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Commodore Perry’s black ships deliver a letter to Japan in July 1853

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By Patrick Parr

It wasn’t a surprise.

As early as 1852, a Dutch agent in Nagasaki had given a report to high-level Japanese officials describing an expedition led by Matthew Calbraith Perry, consisting of “two steamships and two other ships.” Japan’s bakufu — the shogunate government in power for the last seven centuries —had limited their trading to China, Korea, Holland and the Ryukyu Island chain. Fourteen years earlier they’d received a similar report, stating that British ships were coming, but after a no-show, the Japanese lost a bit of trust in the Dutch reports, believing their sole European trading partner was attempting to use to their advantage the fear of other more intimidating competitors. The report on the Americans was acknowledged, but not taken seriously.

In early June, Perry’s activity in Naha had been documented by Japanese officials and sent to offices in Kagoshima. But, as Peter Booth Wiley documents in his definitive account, Yankees in the Land of the Gods, it wasn’t until July 5 that the roju shuseki, or head of the council of the Bakufu, Masahiro Abe, was given a full report of Perry’s push to be received at the Shuri Castle. Even then, the Japanese were more relieved than concerned, since both Russia and Britain posed a larger threat than the fledgling, 77-year-old, pre-Civil War United States of America. “We may not have to worry very much,” wrote Shimazu Nariakira, Satsuma’s daimyo. “For [the Americans] seemed very honest and we especially told them not to stay for a long time.”

Not that the Japanese believed the Americans were harmless. Far from it. Back in July 1846, another American Commodore, James Biddle, had appeared in Uraga Bay with two warships and “high-powered swivel guns.” Biddle’s attempt had not been forceful enough, and Perry, when preparing to negotiate, had learned from Biddle’s experience.

The set up

Four ships: Two steamers belching coal-powered black smoke — the Susquehanna and the Mississippi — each towing two other ships, the Saratoga and the Plymouth. On these four ships were nearly a thousand men — sailors, scientists, engineers, cooks, musicians, translators and travel writers — and “sixty-one guns.” On July 4, after an inebriated celebration of America’s independence, Perry allowed a round of gunfire, “a salute across the empty ocean,” and a Pacific Ocean doorbell ring. The Yankees are here.

Early in the morning on July 8, 1853, Perry’s four ships entered the Uraga Channel, passing by other boats, “Japanese sailors standing and gesturing,” Wiley wrote, “evidently amazed by the sight of four black ships moving effortlessly over the water at eight or nine knots without a sail set, thick black smoke pouring from the two lead ships.” The clear morning sun allowed some sailors to see “in the distance, towering over this strange land, the awe-inspiring volcanic cone of Mount Fuji.”

Perry, unlike Biddle, wanted to keep a strong front and not allow the Japanese to surround his ships. “I determined to practice upon them a little of their own diplomacy,” he wrote, “by forbidding the admission of a single individual aboard any of the ships, excepting those officers who might have business with me.”

And, as he’d practiced in Okinawa, for anyone hoping to do business with Perry directly, he would be hard to find. “I was well aware,” Perry wrote, “that the more exclusive I should make myself and the more exacting I might be, the more respect these people of forms and ceremonies would be disposed to award me.” With mystery comes a sense of authority, and Perry would attempt to remain just out of reach, but close enough to the action to warrant their attention.

Finally, at 5 p.m. on July 8, 1853, under a clear sky, “the four ships anchored in a line,” Wiley wrote, “so that their guns could be brought to bear on Uraga…They were within a thousand yards of the entrance to the Uraga bight [coastline curvature]…” and each ship’s “bows pointed toward the southwest.”

It was time to talk.

The first important point

The Japanese did try to force themselves aboard Perry’s ships. A “fleet of guardboats” still surrounded the Americans, and several tried to throw lines onto the Saratoga “to tie themselves alongside.” But, following Perry’s orders, the “sailors simply cut their lines and pushed them away.” Other guard boats used far more difficult-to-cut chains, but again “they were greeted with pikes, cutlasses [curved blades], and drawn pistols.”

Soon after, a nervous and hectic misfiring of languages occurred between one Japanese guard boat and the Susquehanna. The commander of the guard boat, Nakajima Saburonosuke, had a large banner held high with a message written in French: “Depart immediately and dare not anchor.” The Americans had already anchored. Next, linguist Samuel Wells Williams spoke directly to Nakajima, but in “rudimentary Japanese.” His message was easy to understand, however: “We want to speak to a high official and give your emperor a letter.” Then a Dutch interpreter for the Americans, A.L.C. Portman, came forward to help when a member of the Japanese crew asked a series of questions in Dutch: What country are you from? What intentions do you have? What are your “armaments?” According to Wiley, “none of the questions were answered.”

“Every day points out the importance and positive necessity of bringing the government of Japan to some sort of reason, and the least objectionable course will be to establish an influence which they cannot prevent, here at the very door of the empire.” ~Commodore Matthew Perry, June 1853

Finally, and only after Perry’s allowance, was Nakajima Saburonosuke allowed to board the Susquehanna and talk to “John Contee, Perry’s flag lieutenant.” Contee was clear: American President Millard Fillmore had written a very important letter and it was to be given “to the emperor.” The Americans would first provide a copy and then “arrange a day for the commodore to deliver the original.” Nakajima, nowhere near the “high official” the Americans were looking for, told Contee that they should take their ships to Nagasaki, where negotiations normally occurred.

