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Brief Summary of the Perry Expedition to Japan, 1853

Centennial - Opening of Japan by Commodore Matthew C. Perry, United States Navy


Image of cover - A Brief Summary of The Perry Expedition to Japan, 1853.

Prepared from the official records of the voyage with illustrations from the original narrative.

Department of the Navy
Washington, D.C.

The Perry Expedition to Japan

This year [1953] marks the 100th anniversary of the Perry Expedition to Japan. As a diplomatic coup, the date is memorized by every school child. Less familiar are the narrative of the voyage, the difficulties encountered and the Perry traits which made success possible. Even more remote are the expedition's contributions to sciences such as astronomy, hydrography, ethnology, botany, geology, medicine, ichthyology, conchology and others no less exotic or divergent. These additions to scientific lore stemmed entirely from the efforts of the uniformed officers of the expedition. Thus Perry proved a personal conviction that "if the talents and acquirements of the officers of the Navy, serving in various parts of the world, were properly developed, and their labors in pursuit of knowledge duly encouraged and appreciated, a vast amount of interesting and useful information would be constantly added to science." The result is an outstanding example of Navy tradition in undertaking any mission, in war or peace, that advance the welfare of nation and mankind. In this centennial year it is appropriate to remind the American people of Perry's accomplishments.

As a young officer in the War of 1812, Matthew Calbraith Perry, brother to the naval hero of the Battle of Lake Erie, served in the frigate President during action with HMS Little Belt and was wounded in a fight with HMS Belvidera. His subsequent career led him into many fields--devising a naval apprentice system, preparing the first course at the Naval Academy, helping found the New York Naval Lyceum, advocating steam propulsion, organizing a Naval Engineer Corps, collecting United States war-damage claims abroad, policing the settlement of an American colony in Nigeria, settling a delicate fishery dispute with Great Britain.

Ships of the American Squadron.
Ships of the American Squadron.

Some 18 previous expeditions, including 4 from America, had failed to crack the Japanese wall of isolation when Commodore Perry took on the task. Perry realized that failures had resulted from insufficient show of strength and ignorance of Japanese character, two mistakes he would never make. Brilliant, industrious, determined, skilled in diplomacy and possessed of a sense of history, "Old Matt" (he was nearing sixty) would succeed if anyone could.

In March 1852, Perry received orders to command the expedition. In the ensuing 9 months his careful plans and meticulous preparations laid the foundation for success. He memorized all known facts about Japan. He rode roughshod over obstacles in readying his ships. Even so, delays occurred. The steamer Princeton cost him several months while workmen fussed with her cranky boilers and at the last minute the Powhatan was substituted. When Perry took departure from Norfolk in November 1852 only the flagship Mississippi was ready. He left orders for the others to follow.

At the time, the Navy was in the throes of shifting form sail to steam and Perry's ships were a heterogenous lot. Some voyaged out from the States, others were requisitioned from the Asiatic station. The steamers, all paddle-wheelers, each carried sails. The sailing ships could only keep in company by taking a towline from the steamers. At one time or another Perry commanded the following:

Steam Frigates Sloops of War
Armed Store Ships

The expedition excited major public interest. Gold had been discovered in California; settlers were streaming across the continent. Anyone could see that trade between California and Asia would be extensive and profitable. Coaling stations and sanctuaries for whaling and merchant vessels in Japan would be requisite. The importance of the expedition had been symbolized by President's Fillmore's personal visit to the Mississippi at Annapolis shortly before sailing.

En route Perry's itinerary included Madeira, St. Helena, Capetown, Mauritius, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Okinawa (then called Lew Chew). In every port of call Perry and his officers wrote voluminously of peoples, customs, commerce and science. In May 1853, 6 months out from Norfolk, the squadron assembled in Naha Harbor, Okinawa.

