was caught in a violent gale and sank. Seven of the crew managed to survive and clung to wreckage until they finally washed ashore Japan’s northern coast. The American sailors were immediately arrested by the Japanese.
One of the sailors reported his experience:
“They threatened to cut off our heads, because they thought we were English, whom they hate; but when we told them we were Americans, they said nothing more, except to ask of us what religion we were. Upon our telling them we worshipped God, and believed in Jesus Christ, they brought a cross bearing the image or our Saviour, and had we not tramped upon it at their request, they would have massacred us on the spot."
The sailors were eventually released to the Dutch, who returned them to home to the U.S., where their story drew ire at the barbaric and inhumane treatment. In response to the Japanese treatment of the Lawrence survivors and the attack on the Morrison, President Andrew Jackson dispatched Commodore James Biddle to Asia, first to establish a trade treaty with China, and then to conduct an audience with the Shogun and open diplomatic ties to Japan.
Fresh from a successful trip to China, Biddle arrived with two American warships. Their armaments were so overwhelming that the Japanese shore batteries didn’t dare fire on them. But immediately, several of the largest Japanese junks, (all of which were dwarfed by Biddle’s ships) maneuvered in his way, preventing further entry progress into Edo Harbor.
Biddle was peaceful, apologetic, and respectful. He weighed anchor and respectfully requested an audience, saying he had a letter to deliver from President Andrew Jackson to the Emperor. (It’s unclear how much the Americans understood about power dynamics in Japan, but little effort was made to negotiate with the Shogun, the true ruler of Japan) Biddle allowed the Japanese to come aboard and tour his ships. His submissive, friendly attitude achieved little. The Japanese officials in charge brusquely demanded Biddle leave at once. Biddle calmly stated he’d happily leave, once he was granted an audience with a representative of the emperor.
|Biddle's ships USS Columbus and USS Vincennes in Edo Harbor|
Finally, the Japanese agreed and arranged a meeting on a Japanese ship in the harbor; the Americans were not permitted to set foot on land. Biddle graciously accepted, and on the next day, in full dress uniform, he and some of his sailors boarded a rowboat and proceeded to what they thought was the junk arranged for the conference. They had the wrong boat. It was a small harbor patrol ship, and the Japanese sailors were alarmed as the Commodore and his boat of Americans pulled up. Neither the Japanese sailors nor the Americans had an interpreter with them. Thinking he was going to meet the delegation, Biddle tried to step on board and a sailor roughly shoved him back into the rowboat, and then threateningly drew a sword. Biddle immediately returned to his ships, thinking the delegation had decided to snub and insult him.
For his part, the Shogun ordered gifts sent to the Commodore before he left, assuring him the guard would be punished. But Biddle left without any more attempts at diplomacy. The perceived insult stoked American fury like nothing else had.
In Japan, it offered them a sense of security. It convinced many Japanese leaders that Westerners—Americans in particular—could be easily handled.
The relationship between America and Japan deteriorated further when, only two years later, yet another American whaler, the Lagoda, wrecked off the coast of Hokkaido. Fifteen American survivors were taken prisoner. They were tied up and thrown into cramped cells. Three of the men died—one by suicide and two from malnutrition. The Japanese suspected they were spies, or worse, missionaries. But after several weeks they became convinced the Americans were genuine castaways and allowed them to leave with Dutch merchants as well.
Interestingly, the Japanese thought they were being lenient and accommodating to these foreigners. They did not execute the Americans, as their laws dictated. Instead, they housed them, fed them, and arranged safe passage home. The necessity of detainment was simply to ensure Japan’s security. It hadn’t occurred to them that the Americans would have been angered by these small exchanges. But resentment in America continued to grow, and plans began to develop to take a stronger stance against this backward, insolent Pacific nation.
At the age of 25, John Manjiro had found success. With the help of his adoptive father, he had managed to be placed on the crew of a whaling ship. After two years, he returned to Massachusetts with $350 in his pocket—roughly $10,000 by today’s standards.
