At 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 24, 1852, 58-year-old Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, aboard the coal-powered steam warship Mississippi, began his journey to Japan. With Perry were 382 other men, most of whom were experienced sailors able to endure a roughly 12,000-kilometer (8,000-mile) trip starting in Norfolk, Virginia. Other men — a French chef, an Italian bandmaster, artists and scientists — were paid around 25 dollars a month (equivalent to about US$850 today) for their specialist role. Their salary was important, since Perry, a strict disciplinarian, could enforce naval law upon them should they misbehave. No flogging, however, much to Perry’s annoyance; the punishment had been deemed illegal in 1850.
The Mississippi was ideal for around 250 men, so quarters were overcrowded and food supplies increased, giving the warship some extra heft. Storage rooms were stocked with “barrels of pork, preserved vegetables, flour… rice, whiskey, beans, sugar, butter, molasses, pickled beef… raisins [and] boxes of cheese.” Other items, such as “mattresses and mattress covers (for the officers’ bunks), tarpaulins, canvas, lumber… awnings, lamp oil, paint, and one complete set of submarine armor” filled out any other available space. The ship also had its coal bunkers expanded so that over 600 tons of coal could be stored. The total weight would cause the ship’s bow to strike waves as it steamed across the Atlantic, burning around 25 tons of coal a day.
Perry had spent over a year planning for the trip. According to Peter Booth Wiley’s masterful account, Yankees in the Land of the Gods, Perry and the U.S. government wanted to make sure to give Japan gifts that would imply the greatness of their country. Perry settled on a wide arrangement, such as “a case of Colt arms, a daguerreotype camera, [a] telegraph, clocks, stoves,” and an illustrated set of folios by ornithologist James Audubon showing the variety of American birds and animals.
Perry’s first stop was Madeira (Dec. 11-15), an island off the coast of Portugal, where his crew reloaded his coal bunkers. Perry mailed correspondence and bought around 200 liters of high-class Madeira wine for his friends back home, finding room in a storage compartment. In a letter to Navy Secretary John Pendleton Kerry, Perry stressed the importance of at least securing ports in the Ryukyu Islands (the chain of islands between Kyushu and Taiwan, such as Okinawa) in order to begin competing with Great Britain, whose trading presence in Asia had only grown after their victory in the first Opium War. He felt certain that his mission would be successful: “It may be said that my anticipations are too sanguine,” he wrote to Kerry. “Perhaps they are, but I feel a strong confidence of success. Indeed, success may be commanded by our government, and it should be, under whatever circumstances accomplished. The honor of the nation calls for it, and the interest of commerce demands it.”
Still, Perry had a back up plan if he failed to gain total access to the Japanese mainland. The Ryukyu Islands would be a nice consolation prize. By taking over their “principal ports,” Perry would be establishing a permanent American presence in the region. Unsatisfied with justifying this takeover as merely a move to bolster commerce, Perry wrote to the Navy secretary that America’s presence would also mean “the condition of the natives,” or quality of life, would improve as well.
Perry’s next port call was St. Helena (Jan. 10-11), an island famous for being the exiled destination of French commander Napoleon Bonaparte, who was forced by the British to remain on the island for six years, until his death in 1821. Not that Perry needed reminding, but St. Helena was the unofficial start of Great Britain’s naval dominance. From now until China, Perry was traveling in British-controlled waters and they made sure he went by their orders, especially when it came to purchasing coal.
After St. Helena came Cape Town (Jan. 24 to Feb. 3), a city just beginning to form its parliament. For seamen on the Mississippi, Cape Town was also a chance to jump ship or desert. One man, who at night fell overboard and may have suffered a strong concussion (language back then called him “deranged”), was told to head back home to America, but seven others used their Cape Town stop to hop onto another vessel bound for Australia’s gold fields — an attractive destination for immigrants since gold had been discovered in New South Wales in 1851.
Perhaps Perry knew the temptation to chase wealth would mean a loss of manpower. He forged ahead, purchasing “eighteen sheep” and “twelve bullocks [oxen]” as some of them clumsily wandered about the shifting deck.
After Cape Town was Mauritius (Feb. 18-28), a “sugar-planting colony” once occupied by France but now by the British. Perry and the crew, worried about their health, attempted to halt scurvy before it came by drinking a tonic “made up,” according to Wiley, “of five gallons of whiskey, fifteen of water, and two of lime juice plus twenty pounds of sugar.” To this author, that sounds like spiked limeade.