Okinawa provided a rehearsal for the main event. The islands were noted for their truculence toward strangers, but Perry set about securing for American vessels the right to anchor and provision at Okinawa. He refused absolutely to do business with any person other than the regent and kept aloofly in his cabin until that dignitary called on board the flagship. Perry then endeared him full military honors--marine guard, band, and gun salute. Over the regent's voluble objections, he insisted on making a return call to the royal palace at Shuri.

Perry paid his respects in style. The 200-man procession which approached the palace consisted of:
Two field pieces each flying colors.
The Mississippi band.
A company of Marines.
The Commodore in an ornate sedan chair borne by eight coolies.
The Commodore's Marine bodyguard, a page boy and a steward.
Officers with side arms.
Six coolies bearing presents surrounded by a Marine guard.
More officers with side arms.
The Susquehanna band.
A company of Marines.

This aggregation set the pattern for Perry's dealings with Asiatics. Pomp, dignity and determination were the order of the day.

Across conference tables Perry adopted a policy of absolute truth. What he said he would do, he did, impervious to bribes and flattery. Aside from the chance to prove his psychology in dealing with these peoples, Perry, for the first time, established the right of visiting ships to barter for supplies at Okinawa.

On June 9, Perry flying his flag in the Susquehanna, got under way with the Saratoga for a brief exploration of the Bonin Islands. This group, only 600 miles from Japan, interested the Commodore as a possible coaling station for ships bound between California and Asia. Whaling vessels already used Peel Island as a provisioning and watering place and a small Anglo-American colony thrived from trade and husbandry. Perry went so far as to buy a piece of land from leading citizen Nat Savery.

A fortnight later Perry returned to Okinawa where he held a farewell banquet for Okinawan government officials and laid final plans for the Japanese visit.

On July 2, the Susquehanna and Mississippi, towing the sloops Saratoga and Plymouth, sailed for the Hermit Isles of Japan. Six days later, with Fuji in full view, the ships steamed into Tokyo Bay and anchored off Uraga. There followed 5 days of diplomatic maneuvering with the Japanese. During this period, the Commodore remained out of sight in his cabin, stating that he would consult personally only with direct representatives of the Emperor. The Japanese procrastinated and equivocated. The Commodore stood firm, supported by the implied threat of the squadron's guns. He refused to move his ships to Nagasaki. He rejected gifts and compromises. He forbade indiscriminate visiting by natives. He herded their guard boats away from the anchorage. Always alert to the possibility of treachery, he exercised his crew at battle stations daily.

His strength and persistence won out. On the 14th of July the Emperor's barge floated down from Tokyo bearing two imperial princes, Ido and Toda, to whom Perry delivered letters from the President and himself to the Emperor. On this occasion Perry had swelled his shoreside entourage to 300, all impressively dressed and armed to the teeth. The historic meeting took place in a building especially constructed for the event.

Prince Toda and Prince Ido Receive President Fillmore's Letter to the Emperor, July 14, 1853.
Prince Toda and Prince Ido Receive President Fillmore's Letter to the Emperor, July 14, 1853.

The Fillmore and Perry letters were not treaties, but avowals of friendship, lists of advantages of trade with America, and suggestion that a treaty be drafted. Perry promised the Japanese sufficient time to consider the proposal for such a radical departure from age-old custom. He would depart and return the following spring for an answer. The Japanese receipted for the letters and urged Perry to leave posthaste. Perry, however, stayed on in the Tokyo Bay for an additional 3 days after the conference to impress the Japanese that he would go when he decided, not they. Meanwhile, he advanced farther up the Bay and continued hydrographic surveys to within 10 miles of Tokyo.

Returning briefly to Okinawa, Perry exacted additional concessions from the regent and then sailed to Hong Kong, where he arrived in early August and prepared to spend the winter. However, in November he learned that a Russian naval squadron had visited Nagasaki. At the same time a French frigate in Hong Kong put to sea under sealed orders. Fearful that the Russians or French planned a treaty with Tokyo which would thwart his own plans, Perry shortened his stay in the Chinese port and put to sea in mid-January.