That wasn’t going to happen, however.

The Americans were not going to budge. And to make this point clearer, Contee demanded that Nakajima call off the guard boats who’d come too close to the four American ships. “If the guard boats were not removed immediately, the commodore intended to use force to remove them.” Nakajima understood, and ordered the guard boats to move away, some of which had artists aboard “sketching the American ships.”

An hour later, after conferring with the governor of Uraga, Nakajima returned to the Susquehanna and futilely tried once again to get answers to the questions asked earlier (What intentions…?) and if they would please go to Nagasaki. Again, Contee said no, and “if a high official did not come for a copy of the letter, they would be compelled to deliver the letter themselves.” Contee may have also hinted at the idea that more American ships were on their way — more a bluff than a truth.

As for Perry, he remained elusive, in his cabin, as word spread quickly in Uraga and beyond. After a brief sleep, he “rose as was his custom after midnight to dictate a journal entry to his clerk.” In his mind, the most impactful moment of July 8 was when the guard boats were removed. “The first important point is gained.” It was the birth of Perry’s muscular diplomacy. Except for a glorious comet, its “blue fireball with a red wedge-shaped tail” flying across the southwest horizon, the night remained tense but uneventful.

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The second important point

Early the next morning, Eizaemon Kayama, claiming to be the governor of Uraga, again attempted to redirect the four American ships to Nagasaki. President Fillmore’s letter, which Kayama was shown a copy, “even if it were delivered here,” Kayama told the Americans, “the reply would be sent to Nagasaki.”

Perry wasn’t buying it. The Americans had made their expedition known to the world in 1852. And besides, it was a letter. Surely the Americans could “go ashore” and “with sufficient force… deliver it themselves.” Kayama then asked a sharp question, paraphrased here: Why bring four huge ships and a thousand men to deliver one letter? It’s unsure who replied, but the answer was, “out of respect for the emperor.” Kayama wasn’t buying that either.

At a stalemate yet again, Kayama said he’d needed “to receive further orders,” but that it would take four days. On this morning, Oliver Perry, Commodore Perry’s son, had been the runner between the American commanders and the commodore’s cabin. After Oliver Perry talked to his father, the commodore thought four days was too long. Kayama had three days. Somewhat frustrated, Kayama asked what they would be doing in Uraga Bay for three days. The answer, “surveying,” was offered, but Kayama tried to shut them down. That was illegal in accordance to Japanese law. But the Americans, John Contee and Henry Adams, explained that they didn’t move according to Japanese law. In Wiley’s words, “the Americans were operating according to American law.” Again, in his diary, Perry instructed his clerk to write “the second…important point” in negotiation had been won — the Americans could continue surveying Japan’s bay area without the threat of an attack.

Before leaving, Kayama “offered water and supplies for the [American] squadron.” But, as Perry had instructed his men to do in Okinawa, they refused any and all help, gifts or charity. It was better to owe nothing or feel indebted when negotiating.

Their conversations went from Japanese to Dutch (Portman) to English, and then back through Portman in response, a trilingual, trilateral discussion. But what worried Kayama far more than a confusion in communication was instead the “sophisticated weaponry” of the American ships.

Applying pressure

By Monday, July 11, progress had yet to be made from Perry’s standpoint. To turn up the heat a bit, Perry “dispatched the survey boats,” Wiley wrote, “this time in the direction of Edo under the protection of the Mississippi. Perry hoped that movement of the heavily armed steamer in the wake of the survey boats would sound alarm bells in Uraga and ultimately Edo.” It did. When an official on a boat attempted to come aboard to stop them from going forward, they denied him — no visits would be allowed until a decision was made on President Fillmore's letter.

When Kayama came back to update the Americans — the letter would “probably” be received, purposely vague — he then, while aboard, asked why Perry had moved a steamer closer to Edo. Perry, again remaining sight unseen in his cabin but instructing through intermediaries, explained that “unless there was a satisfactory response to his request to deliver the letter to Edo, he would have to return the next spring with a larger fleet.” That meant he needed to survey for “favorable anchorage” along Edo Bay. In other words, more trouble was coming, so you’d better hurry.

Susquehanna.jpg
U.S.S. Susquehanna, Commodore Perry's flag ship, full starboard view. From the U.S. Library of Congress, drawing is on the "Susquehanna & Mississippil Scroll," depicting Perry's expedition to Japan. Watercolor drawing Taguchi Shumpei.

On July 12, at around 9:30 a.m., “Kayama and two interpreters,” aboard three large boats, asked permission to come aboard the Susquehanna. Unknown to Perry, his actions had spun Edo residents into a frenzy, with weapons stores selling out and soldiers moving into assigned positions. To many, an attack was imminent, and thousands watched from a distance as talks unfolded.