He adored America, his family, and the life he’d carved for himself, but his thoughts often returned to his mother and the life he’d been ripped from in Japan. He was determined to return, regardless of the risk. As he made arrangements to find passage back to his homeland, word came out of the recently-acquired California Territory that gold had been discovered not far from the small coastal town of San Francisco. Never one to pass up on an opportunity Manjiro sailed to California, hiked into the mountains, and after a few furious months of prospecting, managed to extract $600 worth of gold dust.
He booked passage to Honolulu where he was reunited with his old friends and fellow castaways. He told them his plan to return to Japan. Finally, two of them decided to risk returning home as well, and the three Japanese men bought a small boat and arranged with a whaling captain to travel to Japan. In February of 1851, they arrived off the coast of Okinawa, a small island in an archipelago that tails off Japan’s southern coast. Manjiro and his two friends boarded their small boat and island hopped northward, finally after a 400 mile trip, the three men reached Japan, setting foot on home soil for the first time in over a decade.
They were immediately arrested.
The American Plan
A year later, in 1852, the head of the Dutch East India Company sent a letter to the Shogun in Edo. Word had reached the Dutch traders that the Americans were concocting another trip to Japan. He wrote:
“According to these rumors, an envoy will be sent . . . with a letter from the President [of the United States] to the Emperor of Japan. The envoy will . . . ask that one or two Japanese ports be opened to trade and that coaling conveniences be provided for steamships on route from California to China.”
The Dutch weren’t the only voice of warning. India, too, sent word to Japan that the Americans were hatching a scheme to coerce Japan to open.
This, of course, was nothing new; the Americans were trying, once again, to petition for trading rights. Their desire for coal was a little confusing—didn’t North America have coal? Why would they need to import it? But the Shogun, a man named Tokugawa Ieyoshi, was distracted by personal health problems and seems to have completely ignored the warning. The memory of Biddle’s trip must have mollified any fears the Shogun and his ruling council had; maybe the next American could be pushed out of Edo Harbor with a single shove, just like the last. But the Americans’ plans wouldn’t be pushed aside so lightly. The U.S. had learned from Biddle’s experience seven years before and adjusted their tactics accordingly.
It’s now commonly taught that America’s primary goal was to open Japan for lucrative trade, but Japan had something else they wanted more: coal. The industrial revolution had revolutionized naval technology and design, and by the mid-19th century, America’s naval fleet was slowly being transformed. The newest ships to enter service still had the iconic tall sails and rigging that had adorned naval vessels for centuries, but they also sported cylindrical smokestacks, and amidships, huge, round paddle wheel churned the seas white. These were the first steamships, and they were changing the world.
Steamships were faster, and their speed more reliable than sailing ships. They could sail at speed directly into the wind. To naval navigators of the day, it was miraculous. The only problem was, in order to create the steam to turn their oversized paddle wheels, they went through a lot of coal. The reason the new steam frigates still had sails was because it was generally impossible to get across an ocean—especially the expansive Pacific—and back without loading up with coal.
The United States liked the prospect of opening a new trade market in Japan, but they were more excited by the trading opportunities presented in China. In order to do that efficiently, though, they needed to set up coaling stations across the Pacific. The recently-established relationship with the kingdom of Hawaii had given the Americans one coaling station, but they needed another reliable source in the western Pacific. Coal was Japan’s most plentiful natural resource, and those heaps of coal just so happened to lie right on the route to China.
The President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, determined to send a squadron of ships to the Pacific to establish diplomatic ties with the Japanese. Their primary goal was, of course, Japan’s coal, but they were also to demand better treatment for shipwrecked American sailors and request a trade agreement.
Like any political plan, it was met with mixed opinions. One US senator complained it was an unnecessary show of force, something for the bloated and restless military to occupy their time. Secretary of State Daniel Webster, though, called Perry’s mission a “great national movement” and one of the “most important ever.”
