Perry’s fleet marked a momentous event that marked Japan’s transition towards becoming a modern power. Although this transformation would take time and require sacrifice on all fronts, now was an opportune moment to begin modernization alongside Western countries.
Perry instructed his flag lieutenant upon docking at Uraga to deliver a letter from President Fillmore to the Japanese Emperor.
The Arrival of Perry’s Fleet
Before Perry’s fleet visited Japan in July 1853, centuries had passed without outside contact in this East Asian nation. Japan remained relatively isolated from outside influences for centuries under shogunate rule, with only an annual port visit from a European ship bringing Western technologies or trade. Yet Japan was home to affluent, complex societies that still needed to adopt Western technology or business.
The American government brought in Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry to broker relations between Japan and America and opened ports to American ships. However, his mission proved challenging and complex; many Japanese people wanted foreigners expelled. Perry refused this demand and demanded a treaty that eventually opened several ports to trade between both nations.
Perry read extensively from among the few available books about Japan and sought advice from Philipp Franz von Siebold, an expatriate who had spent eight years working and studying there. To complete his mission successfully, Perry advocated for more latitude from the Secretary of State before setting sail – an endeavor eventually granted just before setting sail.
Once Americans arrived in Japan, they quickly interacted with its people like never before. Samurais frequently confronted Americans, yet Perry was determined to meet the Shogunate equally.
The shogunate agreed to all of Perry’s requests without fear or force being used against them – this marked the first time that an outsider could contact them without having their staff threatened in some way. His expedition had an enormously lasting impact, catalyzing Meiji Restoration and the rapid industrialization afterward. To commemorate Perry and his fleet’s visit, an iconic monument remains in Kurihama today: Hei Chuan Lai Hang (Arrival of Black Ships). A visit would help visitors understand just how his visit changed Japan forever!
How the Japanese People Felt and Reacted
Many Japanese saw Perry’s black ships as heralding a time of significant change in their country, so much so that they were sad to see them go when they departed! According to an account written by a priest in April of 1854, they “were even sorry to see them go.”
President Fillmore had requested of Perry that Japan open itself up to world trade, protect shipwrecked seamen, and permit ships to purchase coal. To impress the shogunate with potential military might, Perry also brought ten ships equipped with 100 mounted cannon and an impressive force of men; additionally, he brought ample supplies of champagne and fine wines for an extravagant banquet celebration in Japan.
In the Treaty of Kanagawa, Japan agreed to meet all American demands and allow Americans to establish trading posts. Furthermore, this treaty included a most-favored-nation clause, making any future concessions granted by Japan available to the United States first. Despite initial resistance, Perry’s mission successfully broke Japan’s centuries-long isolation.
At the time of the Meiji era (1868-1889), Western ideas and customs had spread throughout Japan at an alarming rate. Buildings, banking, education, means of travel, healthcare, and art were transformed by Western influences at an unprecedented rate due to both economic necessity and widespread enthusiasm, thanks to Perry’s fleet and foreign contact allowing Japanese nationalists to take control of their destiny and modernize their country against international threats; unlike some Western historians who argue that foreign influences caused Japan’s eventual downfall. Clark thus starkly contrasts with many Western historians who claim the West was an imperialist force responsible for driving it.
Exotic Treasures from the West
At a time when European navies were using threats and coercion to force Japan into signing treaties promising regular trade, Perry used his smaller squadron as a show of American power. Refusing to negotiate with anyone other than representatives of the Emperor, refusing to move his ships, and rejecting gifts. He showed firmness by not backing down from his demands, including war threats if necessary.
The arrival of American ships was an unprecedented event in Japanese culture. It signaled to everyone living outside Japan’s boundaries that other people and races existed beyond its boundaries, conveying that Westerners held supremacy over Japanese society.
Commodore Perry’s expedition to Japan in the mid-1850s was a display of naval force and a showcase of Western technological and cultural prowess. Among the intriguing treasures he brought were intricate, working models of steam locomotives. These devices exemplified the revolutionary potential of steam-powered transportation, a concept unfamiliar to the Japanese.
Another marvel was the telegraph system, which highlighted the West’s ability to communicate rapidly over vast distances, starkly contrasting traditional Japanese message systems. High-quality telescopes were also presented, reflecting Western advancements in optics and a profound understanding of the cosmos. The cultural exchange was deepened with the introduction of various American foodstuffs. While the exact brands from that era remain obscure, it’s plausible that Perry’s fleet carried preserved goods like tinned meats, biscuits, and candies. These items demonstrated Western preservation methods essential for long naval expeditions.
