History item: On July 8,1853 four black ships led by USS Powhatan and commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry, anchored at Edo (Tokyo) Bay. Never before had the Japanese seen ships steaming with smoke. They thought the ships were “giant dragons puffing smoke.” They did not know that steamboats existed and were shocked by the number and size of the guns on board the ships.
President Millard Fillmore, defying H. L. Mencken’s later, crabby, hoax claim of do-little-government, sent Matthew C. Perry to Japan to open Japan as a refuge for shipwrecked sailors, and as a coaling stop for steamships. For the previous 200 years, Japan had been closed to all but a few Dutch and Chinese traders. On July 8, 1853, Perry’s small fleet sailed boldly into restricted waters of Japan and anchored.
After some contretemps, which included Japan’s telling Perry to go to Nagasaki instead (where a military party was probably waiting) and Perry’s shelling a few buildings on shore, the Emperor accepted the letter from President Fillmore. Perry told the Emperor he would return the following year for an answer. Perry returned on March 8, 1854, and within a month concluded the Convention of Kanagawa, opening Japan to trade from the west. Generally unheralded, this may have been one of the more important pieces of U.S. diplomacy in history, especially considering the dramatic rise of Japan as an economic and military power, on the basis of the trade Commodore Perry demanded Japan engage in.
We should make special note of the chain of events over the following 85 or so years, culminating in World War II in the Pacific. Had Fillmore not sent Perry, had the U.S. not insisted Japan open itself to the world, would there have been an attack on Pearl Harbor, and war in the Pacific? Alternative histories we’ll never see. But see the discussion at Salon, in 2014, about this topic (conveniently leaving out Millard Fillmore’s role), “What sparked Japan’s aggression during World War II?”
- Lesson plans and exercises from the U.S. Navy Museum, “Commodore Perry and the Opening of Japan”
- MIT open course (free), Visualizing Cultures, which features a unit on the coming of the Black Ships (Perry’s fleet) to Japan
- “Commodore Perry’s Expedition to Japan” – grifworld
- Essay and documents, from Columbia University’s East Asia Curriculum Project
- A bunch of great images, and discussion, from a maritime perspective at GCaptain
Documents below the fold
Letter from President Millard Fillmore to the Emperor of Japan:
Letter from U.S. Pres. Millard Fillmore
Requesting a Japan – U.S. Agreement
In 1853, United States President Millard Fillmore sent Commodore Matthew C. Perry and four large warships to Japan to deliver this letter requesting that the Japanese permit American ships to resupply in Japan, that shipwrecked sailors receive assistance, and that the two countries discuss trade possibilities. The letter does not threaten assault on Japan, though the Tokugawa shogunate certainly understood the eagerness and determination of Western powers to gain access to Asian goods and markets.
GREAT AND GOOD FRIEND: I send you this public letter by Commodore Matthew C. Perry, an officer of the highest rank in the navy of the United States, and commander of the squadron now visiting Your imperial majesty’s dominions.
I have directed Commodore Perry to assure your imperial majesty that I entertain the kindest feelings toward your majesty’s person and government, and that I have no other object in sending him to Japan but to propose to your imperial majesty that the United States and Japan should live in friendship and have commercial intercourse with each other.
The Constitution and laws of the United States forbid all interference with the religious or political concerns of other nations. I have particularly charged Commodore Perry to abstain from every act which could possibly disturb the tranquility of your imperial majesty’s dominions.
The United States of America reach from ocean to ocean, and our Territory of Oregon and State of California lie directly opposite to the dominions of your imperial majesty. Our steamships can go from California to Japan in eighteen days.
Our great State of California produces about sixty millions of dollars in gold every year, besides silver, quicksilver, precious stones, and many other valuable articles. Japan is also a rich and fertile country, and produces many very valuable articles. Your imperial majesty’s subjects are skilled in many of the arts. I am desirous that our two countries should trade with each other, for the benefit both of Japan and the United States.
We know that the ancient laws of your imperial majesty’s government do not allow of foreign trade, except with the Chinese and the Dutch; but as the state of the world changes and new governments are formed, it seems to be wise, from time to time, to make new laws. There was a time when the ancient laws of your imperial majesty’s government were first made.
About the same time America, which is sometimes called the New World, was first discovered and settled by the Europeans. For a long time there were but a few people, and they were poor. They have now become quite numerous; their commerce is very extensive; and they think that if your imperial majesty were so far to change the ancient laws as to allow a free trade between the two countries it would be extremely beneficial to both.
If your imperial majesty is not satisfied that it would be safe altogether to abrogate the ancient laws which forbid foreign trade, they might be suspended for five or ten years, so as to try the experiment. If it does not prove as beneficial as was hoped, the ancient laws can be restored. The United States often limit their treaties with foreign States to a few years, and then renew them or not, as they please.
I have directed Commodore Perry to mention another thing to your imperial majesty. Many of our ships pass every year from California to China; and great numbers of our people pursue the whale fishery near the shores of Japan. It sometimes happens, in stormy weather, that one of our ships is wrecked on your imperial majesty’s shores. In all such cases we ask, and expect, that our unfortunate people should be treated with kindness, and that their property should be protected, till we can send a vessel and bring them away. We are very much in earnest in this.
Commodore Perry is also directed by me to represent to your imperial majesty that we understand there is a great abundance of coal and provisions in the Empire of Japan. Our steamships, in crossing the great ocean, burn a great deal of coal, and it is not convenient to bring it all the way from America. We wish that our steamships and other vessels should be allowed to stop in Japan and supply themselves with coal, provisions, and water. They will pay for them in money, or anything else your imperial majesty’s subjects may prefer; and we request your imperial majesty to appoint a convenient port, in the southern part of the Empire, where our vessels may stop for this purpose. We are very desirous of this.
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.
May the Almighty have your imperial majesty in His great and holy keeping!
In witness whereof, I have caused the great seal of the United States to be hereunto affixed, and have subscribed the same with my name, at the city of Washington, in America, the seat of my government, on the thirteenth day of the month of November, in the year one thousand eight hundred and fifty-two.
(Seal attached.)Your good friend, MILLARD FILLMORE EDWARD EVERETT, Secretary of State
[Ref.: U.S. Sen., 33rd, 2nd, Exec. Docs. #34 (1854-5), Vol. 6, pp. 9-11]
See the list of gifts to the Emperor, mentioned in the letter, here, with images.
Commodore Perry’s account of the landing in 1854 (perhaps 1853?).
Edward Everett more interesting appearance in later history: Everett, Fillmore’s Secretary of State, had a reputation as a fine orator. He was the featured speaker at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 17, 1863. Everett was scheduled to speak for about 2 hours, which he did. As an afterthought, the ceremony organizers invited the President, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was expected to speak at similar length, but instead spoke for just about two minutes. Have you ever seen or heard a copy of Everett’s Gettysburg address? No? In contrast, Lincoln’s brief remarks are a monument in history.