One journalist was less enthused about the plan:
“A fleet composed of several steamers, backed by a frigate and one or two corvettes, is by no means a peaceful demonstration; and we fear that the effect of the arrival of these ships in the waters of Japan will be to frighten the poor Japanese out of their seaport towns, and out of their wits at the same time, so that it will be impossible to bring them to terms in good faith. They may be driven by their alarm into a treaty of some sort, which they will feel at perfect liberty to violate [as] soon as the vessels of war shall have been removed."-New York Times, February 24, 1852
|The narrative of opening Japan up for religious reasons was also|
a consideration, though the Japanese weren't aware of this intention.
Adding Horror to the Horror-Stricken
In 1853, fishermen off the shore of Honshu started noticing strange vibrations in the water. Their unease gave way to terror when four massive, black ships came into view. Two of the ships were spewing black smoke into the sky. Were they on fire? Most alarming, they were making headway against the wind. It was the American squadron. (The two sailing ships, the USS Plymouth and the USS Saratoga were being towed by the steamships Mississippi and Susquehanna.)
The fishermen fled to the shore as fast as they could and sent word to Edo ahead of the four behemoth frigates. The warning rushed through Japan, and it caused a general panic. The Japanese had long been nervous of foreign ships invading their waters and had confronted them several times, but this was something new, entirely. These ships were, without a doubt, warships, and the most massive ships any of them had ever seen. The USS Susquehanna, Perry’s flagship, was nearly 260 feet in length—it was more than 20 times larger than Japan’s largest ship. One Japanese man described them as “staggeringly large apparitions. Another said they loomed “as large as mountains” and that they sailed “as swiftly as birds.”
Worst of all, the Japanese had never before seen a steamship, with their awe-inspiring smokestacks, massive paddle wheels, and the unnatural, reverberating rumbles that emanated from their hulls. The Japanese could only speculate as to their destructive capacity. The ships were painted black, just like the invading Mongol fleets of the 13th Century. Any one of them could lay waste to any city along the shore, and there were four of them. The Japanese could only interpret the squadron as a battle fleet come to invade their country.
|Japanese depiction of one of Perry's steamships.|
The American ships neared a warning sign posted prominently outside of Edo Bay, in French, it read, “Depart Immediately and Dare Not Anchor!” They passed it without slowing.
Word spread to the surrounding area for warriors to assemble in Edo, and for all males age 15-60 to join the militia. Within hours, Japanese soldiers poured into the city wearing ancient armor, sporting a wide variety of weapons: everything from halberds, to samurai swords, to muskets. They manned the few batteries of cannon that were dotted along the bay, but they correctly guessed that firing on the ships would have no effect and start a battle they’d badly lose.
All the cities lining Edo Bay were thrown into chaos as soldiers rushed in, and desperate citizens fled. A Japanese observer wrote:
“[Edo] seethed like a cauldron. . . Rumors of an immediate action . . . added horror to the horror-stricken. The tramp of war-horses, the clatter of armed warriors, the noise of carts, the parade of firemen, the incessant tolling of bells, the shrieks of women, the cries of children, dinning all the streets of a city of more than a million souls, made confusion worse confounded.”-Nitobe Inazo
Inazo went on to say: “Commoners . . . are evacuating the young and old of their family, and . . . they themselves are planning to flee to the country as soon as fighting breaks out. . . Government officials, whose state of consternation is indeed beyond description, seem to have been really awed by the military might of the formidable foreign fleet. . . Mothers were seen flying with children in their arms and men with mothers on their backs.”
The New York Times’ prediction that the “poor Japanese” would be frightened out of their wits was fully realized. And it was exactly the response Commodore Matthew Perry had wanted.
Matthew Perry was a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican American War. He was an aggressive and decisive commander. In the Mexican-American War, he’d forced a quick surrender from the Mexicans at Vera Cruz by bringing his ships in precariously close to the shoreline and battering them with withering broadsides. In 1832, he had sailed an American squadron into the Bay of Naples in (what is today) Italy. The King of Sicily had refused to pay hefty debts he owed to American merchants. Perry came within range of the king’s palace and threatened to start firing if the king didn’t pay up immediately. The king quickly obliged.
|Commodore Matthew Perry|
It was just part of who Perry was. He was dour and serious. One of his sailors described him “as if suffering from a permanent toothache.” Unlike the American commodore that preceded him, Biddle, Perry had no time to waste on pleasantries and politeness. He was brusque, pompous, and determined to show the Japanese what he called his “overwhelming superiority.”