Kayama offered what was in part an illusion of a compromise. They’d accept President Fillmore’s letter “in the near future in the vicinity of Uraga, but they would reply at Nagasaki, either through the Dutch or the Chinese.”

Again, unacceptable. Perry had no desire for a third party to have any weight in these talks, nor would he be going to Nagasaki. Bottom line, he wanted to meet with “one of the highest officers of the Empire of Japan.” Emperor Komei, who Perry had assumed he needed to meet, was completely disconnected from the negotiations and, as Wiley states, “knew nothing of what was transpiring at Uraga.”

The Americans didn’t know this. So, on July 13, the Japanese did a bit of stealth work to appease Perry’s desires. They quickly promoted Toda Izu to the lofty level of “daimyo.” And the Bakufu constructed a letter, which was “wrapped in velvet and placed in a sandalwood box,” and said it was “from the emperor,” an act of royal plagiarism. A reception would be held at a site in Kurihama, a town two miles south of Uraga, and the letters would be formally exchanged.

Perry steps ashore

Around 10 a.m. on July 14, Commodore Perry finally left his cabin on the Susquehanna and stepped ashore “to the roll of drums,” reported Wiley, as Perry’s “officers formed a double line and he strode between them. Marine Major Jacob Zeilin led the procession with sword drawn, and Perry fell in line between two huge black stewards who, armed to the teeth, served as his bodyguards and carried his pennant [ship’s flag].” As they did in Okinawa while marching to the Shuri Castle, a group of American musicians played “Hail Columbia,” and in time Perry was led “up the beach toward the reception hall.”

Inside, Perry was received by Toda Izu and Ido Iwami, another governor. They bowed to him, and Perry took his seat in an armchair.

For a while, there was an awkward silence. Kayama finally started by introducing the governors via an interpreter. One of the interpreters, Tatsunosuke Hori, who had honed his English skill back in 1848 while under the tutelage of then-imprisoned American-Canadian sailor Ranald MacDonald, then came forward. According to Wiley, Hori “asked Portman in Dutch if the commodore was ready to deliver the letters.” Perry was, and Hori “conveyed Perry’s reply to the two governors while bowing his head to the floor.”

Perry called upon “the cabin boys, and they stepped forward, bearing the two rosewood boxes with gold hinges.” Then “the black stewards…opened the foot-long boxes and took out the letters, displaying their seals, which were encased in six-inch-by-three-inch solid gold boxes.” Presentation, especially in 1853, was everything. These were the real deal. “The rosewood boxes along with translations in Dutch and Chinese were placed within a large scarlet lacquered box provided by the Japanese.” The last document exchanged “was a receipt,” from the Japanese.

Perry was not one for small talk. This pomp and circumstance affair lasted only a half an hour, with Perry, in his native English, explaining quickly to Hori that “he was leaving for the Ryukyus and Canton in two or three days and would be glad to deliver any messages or dispatches.” Perry then said he planned “to return in April or May” of 1854. Hori, who was barely hanging on to Perry’s English, asked if he’d be returning “with the same number of ships.” Perry said yes. “All of them, and probably more, as these are only a portion of the squadron.”

After leaving, Perry read a translation of the receipt. Formal throughout, until the last strongly worded line: “The letter being received, you will leave here.” Perry huffed.

Nope…not yet.

The next day, Perry moved his ships closer to Edo. Curious Japanese bystanders walked up close to American sailors near a riverbank. They gave the Americans “water and fresh peaches” while the Americans “shared tobacco,” much to the annoyance of government officials, who were unsure of how to remove Perry from their waters. It wasn’t until Perry had sailed to within seven miles of Edo that he decided enough was enough.

On July 17, as the sun was just beginning to rise, Perry and his four ships left Edo Bay. The letters, which you can read here, fundamentally changed Japanese history, and led to the Treaty of Kanagawa, signed on March 31, 1854, which, among other things, provided the U.S. with access to ports in Shimoda and Hakodate. The treaty also provided legal protection for American sailors who’d been shipwrecked while on, as one example, whaling expeditions.

It should be noted, however, that Perry did not literally open Japan for trading. That would not become official until 1858. Still, the commodore’s aggressive efforts were the only reason Japan agreed to, slowly but surely, reopen its borders, which, exempting Dejima, had been closed since 1633.

The next Japan Yesterday, to appear on March 4, will describe Robert Kennedy’s 1962 experience at Waseda University.

Patrick Parr’s second book, One Week in America: The 1968 Notre Dame Literary Festival and a Changing Nation, will be released on March 2, 2021, and will be available through Kinokuniya and Kobo. 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)

Volume 1 (November 2018 – May 2019)

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Impossible to imagine now how alien the two cultures must have seemed to each other, and how many false steps were made and mutual intellectual and cultural adjustments had to be agonisingly suffered through before there was at least a partial degree of acceptance and understanding between Western civilisation and the Japanese.

The 1862-69 memoir of British diplomat Sir Ernest Mason Satow - A Diplomat In Japan - is a fascinating insider's view of the diplomatic manoeuvrings that were the one of the consequences of Perry's visit, including the fall of the Shogunate. Reads (almost) like a novel, and you can get it for free, and legal, from Project Gutenberg.

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