The Closing of Japan

The Portugese got off to an early start in trade with the Japanese in 1545. They brought with them Catholic missionaries, however, who did not endear themselves to the samurai. Christianity was regarded as intolerant and socially subversive. Given the turmoil back in Europe, with the Reformation, Inquisition and wars of religion, the samurai take on Christianity seems accurate.

When Dutch and English sailors were shipwrecked near Edo around 1600, they were denounced as godless pirates by the Portugese. This did not have the desired effect: the shogun thus learned that European trade did not necessarily have to be connected with Catholic proselytizing. By 1639, Japan was closed to all foreigners except some Dutch traders, who were not permitted to actually set foot in Japan, but were allowed to trade from “Dejima” (or “Deshima”), an artificial island in the Nagasaki harbor. So it continued for 200 years.

Japan on the Eve of the Meiji Restoration

Tokugama Ieyasu made the office of "general" (shogun) the de facto ruler of Japan, and the bakufu (a term for army headquarters) its provisional government. Over centuries, however, the bakufu became mired in bureaucracy and corruption, and alienated from the samurai, which staffed the local government and bureaucracy. Japanese classical education, not unlike Western classical education, relied on ancient texts and literary studies to train leaders. While some Western science was tolerated in Japan, such as medical knowledge, the rest was surpressed. In Europe, however, Greek and Latin were giving way to mathematics as the universal language of science, along with more practical pursuits, like chemistry, metallurgy and ballistics.

In the First Opium War (1839-1842), the British humiliated the Chinese with a few gunboats, and taught the Japanese what a few well-trained Europeans could do with their superior weaponry and tactics.

In 1837 and again in 1846, American ships attempting to enter Edo bay were fired upon and retreated. When the Americans returned in 1853, they arrived in force with enormous, smoke-belching, coal-burning steam frigates. This show of force got America’s foot in the door, but without the sales pitch that followed, it might not have done any good.

The Black Ships

In 1846, the U.S. resolved its territorial dispute with Britain over the Oregon border. In 1848, the United States concluded the U.S.-Mexican War with the Treaty of Guadulupe. The United States now extended from “sea to shining sea” and was poised to trade with Asia. Steamships now made crossing the Pacific economically feasible, but steamships of the day needed prodigious quantities of coal. Japan not only provided a convenient stopping point on the way to China, but it had coal.

The U.S. military had forced the conclusion of the Mexican conflict with a combined army-navy invasion of Central Mexico. The naval commander of the first U.S. amphibious invasion of another country was the Brooklyn Naval Yard’s steam-power advocate, Commodore Matthew Perry.

Matthew Calbraith Perry’s Navy experience included foreign diplomacy as well as combat. His first important command, in 1819, involved transporting freed slaves to the new nation of Liberia, and in 1843 he returned to Africa to help settle blacks in Nigeria.

In 1851, Secretary of State Daniel Webster appointed Perry the task of taking the East India Squadron back to Japan. Perry made meticulous plans. He assembled a collection of gifts which served as an industrial exposition: a telegraph system, daguerreotype camera, a telescope, maps and charts, engineering books and weapons like revolvers, rifles, and swords.

On July 8, 1853, the East Indian Squadron of four ships, including state-of-the-art steam frigates Mississippi and Susquehanna anchored in the bay off the village of Uraga, near Edo (now Tokyo). The Japanese ordered the Americans to go to Nagasaki, but Perry refused. He insisted upon presenting a letter from the President of the United States to a high-ranking Japanese official.

Perry presents his credentials

The Japanese, sizing up the fleet's guns against their inadequate shore battery, finally relented and Perry’s expedition was permitted ashore to deliver the letter. Perry made the most of it:

The marines led the way, and the sailors following, the Commodore was duly escorted up the beach. The United States flag and the broad pennant were borne by two athletic seamen, who had been selected from the crews of the squadron on account of their stalwart proportions. Two boys, dressed for the ceremony, preceded the Commodore, bearing in an envelope of scarlet cloth the boxes which contained his credentials and the President's letter. These documents, of folio size, were beautifully written on vellum, and not folded, but bound in blue silk velvet. Each seal, attached by cords of interwoven gold and silk with pendent gold tassels, was encased in a circular box six inches in diameter and three in depth, wrought of pure gold. Each of the documents, together with its seal, was placed in a box of rosewood about a foot long, with lock, hinges, and mountings all of gold. On either side of the Commodore marched a tall, well-formed Negro, who, armed to the teeth, acted as his personal guard. These blacks, selected for the occasion, were two of the best-looking fellows of their color that the squadron could furnish. All this, of course, was but for effect. (Tappan, 1914)

The letter from President Fillmore concluded:

These are the only objects for which I have sent Commodore Perry, with a powerful squadron, to pay a visit to your imperial majesty's renowned city of Yedo: friendship, commerce, a supply of coal and provisions, and protection for our shipwrecked people. We have directed Commodore Perry to beg your imperial majesty's acceptance of a few presents. They are of no great value in themselves; but some of them may serve as specimens of the articles manufactured in the United States, and they are intended as tokens of our sincere and respectful friendship.

The squadron then sailed to China.

The Opening

Perry returned in February, 1854 with four steamers, two sloops and a ship-of-the-line. In the meantime, the bakufu had received only lukewarm support from the samurai class for war, and knew that the outbreak of actual hostilities would reveal the military weakness of the central government. The shogun therefore had little choice but to capitulate to the American demands. The new status was formalized in the Treaty of Kanagawa. Shortly thereafter, the Japanese granted similar concessions to the Russians, British, Dutch and French as well.

While the central government did not immediately expose its weakness, capitulation was a national disgrace, and the “Tokugawa Shogunate” collapsed in 1868, to be replaced by a progressive government, nominally headed by the Emperor (the Meiji Restoration).


Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914);

Rieko Shimizu, “Commodore Matthew Perry: American Black Ships in the Land of the Samurai” (Student paper, University of Colorado at Boulder July 26, 2000);

Text of President Millard Fillmore’s letter to the Emperor, delived by Commodore Perry in 1853:

Contemporary lithographs and photos:

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