“The Policy of the Commodore,” he wrote (he wrote his journals in the third person, which is somehow perfectly fitting), “is to assume a resolute attitude toward the Japanese government.” Elsewhere, he was less euphemistic about his plan. He intended to “alarm the authorities and induce them to give a more favorable answer to my demands.”
Remembering Biddle’s ineffective courtesy, he wrote that he planned “to 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 them.”
His approach wasn’t all posturing; Perry was perfectly ready to retaliate if the Japanese so much as drew a sword. In the worst-case scenario, he could simply position his ships outside the range of Japan's antiquated cannons and shell the city until they capitulated.
The four ships formed into a battle line at the mouth of Edo Harbor, some 60 miles south of the city, and weighed anchor. Perry ordered his ships to fire away from the city into the sea, as a “salute” to the Japanese. The Japanese would never have interpreted them as anything but warning shots, and Perry had to know that. The guns fell silent, and Perry felt his initial impression had been made. Night settled on Edo Harbor.
The American sailors watched as Japanese militiamen started amassing along the shoreline; some 5000 of them were deployed from Edo to the nearby city of Uraga, where the ships had anchored. As night fell, the land was dotted with so many fires that one American sentry noted their campfires looked like a swarm of fireflies. But not all of them were campfires; the Japanese had lit huge bonfires along the routes toward Edo and especially the Shogun’s palace to block the roads from any invaders.
After a tense night, the Japanese sent an envoy to the American ships. The Japanese messenger, a policeman from Uraga, first demanded the American ships leave immediately. Perry scoffed at the suggestion, and the messenger then directed the U.S. fleet to Nagasaki, as that was the only port Japan allowed for trade and interaction with other nations. Perry calmly said they would stay exactly where they were until he met with a representative of the Emperor. Perry also informed the envoy that he would be meeting with Japanese officials on land, not in the bay. He then abruptly ended the conversation, telling the flustered messenger to report back to his leaders, and from then on, the Americans would refuse to negotiate with anyone but an Imperial officer.
|Japanese envoy aboard the Susquehanna|
Several more Japanese officials attempted to negotiate with Perry aboard the Susquehanna. But Perry refused to meet with them, telling his officers to send them back. He continued to make fire “salute” broadsides into the sea.
The Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyoshi, had suffered a “heartstroke”—probably a mild heart attack—only a few weeks before and was slowly dying. This left his chief counselor, Lord Abe Masahiro, and the Shogun’s Council of Elders which Abe led, to deal with the crisis. Abe had been the one to receive warnings from India and Holland about the impending American fleet. He had long felt Japan needed to build up its defenses against foreign naval power, so was dismayed, but unsurprised at the American’s arrival.
Abe was nearly everything Perry was not. He was circumspect, gentle, dignified and quiet. He had come from humble circumstances and was often pensive, rather than decisive. After heated debate among the council, Abe finally directed the governors of Uraga and Edo to negotiate with the Americans, but in the city of Uraga, not in Edo.
Perry agreed to the meetings and On July 14, Perry’s ships carefully aimed their cannons toward Uraga and were ordered to general quarters, the highest state of readiness. Ordering the ships to quarters was a bit like telling them to hold their finger on the trigger. With the city and the Japanese soldiers lining the shoreline in their sights, Perry and 300 American sailors and marines started rowing toward the shore.
This took some guts on Perry’s part. His men were well-armed but once they were on land, they stood no chance against the thousands of wary Japanese militia who stood at readiness. But the Commodore was betting on his ability to impress and intimidate the Japanese to ensure his safety. Perry had insisted the navy band accompany him, and they played American anthems as the Americans strode toward the meeting in the city. He also handpicked two of the tallest and most muscular navy stewards, who were black, to act as his bodyguards. The Japanese had never seen black men before and gawked. The black sailors dwarfed even the other Americans, who were on average much taller than the Japanese.