Onward they sailed through the beautiful “cloudless” skies, the Indian Ocean “a sight,” one crewman later wrote, “most beautiful to look upon,” especially as the sun set.
Perry next called at a port on the island of Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was known back then (March 10-15). Perry annoyingly had to overpay for coal, having no choice but to buy from the British government. He continued on to Singapore (March 25-29), where the same frustrating hunts for coal again occurred. After a bumpy, perilous sail through the South China Sea, by April 7 they’d come through the waters filled with “hundreds of fishing boats” and called at Macao. It was here Perry would begin the process of assembling his soon-to-be intimidating fleet. Shortly after, Perry’s Mississippi sailed to Hong Kong, now under British control after the First Opium War ended in 1841.
The problems Perry had while in China could fill another article, but after dealing with an arrogant commander and a misplaced ship, the trip to Japan continued. Perry, now commandeering the Mississippi, the Susquehanna and, soon enough, the Saratoga, set his sights on the Ryukyu Islands — Okinawa in particular, then called Great Lew Chew. After a few days of stormy weather, on May 26, the three ships docked at a port in Naha, then not much more than a quaint village. As they docked, a British flag was seen “being run up a flagpole,” and in the distance a small harbor was filled with “Chinese and Japanese junks,” according to Wiley.
After they left, a British-Hungarian-Jewish bespectacled missionary named Dr. Bernard John Bettelheim — the one who put up the British flag — came out to greet the men. Bettelheim, perhaps a bit wild-eyed at seeing other Westerners for the first time in many months, had been living on the island for the last seven years. His extensive experience with the island residents — and ability to speak English, as well as nine other languages — meant he was worthy of Commodore Perry’s time. One hour to be exact, if travel writer and passenger Bayard Taylor’s 1856 account is correct. Wiley writes that the meeting was closer to three hours, and that “It did not bother Bettelheim that Perry was set against introducing the question of religion into his talks with the Japanese.” Two hours later, Perry’s fleet allowed “a crude flat-bottomed boat” to come out and greet them. Two Okinawan officials with long beards came aboard the Susquehanna and, speaking Mandarin Chinese, introduced themselves, but Perry had no incentive to meet “anyone whose rank was not equal to his own.” This wasn’t entirely an elitist gesture. He still had history making negotiations to complete and hoped to never come across as “too common.”
Bettelheim’s role in history deserves its own spotlight, since he was a vital intermediary between the shogun in Japan and the Ryukuans, all of whom were pulled in opposite directions by authorities from China, Japan (the daimyo, or feudal lord, of Satsuma, to be precise) and, lesser so, any Western nation (mainly France and Britain) passing through. In fact, Wiley spotlights Bettelheim — who had his wife and children with him during Perry’s visit — as having “a major role in forcing the shogun to admit the inevitability of dealing with foreigners.”
As you can imagine, Japan was made aware quite quickly of Perry’s arrival in Naha. There were around 100 men working for the zaiban bugyo (resident magistrate), Kawakami Shikibu. But this Japanese presence would go unnoticed by Perry. For the entirety of his trip, the actions of the Okinawan officials were managed by Shikibu, who, again by Wiley, “reported on events in Okinawa to the Ryukyu office in Satsuma.”
Perry may not have known precisely of Japan’s communication system, but he assumed its existence. One could say he even desired it. The commodore had one central goal — visit the Shuri castle. By doing this, a clear message would be sent not only to Ryukuan officials but also to the Japanese mainland: Perry’s ships were to be taken seriously. The Americans were determined to establish a commercial presence in the Ryukyus.
At 7 a.m. on May 27, Shikibu began what would turn out to be a long distance chess match with Perry. Four boats were told to sail up to the Susquehanna and offer a gift (“a bullock, several pigs, a goat, some fowl, vegetables, and eggs”). It was a generous offering, and sneaky as well. In a way, Perry was being assaulted… by kindness: Accept the gifts, invite the Okinawan officials onto the ship and be satisfied with the result. This meant that Perry would feel less inclined to ask for something more demanding.
Perry wanted control of the negotiations, so he refused the gifts and did not invite the Okinawan officials onto the ship. They soon left and so, too, did many boats in the harbor — much of them paddling north to Japan.
“It may be said that my anticipations are too sanguine. Perhaps they are, but I feel a strong confidence of success. Indeed, success may be commanded by our government, and it should be, under whatever circumstances accomplished. The honor of the nation calls for it, and the interest of commerce demands it.” —Matthew Calbraith Perry to Secretary of the Navy John Pendleton Kennedy, Dec. 15, 1852, from the island of Madeira, three weeks after starting the voyage.
