Nippon Day Nine: The Black Ships

When I was a little kid, we had the book N. C. Wyeth’s Pilgrims. The beautiful artwork was accompanied by the story of the first European settlers of New England, which I was fascinated by since it had someone named Hopkins, and an account of the first Thanksgiving. These pilgrims are often called the first Americans, though they were, of course, British at the time. They sailed across the ocean, came to shore on mysterious lands and interacted with the locals. Both the native inhabitance and the visitors were now being exposed to cultures that were a world away from their own. The story that I am going to tell you today has many of these same elements, but it takes place 230 years later and over six thousand miles away. 

Eleven years after the Mayflower brought a new wave of colonization to the American continent, the Island nation of Japan was closing it’s shores to all foreigners. The period known as Sakoku (isolation) had just begun, making it illegal for outsiders to enter, or citizen to leave Japan. There were many reasons for this policy, the most cited being that the Portuguese and Spanish, who had been dominating trade with Japan, had become heavy handed with their Catholic mission work. The Shogun did not like his population loyal to an outside force and so decided to cut off European ties. 

Another reason was to keep his daimyo (lords) from building up their own military forces via foreign trade. This had happened in the past and was considered a destabilizing threat. Cutting this supply would insure that no daimyo could become powerful enough to challenge the shogunate’s power. 

Tokugawa Iemitsu, the shogun who closed Japan

Tokugawa Iemitsu, the shogun who closed Japan

However, it would have been foolish to completely isolate themselves from the world, so trade with China, Korea, and the Ainu peoples continued, but was highly regulated and took place in the designated ports. The Dutch East India Company was also allowed to trade, after assuring the government that since they were protestant, they would not mix religion with business. Dejima off the coast of Nagasaki, the Tsushima Domain, the semi-independent Ryukyu Kingdom, and the Matsumae Domain in Hokkaido became the sole entrances into Japan, and no one could get any farther. Though they did try.

Many attempts to force Japan to open its borders took place over the two hundred years of Sakoku. Starting with the Portuguese, perhaps sore over their expulsion, who sailed into Nagasaki with several warships, only to be turned away by a blockade of nine hundred Japanese ships. The French, the English and the Russian also sent several attempts with the same results. The first American to try anything was John Kendrick who in 1791 spent eleven days on Kii Oshima island. In true American fashion he is said to have planted a flag and claimed the island for the new United States. 

A hundred years later, during the Napoleonic war, America was able to trade successfully. This was due to the Dutch’s preoccupation with the British, unable to send their own ships, they asked America to send some under the Dutch flag. 

With the beginning of the nineteenth century the world was becoming impatient to open the borders of Japan. Apart from the business opportunities it would afford, they also wanted to be able to refuel there while en route to China. Also, with the increasing number of whaling ships in the Pacific, America wanted shipwreck victims to find temporary sanctuary on Japanese shores. This had become positively dangerous after the 1825 “No Second Thought” policy, which told coastline authorities to kill or arrest any foreigners they found. 

After Great Britain won the Opium War with China, Japan started to get nervous. It seemed that the colonial powers were looking to swallow up as much of Asia as they could. Japan started gathering information about the western world through their contacts in the Netherlands. They even got western weapons and began preparing to manufacture them themselves. Demonstrations were made to the Tokugawa Shogunate and many felt that Japanese traditions could not keep the outside world at bay any longer. Even the Dutch king urged them to reconsider their policies.

This is where Commodore Matthew Perry entered the picture. Perry had been in the US Navy since he was fifteen. He had fought in the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, helped to establish the Naval Academy curriculum and modernized the fleet--becoming known as the Father of the Steam Navy. 

After the first man who had been earmarked for the task had been fired, Commodore Perry was asked to take a fleet to Japan and use all his persuasive talents to get them to open. Initially he did not want the job, saying he would rather go to the Mediterranean than try another doomed attempt at trading with Japan. However, his concerns were not listened to and he left Virginia on Wednesday, the 24th of November, 1852. (I would point out that this was the day before Thanksgiving that year if it wasn’t eleven years before it was made a national holiday.)

In preparation for his trip, Perry read every book about Japan he could find, (which I’m guessing wasn’t many since almost no one had been there in two hundred years). He also talked at length to Philipp Franz von Siebold, who had spent eight years living and learning at the trading post in Dejima and was considered the best Japanologist. So Perry made his way, armed with what little knowledge he could gather, two official artists, several unofficial interpreters, a host of sailors, four steam ships, two sloops, two warships, seventy three cannons, and enough Paixans shell guns to get his point accross. (One more Thanksgiving parallel, one of the sloops was called Plymouth).

Since the 1590s, the Ryukyu Islands, which stretch from Kyushu towards Taiwan, had been a semi-independent Kingdom, but still under the control of Japan. It was Perry’s first stop. When he arrived, there was little that King Sho Tai could do, since Perry threatened to attack with two hundred troops if not given trading rights. However, knowing that the eye of the Shogunate was watching his every move in Ryukyu, Perry was careful to show both force and peace. Quite the juggling act. 

Once he was done there, Perry moved on and reached Edo Bay on July 8th, 1853. The town of Uraga, located at the entrance to Edo Bay, had long been the first line of defense for the Shogun’s capital. Perry steamed past those defenses, heading straight for the capital and pointing his guns at Uraga. He also fired off blanks from his seventy three cannons (probably scaring the hell out of the towns people) which he claimed was in belated celebration of American Independence day, which was four days earlier.