Perry was greeted by the governors of Edo and Uraga, who introduced themselves as representatives of the Emperor. They bowed deeply. Perry simply looked at them, casually took a seat in a nearby chair, and said nothing, waiting for them to begin the negotiation. It was the height of insult, and Perry likely knew exactly what he was doing.
|Japanese Portrait of Perry|
The negotiations didn’t go more smoothly. The governors couldn’t initially understand the Japanese of the American interpreter, and they didn’t have an interpreter who spoke English. Eventually, they had to resort to translating from Japanese to Dutch. An American sailor who knew Dutch would then translate into English. This had to be an agonizingly long process and the double-translation likely garbled parts of the conversation.
Perry presented the governors with President Fillmore’s letter to the Emperor. Fillmore’s letter to the emperor began “Great and Good Friend!” The letter introduced Perry and assured their only intention was to establish trade and a good relationship with Japan. He wrote:
“The Constitution and laws of the United States forbid all interference with the religious or political concerns of other nations. I have particularly charged Commodore Perry to abstain from every act which could possibly disturb the tranquility of your imperial majesty’s dominion.”-President Millard Fillmore
The Japanese could only have gawked at the apparent hypocrisy. The past few days had been anything but tranquil, and Perry’s conduct deeply disturbing.
Perry then presented his own letter, which was far less friendly than Fillmore’s. In it, he voiced outrage at Japanese treatment of shipwrecked American sailors and implied that if others were similarly mistreated, American steamships could be in Japanese water within two weeks (a huge bluff, but the Japanese had no way of knowing that.) Perry also insisted Japan open itself for trade and that it provision American ships with coal. He reiterated peaceful intentions, but the underlying implication was that if the Japanese were unwilling to meet America’s demands, the Americans were willing to start firing on their capital city.
To drive home the threat, Perry presented the governors with two white flags. He explained that, if ever the unfortunate circumstance of fighting arose between Japan and the United States, the Japanese would only need to raise the flags, and American guns would immediately stop firing. His message was clear, even through the double-translation.
|Another Japanese portrait of Perry,|
portraying him as a Tengu, a
The governors informed Perry the only reason he’d been received outside of Nagasaki was to avoid insulting the President of the Unites States and then told him, “as this is not a place wherein to negotiate with foreigners, so neither can conferences or entertainment be held. Therefore, as the letter has been received, you can depart.”
Perry glibly informed them he’d leave within two or three days, but that he would return within a year’s time to receive the Emperor’s response to the president. Alarmed, they asked if he intended to return with the same number of ships. He responded that he’d be returning with the full squadron—these four were only a portion—but didn’t specify how many ships that meant.
Before Perry left, he presented the governors with several gifts, Wine, seeds, and several other items. Then he and his escort returned to the ships.
They lingered in Edo Bay three more days. At one point, the Mississippi brazenly sailed deeper into the bay, within ten miles and easy sight of Edo. The Japanese breathed a sigh of relief when it returned to the other American ships, and again when all four sailed south. The night the Americans left, a large crowd of soldiers gathered near the shoreline at Uraga and burned the gifts Perry had presented to the governors.
Lord Abe Masahiro and the rest of the Shogun council were mired in anxiety and disagreements. Many of the council felt that they should rush to arm themselves and prepare to attack the American fleet when it returned the following year. They were deeply insulted and felt the fat American commodore had dishonored the country and their emperor. But Abe and others were more pragmatic and knew there was little they could do in a year to defend against such advanced and well-armed ships. And Perry had warned he was bringing even more ships when he returned.
|Lord Abe Masahiro|
To complicate things further, eleven days after the Americans’ departure, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi finally died. The council kept the death secret. Tokugawa’s son and heir, Iesada, was mentally handicapped. He could hardly speak and barely walk, and the Shogun’s council considered him incapable of handling this American crisis.
Some Daimyo learned the Shogun had been warned about the American fleet and were furious he had done nothing to protect the country. If they learned of his death, or of his heir’s disabilities, it was likely some of them would try to overthrow the Tokugawa dynasty, altogether. The threat of civil war was looming of Edo.