The next day, the regent, Shang Ta-mo, a “feeble old man with a long white beard,” was allowed to board Perry’s ship. He and his other officials with him were given a tour. A “3-gun salute was fired,” and the “blast” sent “several of the regent’s party to their knees.” Perry accepted the regent into his quarters, since Bettelheim had told him that Ta-mo was the ruler of the island since the prince was 11 years old and his “queen mother” was ill while residing inside Shuri Castle. After the group had seen how the “great pistons rose and fell with a hiss, a sigh and a monumental clanking of machinery,” some decided to leave, the intimidating sight enough for one day.
Perry knew how to make a strong first impression. Just before the regent had reached his cabin, Perry had his musicians begin a song. As Wiley so clearly describes: “With the band playing, [Perry] strode forth from his cabin to greet the regent, who tried as best he could to maintain his placid demeanor.” Perry did all he could — which wasn’t much — to charm Ta-mo, speaking “of the nearness of the two countries across the Pacific” (hmm… ) “and the growth of California during the gold rush” (hmm again… ). He was honored to meet Ta-mo and he said “he felt compelled to return the regent’s visit by going to the castle at Shuri on June sixth.”
Outsiders were not invited to Shuri Castle. After a somewhat forced visit by the British navy back in February, the Okinawan queen was left in a weakened state and had not recovered from the shock of that encounter. The regent told Perry no, that wouldn’t be necessary. Instead, Ta-mo offered an elaborate banquet on June 2. It would be a feast to celebrate the budding friendship between America and the Ryukyu Islands.
Perry wasn’t interested. Nonsense, he seemingly inferred, if Wiley’s characterization of him is to be believed. I will see you on the sixth, with plenty of gifts to share. He also expected “a reception worthy of his rank and his role as a diplomatic representative of the United States.”
After Ta-mo’s visit to the ship, information was gathered about Okinawa. Perry dispatched a group to walk around the entire island, mapping its shore and collecting mineral samples. The island was about 60 miles from north to south and the team, travel writer Bayard Taylor being one of them, tried to learn about the island’s culture and development, but their Okinawan guides had planned ahead, making sure they did not see too many of the “natives.” Whenever the guides gave the group just a wee bit of slack, Taylor ran off and stuck his head into a hut just to say hello. His intrusiveness was not appreciated. “On my appearance, which must have been very unexpected and startling, the women fell upon their knees, uplifting both hands in an attitude of supplication, while the men prostrated themselves and struck their foreheads upon the earth.”
Perry stayed on the Mississippi for over a week, never touching shore. He did, however, have his men “drilling regularly” on Naha’s shores, the ship’s cannons in plain view. For as long as he remained on Okinawa, Perry made sure to present the blunt strength of the American military. He was going to visit Shuri Castle, and there was nothing the Okinawan officials could do about it.
An “imposing spectacle”
Finally, on June 6, Perry decided to “come ashore” at a port in Tomari, a small village with a town hall. The goal was simple: coordinate an “imposing spectacle” and attract as much attention from the community as possible. Word of mouth would eventually travel to Japan and Perry’s mission would begin to take on an even larger importance.
Or, as Wiley put it: “Create an ‘imposing spectacle’ was the order of the day. Accordingly at nine o’clock a signal flag fluttered aloft on the flagship, and all the boats from the three ships, each mounted with a cannon in the bow, made for the shore. Behind them came Perry in his barge. He strode ashore, was greeted by Chang-yuen, the so-called Japanese consul, and then passed in review before two companies of marines drawn up in formation. Nearby a crowd of several hundred Okinawans watched.”
Since their arrival at Okinawa, Perry had been working on this spectacle. He’d ordered several of his carpenters to construct a red and blue palanquin. Sure enough, on this morning, Perry proceeded to the castle not by foot, but carried in his patriotic palanquin by four Chinese laborers. His crew didn’t like it, but Perry did it solely “to impress the Okinawans” and add to the details shared (Perry hoped) with Japanese officials on the mainland. In case you’re thinking this was a silent procession, fear not. Trailing Perry were two groups of musicians, “playing alternately,” according to Wiley.
