Commodore Matthew Perry Opens Japan, 1853-54

Commodore Perry's Black Ships in Edo Bay, 1854. via Wikipedia

The island nation of Japan during much of the Tokugawa period (1603 - 1868) had extremely strict limits on contact with the outside world.  It had limited trade with the western world since 1634 to a handful of Dutch traders who were confined to the artificial island of Dejima, constructed in the middle of Nagasaki Bay.  A small number of Chinese traders also were allowed to use Dejima.  At the ends of the archipelago, Japanese merchants traded on a small scale with the Ainu people in the north for furs and hunting hawks, and with the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa) in the south for tropical wood and produce.

All other foreigners were strictly forbidden to set foot in Japan; even shipwrecked sailors who washed ashore were often executed.  Likewise, any Japanese person who went overseas could not return to the islands, on pain of death.

This isolation, however, was shaken when four American warships under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Edo Bay (Tokyo Bay) on July 8, 1853.  Because of the coal smoke pouring from their stacks, these ships became known as the "Black Ships" or kurofune in Japan.  When the Japanese refused to allow the Americans come into the port, Perry threatened to fire on coastal cities.  Eventually, he was allowed to present official letters to the shogun from US President Millard Fillmore; the letters were addressed to the Emperor of Japan, because the US government did not understand that the emperor was a mere figurehead. 

The letters offered peace and friendship between the US and Japan, but beneath the civil facade, they required the shogun's government to agree to an unequal treaty with the Americans.

  The US demanded additional treaty ports besides Dejima, protection of shipwrecked US sailors, and aid to American ships in need of restocking or repairs.  Japan essentially got nothing in return.

Why did the US suddenly have such a strong interest in Japan?  For one thing, it had annexed California in 1848, and was trying to become a Pacific Ocean trading power.

  Britain's victory in the First Opium War with China (1839 - 42) meant that western nations including the US could now trade more freely with the Qing Empire, increasing American shipping in the Pacific.  The US whaling fleet also expanded into the whales' feeding grounds in the northern Pacific Ocean at around this time, and the whalers needed fresh supplies of food and water in order to make it back to their home ports in Massachusetts or Connecticut.  Finally, American ships were transitioning from the age of sail to the age of steam; steamships require coal for fuel, which the US government hoped they would be able to procure coal and other supplies in Japan.

On July 14, 1853, Commodore Perry and some of his officers landed in Kurihama (now Yokosuka) and met with Tokugawa officials.  He presented the American demands, and notified the Japanese that he would return for their answer.  The US fleet then steamed on to China.

The shogun's government was thrown into disarray by this sudden incursion.  As Perry intended, the steam propulsion and heavy armaments of his fleet made a strong impression on Japan's leaders.  He had also left behind scientific instruments as gifts for the emperor, to impress the Japanese with advanced American technology.

  In an unprecedented move, the Tokugawa government called for a council of the provincial lords or daimyo to consult on what should be done.  Making matters even more unstable, the shogun died on July 27, 1853, and was succeeded by his weak and sickly son, Tokugawa Iesada.

Half of the daimyo voted to resist the barbarians, while the other half advised the new shogun to accept the American terms.  They feared an even more unfavorable treaty if they turned down the current offer, like the one foisted on China by Great Britain.  The shogun decided to accept Perry's demands, but he also ordered construction of a defensive seawall around Edo, to fend off any American attack.

Perry returned to Edo in February of 1854 with eight battleships.  On March 31, 1854, Perry and the shogun's representatives signed the Convention of Kanagawa, which gave the US access to the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate; allowed the US to appoint a consul to Shimoda; and guaranteed the safety of shipwrecked Americans in Japan.

  It did not specifically grant the US trade rights in Japan, but did promise that any such rights granted to other nations would also be extended to the US.

This agreement signaled the beginning of the end for the Tokugawa Shogunate, which fell in 1868 to the Meiji Restoration.  Under its modernizing emperors, Japan quickly remade itself into an industrial power, and even an imperial power in its own right over the decades that followed.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Commodore Matthew Perry Opens Japan, 1853-54." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2016, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2016, August 9). Commodore Matthew Perry Opens Japan, 1853-54. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Commodore Matthew Perry Opens Japan, 1853-54." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 11, 2017).