Japanese guard boats surrounded the fleet, one holding up a sign written in French telling them to leave immediately. Perry would not let his ships be boarded, though the next day he did allow two officials from Uraga to come aboard. Not leaving his own cabin, he sent word to them that President Millard Fillmore (we had a president named Millard Fillmore?) had sent him with a letter for the Shogun of Japan. In reply the officials told him that no foreign ships were allowed in their ports. Perry told them that he would only meet with officials of sufficient status (burn).

Over the next few days, Perry began a campaign of intimidation, sending his boats to survey the coast, threatening force if the guard boats did not disperse, and sending the Japanese a letter telling them that if they chose to fight he would crush them, along with a white flag to really drive his point home. Uraga seemed to agree with him, since they sent word to Edo that they were not prepared to defend against this force.

Perry couldn’t have come at a worse time as the government was already paralyzed by the infirmity of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi. Finally they decided that simply excepting the letter was alright and didn’t violate Japan’s sovereignty. They sent word to Perry, giving him a place to meet that was not the capital. Not a man who liked to under do things, Perry landed on the 14th of July with two hundred and fifty sailors, to the sound of a thirteen gun salute and a band playing Hail Columbia. The letter was handed over to two officials and with a promise of returning soon for an answer, they departed. 

That's Perry in the middle

That's Perry in the middle

The letter, addressed to the Japanese Emperor, said that the expedition was not for religious purposes, that they only wanted friendship and commence, and coal for ships heading to China. The government was not reassured, perhaps because of the gunship diplomacy and brusk threats they had already been treated to. With the death of the shogun only a few days later, leaving his sickly son to take over, the country was in crisis. Administrative powers went to the Roju (Council of Elders) lead by Abe Masahiro. Suddenly finding himself in the position of having to make an unprecedented decision, Abe turned to the daimyo, asking their opinion. This turned out to be a mistake, since not only was it not conclusive, but it also portrayed the shogunate as weak, which is never good. Fortifications were quickly built.

Meanwhile, Perry was staying nearby on the coast of China. His promise to return in the spring was becoming inconvenient since he had heard that Russia had already sent a ship to negotiate with Nagasaki. Though they had been turned away, this was not a good sign for America’s trade supremacy. Plus, Britain and France both sent word that they would be accompanying Perry in the spring, so they wouldn’t be left out of the deal. Instead of sharing, Perry decided to come back early with a total of ten ships and one thousand six hundred men. 

The shogunate had already decided to agree to the terms, but negotiations were delayed since they couldn’t agree on a meeting location. Frustrated, Perry sent word that he could return in twenty days with one hundred ships, a feat he might have found difficult since that was more ships than the Navy had at the time. They finally agreed to meet at Yokohama on the 8th of March.

For this momentous occasion Perry, with true American grandeur, disembarked with five hundred sailors, twenty seven ships boats and three bands playing The Star Spangled Banner. After some negotiations, the Convention of Kanagawa was signed by Commodore Perry and Hayashi Akira on the 31st of March. America now officially had the right to trade from Shimoda and Hakodate. Also they were allowed to build an American Consulate in Shimoda. 

Once all the paperwork was done, Perry presented the Japanese with a miniature steam locomotive, a telegraph machine, agricultural tools, small arms, one hundred gallons of whiskey, some clocks, a few stoves, and books about the United States. In return Japan gave Perry gold-lacquered furniture and boxes, bronze ornaments, and porcelain goblets. Also having found out that Perry had a hobby of shell collecting, they gave him a variety of seashells.

Statue of Perry at Shimoda

Statue of Perry at Shimoda

Clearly for America things had worked out well, certainly they did for Perry, being given a reward of $20,000 by the United States government. However, Japan could no longer keep its boarders closed to foreign trade, next being forced to sign agreements with Great Britain and Russia. The two hundred and twenty years of isolation had ended, soon to be followed by the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868. Japan, and the world at large, would never be the same again. 

This brash act of foreign bullying might be the first in a long American tradition, but it certainly gave them a president for acts of impressive dominance. For Japan it would have a rippling effect changing the government, the social system, and ending almost two hundred years of peace. While trying to give this a balanced historical perspective, the end of the shogunate did bring more equality to the country, but we must remember that this was not America's intention. 

I hope you've enjoyed reading this story of America's black ships coming to Japan. While trying to decide on a historical event to write about, I couldn't help noticing certain parallels with America's first settlers. If nothing else, this is a very interesting peek into the first interactions of the US and Japan. But ships sailing to foreign lands, the clash of two very different cultures, and the tentative "friendship" between them was an interesting reflection. Both the native inhabitance of North America and the country of Japan were changed inexorably by the arrival of foreign ships to their shores.

Until next time, have a wonderful holiday.

This is not a turkey

This is not a turkey

P.S. This month it has been difficult for me to turn out as much material as I usually do. This has been because I am participating in National Novel Writing Month, and have had plenty of writing to do outside my blog. The good news is I should be finishing my 50,000 words novel in the next few days. However, my sister and baby niece are coming up from Nantucket for the holiday, and hopefully my aunt is coming from Vermont (my verm-auntie). This means that I might not get around to posting until the last few days of November. I trust that you too will be enjoying the holiday and won't notice my absence. Just remember to look back in next month, I have a lot of great things planned.