Abe inadvertently made the situation worse when he polled Japan’s Daimyo about their opinions on the matter. This was unprecedented. The Daimyo had traditionally never weighed in on national policy. Their responses were inconclusive. Roughly a third wanted war, a third to capitulate to the Americans, and a third offered vague, non-committal responses. Not only was the poll not helpful, the Daimyo (correctly) inferred that the shogunate was weak and possibly vulnerable.
It put Abe in an impossible situation:
“To acknowledge incapacity to resist [American] aggression would be to invite the ruin of the Tokugawa house; to resist, on the other hand, would be to invite destruction of the Empire.”-George Feifer, Breaking Open Japan
The council didn’t know what to think of this American threat. What was clear was that Perry seemed perfectly willing to start firing if his demands weren’t met. So, they saw only two options: they could either capitulate to Perry’s demands or they could fight. They knew they couldn’t build up a defense in time for Perry’s return, and he could level Edo without losing a single man. But capitulating meant ending Japan’s long-held isolation. It would make the Shogun look weak and invite other nations to use the same tactics.
The council was wracked with indecision because ultimately, they knew nothing about this upstart country that wasn’t yet eighty years old. But there was someone in Japan who knew America intimately.
After being arrested, Manjiro and his two friends had endured months of questioning. They were turned over to the Daimyo that ruled over their village. He permitted them to return, but they were forbidden from ever leaving the town again. Nearly twelve years after he last left, Manjiro was joyously reunited with his mother and siblings. The Daimyo was impressed with Manjiro and hired him to start lecturing at a local school about his world travels.
The Daimyo eventually granted Manjiro a title, elevating him to the elite ruling/warrior class, making him a samurai. He was also permitted to choose a family name (at the time, lower classes were permitted only one given name). Manjiro had risked his life and spent years dreaming of returning to his hometown. He named himself after his city, Nakahama Manjiro.
Lord Abe learned of Manjiro’s experience and summoned him to report to the council. When he arrived in Edo the leaders bombarded him with questions about America. Speaking more frankly than any of them might have expected, Manjiro told the council he felt Japan’s isolation was damaging and backward. Worse, it was perceived by the rest of the world to be inhumane and irrational. He expressed his consternation at the “extraordinary fuss” that had been made in response to Perry’s visit. He assured the council that Perry’s squadron wasn’t made up of warships—just ships used for exploration—and insisted the Japanese had wildly overreacted. He patiently described the United States in intricate detail. The council listened in rapt attention.
No doubt thinking of his American family, Manjiro spoke glowingly of his adopted country. He said Americans were “born to be gentle,” that they were “physically perfect and beautiful . . . virtuous and generous and do no evil.” They “hold loyalty and modesty in high esteem.”
Manjiro’s profile of the Americans couldn’t have contrasted more with the unabashed pompousness and disdain Perry had demonstrated, but many of the council breathed with relief. Perhaps America’s intentions were peaceful, after all. Some were suspicious of Manjiro’s hyperbolic praise for the Americans, though, and suspected he might be a spy. Regardless, the young samurai’s testimony managed to bring the council to a consensus: because the Americans’ intentions seemed genuine, and they couldn’t be bested in combat, anyway, there would be no attack when Perry returned.
The Treaty of Kanagawa
Perry’s fleet spent the winter and spring, first in Okinawa and then Hong Kong, but returned to Edo much sooner than had been promised, on March 8, 1854. The promise he did fulfill was bringing more firepower. No fewer than ten American warships—roughly a quarter of the entire United States Navy—was seen steaming toward Edo Bay.
|Depiction of the negotiation for the Treaty of Kanagawa|
Though both sides remained wary of each other, there was none of the panic that had seized Edo on Perry’s first arrival. Perry, with his trademark bravado, strong-armed the Japanese negotiations, coercing them into granting more concessions than they had initially intended. Manjiro was involved as well. Unable to directly participate in the discussions as a translator because some of the Lords of the Shogun’s council didn’t trust him, he still was able to give Lord Abe valuable insight and advice. On March 31, 1854, the Americans and the Japanese government signed the Treaty of Kanagawa.
