Treaty of Kanagawa

Illustration of Commodore Petty meeting Japanese officials
Commodore Perry meeting Japanese officials. Bettmann/Getty Images

The Treaty of Kanagawa was an 1854 agreement between the United States of America and the government of Japan. In what became known as "the opening of Japan," the two countries agreed to engage in limited trade and to agree to the safe return of American sailors who had become shipwrecked in Japanese waters.

The treaty was accepted by the Japanese after a squadron of American warships anchored in the mouth of Tokyo Bay on July 8, 1853.

Japan has been a closed society with very little contact with the rest of the world for 200 years, and there was an expectation that the Japanese Emperor would not be receptive to American overtures.

However, friendly relations between the two nations were established.

The approach to Japan is sometimes viewed as an international aspect of Manifest Destiny. The expansion toward the West meant that the United States was becoming a power in the Pacific Ocean. And American political leaders believed their mission in the world was to expand American markets into Asia.

The treaty was the first modern treaty Japan had with a western nation. And while it was limited in scope, it did open Japan to trade with the west for the first time. And the treaty led to other treaties with repercussions for Japanese society.

Background of the Treaty of Kanagawa

After some very tentative dealings with Japan, the administration of President Millard Fillmore dispatched a trusted naval officer, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, to Japan to attempt to gain entry to Japanese markets.

Perry arrived at Edo Bay on July 8, 1853, carrying a letter from President Fillmore requesting friendship and free trade. The Japanese were not receptive, and Perry said he would return in one year with more ships.

The Japanese leadership, the Shogunate, faced a dilemma. If they agreed to the American offer, other nations would no doubt follow and seek relations with them, undermining the isolationism they sought.

On the other hand, if they rejected Commodore Perry's offer, the American promise to return with a larger and modern military force seemed to be a real threat.

The Signing of the Treaty

Before leaving on the mission to Japan, Perry had read any books he could find on Japan. And the diplomatic way in which he handled matters seemed to make things go more smoothly than otherwise might have been expected. 

By arriving and delivering a letter, and then sailing away to return months later, the Japanese leaders felt they were not being overly pressured. And when Perry arrived back in Tokyo the following year, in February 1854, leading a squadron of American ships.

The Japanese were fairly receptive, and negotiations began between Perry and representatives from Japan..

Perry brought along gifts for the Japanese to provide some idea of what American was like, He presented them with a small working model of a steam locomotive, a barrel of whiskey, some examples of modern American farming tools, and a book by the naturalist John James Audubon, Birds and Quadrupeds of America.

After weeks of negotiation, the Treaty of Kanagawa was signed on March 31, 1854.

The treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate, and by the Japanese government.

The trade between the two nations was still quite limited, as only certain Japanese ports were open to American ships. However, the hard line Japan had taken about shipwrecked American sailors had been relaxed. And American ships in the western Pacific would be able to call on Japanese ports to obtain food, water, and other supplies.

American ships began mapping the waters around Japan in 1858, which was also seen as being of great importance to American merchant sailors.

Overall, the treaty was seen by Americans as a sign of progress.

As word of the treaty spread, European nations began approaching Japan with similar requests, and within a few years more than a dozen other nations had negotiated treaties with Japan.

In 1858 the United States, during the administration of President James Buchanan, sent a diplomat, Townsend Harris, to negotiate a more comprehensive treaty.

Japanese ambassadors traveled to the United States, and they became a sensation wherever they traveled.

The isolation of Japan had essentially ended, though factions within the country debated just how westernized Japanese society should become.