The Japanese were also introduced to Western liquors and wines, including whiskeys and brandies, offering a glimpse into the West’s diverse tastes and brewing techniques. Clocks and timepieces, symbols of precision, and the burgeoning industrial revolution emphasized the meticulous nature of Western society. Furthermore, the expedition might have included advanced guns and artillery, showcasing progress in metallurgy and engineering.
Lastly, books and detailed maps undoubtedly made their way into the mix, representing the West’s vast knowledge reservoir and its spirit of geographic exploration. While Perry’s main aim was to forge a trading bond and obtain refueling rights for American ships, the treasures he brought significantly shaped Japan’s perception of the West.
Perry’s black ships were an abrupt change in Japanese life. Over time, Western inventions made rapid inroads into their society: buildings, banking, education, means of travel, healthcare, and art all underwent massive Westernization processes. With the end of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868 came further advancement toward modernity in Japan.
What they Sought and Exchanged for
After months of negotiations, the Shogunate agreed to Perry’s demands. They opened ports for US ships to dock, provided assistance for shipwrecked seamen, and allowed Japanese merchants to purchase fuel and coal from American vessels – an impressive concession by them.
At the first round of treaty negotiations, the shogunate hosted a banquet for all delegates. According to written accounts, Japanese admiration for American sailors’ eating habits, such as using forks and knives to consume meals – and their preference for drinking mirin instead of shochu and sake were evident during this gathering.
As talks progressed, fear of violence subsided, and villagers eagerly interacted with the Americans. According to one local priest, when their ships left, people were even sorry to see them go. The visit sent a powerful message about the existence of different cultures within humanity, which may have contributed to Japan opening itself to Western culture in preparation for the Meiji period (1868-1912).
While the emphasis of Commodore Perry’s expedition often rests on what the West introduced to Japan, the cultural and intellectual exchange was by no means one-sided. America, too, would be deeply impacted by its interactions with Japan. The American fleet took away lessons, artifacts, and insights that would reverberate in the cultural, artistic, and diplomatic corridors of the United States.
One of the most notable influences Japan had on America was in the realm of art. After Perry’s expedition, the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a wave of ‘Japonisme’ sweep across the West, particularly in America. Japanese art fascinated American artists with its unique aesthetic, precision, and love for nature. Woodblock prints, in particular, caught the attention of many and influenced the works of luminaries like James McNeill Whistler and Frank Lloyd Wright. These artists began incorporating Japanese motifs and techniques into their work, leading to an era of cross-cultural artistic fusion.
America was introduced to a variety of Japanese food and beverages. The concept of sushi, sake, and tea ceremonies began to captivate the American palette. While it took some time for these to become mainstream, the seeds of America’s love affair with sushi and other Japanese cuisines were sown during this period.
Beyond the tangible, America was introduced to Japanese philosophies and ways of life. Concepts of Zen Buddhism, its religious ideals and values, the importance of harmony with nature, and the practice of meditation, found resonance in America. These ideas would later influence the American counterculture movements in the 1960s.
Kimono, the traditional Japanese garment, fans, pottery, and other handcrafted artifacts, were brought back as souvenirs and quickly became items of fascination. These items provided Americans with a tangible connection to a previously mysterious and closed-off culture.
Learning from the Land of the Rising Sun
Commodore Perry set out on a mission to convince Japan of the benefits of opening up to the outside world. To accomplish this goal, he sailed into Japanese waters with an impressive fleet of large black steamers designed to show their firepower, as well as carrying an official letter from President Millard Fillmore asking Japan to open up to trade, protect shipwrecked seamen and allow American ships accessing two ports to refuel and replenish supplies.
The arrival of Perry’s fleet created much confusion and fear among the Japanese, prompting many leaders to demand that American be expelled. Eventually, the shogun relented and agreed with some of Perry’s requests; trade was allowed along with opening ports for refueling supplies and fuel delivery. This marked a turning point in Japanese history as modernization took hold, and foreign influences had greater access to their nation.
At this time, Japan embraced syncretism – a combination of Western and traditional cultures – embracing it with gusto. Many were born Shinto but later married Christian wives or later died Buddhist; religious tolerance existed among these groups without changing traditional values; this taught Japan an essential lesson about living harmoniously alongside other nations and cultures while prospering themselves simultaneously.
The interaction between Commodore Perry’s fleet and Japan paved the way for cultural exchanges that enriched both nations. The shared appreciation of arts, philosophy, and culinary delights highlighted the beauty of collaboration. These foundational ties fostered mutual respect and admiration, visiting Japan today a journey through shared histories and a testament to the wonders of intercultural exploration. Traveling to Japan offers a glimpse into this beautiful tapestry of shared experiences and future potential.