The treaty granted Perry nearly everything he wanted. It ensured peace between Japan and the United States. The council pledged to not imprison shipwrecked foreigners and to treat them humanely. Japan agreed to open the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate for trade with the Americans, and agreed to allow foreign merchants freedom of movement within those cities. An American consulate was established, and most importantly to the Americans, the Japanese agreed to provision American ships with coal, food, and other supplies.
The Treaty of Kanagawa broke the seal of Japan’s isolation. Within four years, Japan had signed similar treaties with France, Russia, Great Britain, and another with the United States, granting even more concessions.
In the short term, both sides were satisfied. The Japanese, and especially Lord Abe, were relieved they managed to navigate the precarious situation and come out without a shot fired. Perry was thrilled at his success, and so was congress, which granted him a gift $20,000—a preposterous amount of money for the time—in gratitude for his service to the United States. Manjiro, in particular, was thrilled the two countries he had called home had been finally been connected.
But internally, the system that had ensured over two centuries of Japanese peace was destabilizing. Perry’s aggressive approach and advanced technology prompted Japanese leaders to lift the severe restrictions on military strength to try to catch up with the rest of the world, militarily. As individual Daimyo began building up their local forces, their loyalty to the relatively weak Shogunate started to wane. There was also outrage from across the country at the Shogun’s weakness in capitulation to these foreign barbarians. A political movement reoriented power back into the hands of the Emperor, who had opposed the treaties.
Ultimately, Japan was thrust into a violent period of transition called the Bakumatsu or “closing curtain.” A civil war broke out in the years following the Treaty of Kanagawa, and in 1868, the final Tokugawa Shogun abdicated his powers to the 17-year-old Emperor Meiji, who moved from Kyoto to Edo. Meiji renamed the city Tokyo (“Eastern Capital”), and ushered in a long period of modernization and progress for the country now known as the “Meiji Restoration.” Japan’s exposure to the outside world brought progress and change but brought to a close over two centuries of uninterrupted peace.
In 1860, Japan sent an official delegation to the United States of America. They sailed across the Pacific on board the Kanrin Maru, the first steamship in Japan’s navy, recently purchased from Holland. Virtually no Japanese sailor had experience on the open ocean, and during a storm, most of the crew, including the ship’s captain and admiral, got violently seasick. A friendly Samurai, serving as the delegation’s translator, willingly took command of the ship and brought it to port in San Francisco safely. It was Nakahama Manjiro.
One American sailor who had participated in Perry’s expedition wrote:
“[Manjiro] knew the American people. . . He was the channel through which, by a kind of preordination, American ideas filtered into Japan.”
One Japanese contemporary wrote that Manjiro “contributed more than any other person in the opening of Japan.”
The terrifying ordeal Manjiro had endured as a 14-year-old castaway set him on a path would radically alter not only his life but influence the relationship between the two countries he considered his own. And today, in Ashizuri-Uwakai National Park in Southern Japan, a large statue of the Samurai reminds people of his legacy.
|Statue of Nakahama Manjiro|
Perry’s legacy would be more complicated for Japan. A bust of Perry sits outside the historic site where the Treaty of Kanagawa was signed, but there has remained a residual resentment of Perry’s bullying tactics. The impression Perry left behind helped formed the Japanese impression of Americans, in part, as violent, oppressive, and willing to intimidate to get their way. That kind of cultural impressions don’t easily fade, and ninety years later, when the Japanese were convinced the Americans were trying to once again bully them, they decided to respond in force, sparking the Pacific conflict of World War II.
The end of Japan’s self-imposed isolation and the subsequent changes are generally celebrated today. But it raises some interesting questions. Even if Perry hadn’t shown up, how long would it have been possible for Japan to stay closed off? If the progress of the Meiji Restoration is considered a good thing, were Perry’s actions and the subsequent violent conflict in Japan justified? It raises questions about religion, trade, self-determination, and much more.
These questions are ultimately unanswerable, but pondering them can help us understand our world more, and perhaps help us improve it.