At Shuri’s entrance gate, Ta-mo asked once more for Perry to not visit the castle, but instead spend the day at his home. Perry waved him off, and on the procession went, until the palace gates. It was here when, at least, Perry left the palanquin as the musicians played “Hail, Columbia.” As the gates opened and the music played, Perry took his epic steps toward the Shuri Castle.
A 12-course feast was quickly put together inside the “red pillared central hall” of the castle, the young prince and queen either watching from an unseen place or far away.
The feast was… awkward. Gifts were exchanged, bows respected and conversation stifled by the fact that Perry had come uninvited. Still, the food was delicious, some of which had never been eaten by the Americans. What they “did recognize,” as Wiley reported, was “sliced boiled eggs dyed crimson, fish rolls boiled in fat, cold baked fish, slices of hog’s liver, sugar candy, cucumbers, salted raddish tops, and bits of lean fried pork. The first four courses of the meal were soups, followed by gingerbread, a salad of bean sprouts and onions, dough covering sugary pulp that looked like a bright red fruit, and a particularly appealing mixture of beaten eggs and aromatic white root.” Yes, Perry wasn’t supposed to be there, but this was Shuri Castle, and the feast would need to live up to the palace’s exalted place in Okinawan culture, regardless of the circumstance.
Perry was impressed, not just with the food, but “the suavity of manner and apparent sincerity of their hospitality,” and he made sure to applaud their ability at “being good actors if they were not sincere.” Along his palanquin ride, he appreciated how clean and organized the island culture kept itself. One assumes that he’d rephrase what he wrote to the Navy secretary from Madeira — the feeble “condition of the natives.” The islanders didn’t need saving, but Perry still needed to save his mission.
With his spectacle complete, Perry secured an “abandoned temple complex that included the Bettelheim’s residence” (Perry refused Bettelheim’s request to join him, the brilliant British missionary’s eccentricity unwelcome by Perry’s other main and somewhat anti-semitic translator, Samuel Wells Williams).
Wiley’s incredible retelling of Perry’s Okinawa trip ends with the conclusion that “During the more than two weeks that the Americans had been at Naha, Perry had probed the outer defenses of the Japanese empire, and in doing so had found that Okinawa was definitely a weak spot. Beyond that, he knew little about Japan and its complicated relations with the outer islands… ”
Perry’s journey was just beginning, but with his time in Okinawa, he’d attempted cannon fire in the form of gossip: He was carried by palanquin to Shuri Castle! Perry knew the message would be passed and when he eventually arrived in Edo (Tokyo) Bay on July 8, 1853, this “rather crotchety old Yankee sea dog” (as the New York Times called him) would be taken seriously.
As many of you know, Shuri Castle was destroyed by fire in October 2019. Okinawa is still accepting donations to help rebuild the historic castle. To make a donation, go here.
Our next Japan Yesterday feature will appear in January 2021 and continue Commodore Perry's trip to Japan.
Patrick Parr is the author of One Week in America: The 1968 Notre Dame Literary Festival and a Changing Nation (March 2021). His previous book is The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age, now available in paperback.
Other stories in the Japan Yesterday series
Volume 2 (September 2019 – present)
- Japanese journalist witnessed the death of Malcolm X
- Muhammad Ali fights Antonio Inoki at the Nippon Budokan in 1976
- Eleanor Roosevelt visits ‘burakumin’ and Emperor Hirohito in 1953
- Charles and Anne Lindbergh fly 7,000 miles to Japan in 1931
- A young Douglas MacArthur visits Japan in 1905
- J. Robert Oppenheimer father of the atomic bomb visits post-war Japan
- Alexander Graham falls asleep meeting Emperor Meiji
- Frank Lloyd Wright designs Japan’s Imperial Hotel during a mid-life crisis
Volume 1 (November 2018 – May 2019)
- The ‘Sultan of Swat’ Babe Ruth visits Japan
- Charlie Chaplin tramps his way past a Japanese coup d’état
- When Albert Einstein formulated his Japanese cultural equation
- Mrs and Mr Marilyn Monroe honeymoon in Japan
- American President Ulysses S Grant talks peace in Meiji-Era Japan
- Helen Keller brings hope and light to Japan
- Margaret Sanger brings 'dangerous thoughts' to Japan in 1922
- Bertrand Russell’s blinding Japanese resurrection
- Audrey Hepburn casts a spell over post-war Japan
- Ralph Ellison makes himself visible in 1950s Japan
- John Hersey visits the ruins of Hiroshima in 1946
- Russia’s Nicholas II is scarred for life in 1891 Japan