Pausing at Okinawa, he observed that a coal storage had been constructed, that a hospital building had been established, and, somewhat ruefully, that the Okinawans, in consenting to supply the Americans, had already caught on to the law of supply and demand--prices had skyrocketed.

On February 11, 1854, Perry once again entered Tokyo Bay, and next day anchored off Yokohama with the Susquehanna, Powhatan, Mississippi, Macedonian, Lexington and Vandalia.

The Japanese resumed obstructionist tactics. The Americans should shift anchorage farther from Tokyo. Perry replied that if the present anchorage was not suitable he would go even closer. The Japanese protested against American hydrographic surveys. Perry stated the surveys would continue as work of value to the whole civilized world. Debate continued for nearly a month, the Japanese finally yielding.

On March 8, 1854, the commissioners from the Emperor arrived to confer with Perry. As usual, the expedition landed an imposing parade of heavily armed sailors and Marines to the accompaniment of band music and gun salutes. The 5 commissioners, 3 of them royal princes, formally proffered the Emperor's reply to the Fillmore and Perry letters.

This reply gave Perry a powerful opening wedge, the Japanese agreeing to open a harbor within 5 years as a coaling station and refuge. Perry, prepared to take advantage of concession, handed the commissioners a proposed draft of a treaty.

Commodore Perry and his Entourage Arrive at the "Treaty House" In Yokohama, March 8, 1954.
Commodore Perry and his Entourage Arrive at the "Treaty House" In Yokohama, March 8, 1954.

The principal source of contention in the Perry treaty-draft concerned opening of trade ports. The argument continued for 23 days, Perry immovable in his demands, the Japanese retreating only when worn down by the resolute American. "Old Matt" won on nearly every score. The final treaty, as signed, contained provisions for:

Two harbors (Shimoda and Hakodate) to be opened for supplies and coal.
Shipwrecked sailors to be assisted and returned to American representatives.
American citizens to be given freedom of movement within the treaty ports.
Trade between the Americans and Japanese to be conducted in the treaty ports.

The Presents From the United States to the Emperor and Commissioners of Japan Are Landed at Yokohama, March 13, 1854.
The Presents From the United States to the Emperor and Commissioners of Japan Are Landed at Yokohama, March 13, 1854.

As soon as the treaty was signed, Perry dispatched Commander H.A. Adams for Washington with the document.

Perry lingered in Japanese waters to inspect the treaty harbors and settle on additional details. His efforts culminated in specific regulations signed with the commissioners in mid-June. These dealt mainly with landing wharfs, American conduct on shore, harbor masters, pilots, and commercial usage.

Meanwhile, Japanese suspicion and reserve had been thawing. The Americans landed gifts calculated to interest the Japanese in the advantages of trade. These included:

Small arms and ammunition
A telegraph
Miniature locomotive, tender, coach and track
Audubon's Birds of America
Standard U.S. Measures
Farm implements
Patent lifeboats
Audubon's Quadrupeds
Whiskey and wine

The Japanese in turn proffered gifts to the President and to Perry, including:

Lacquer work
Handicraft samples

The sight of Japanese nobles, riding on the roof of the miniature railroad coach with ceremonial robes flying behind indicated how far the Japanese had departed from tradition.

It was also evident to Perry's men that the Japanese as a people had not sponsored the isolation. Once given government approval, they met the Americans with friendship.

On June 28, 1854, Perry left Japan, halting for a last minute inspection at Okinawa. Here he discovered that an American seaman, guilty of assault on a native, had been stoned to death by a mob. Perry demanded that the killers be punished, making it clear that not he, but constituted government on Okinawa must have jurisdiction. His last act was the signing of a compact opening the port of Naha to American use for all time.

At Hong Kong the expedition broke up, ships returning to the States or remaining on station as part of the regular Asiatic Squadron. Perry, exhausted and ill, traveled by commercial steamer and overland through Europe, arriving in New York in January 1855. On April 23, 1855, his original flagship, the Mississippi, docked at Brooklyn Navy Yard and the next day "Old Matt" formally hauled down his pennant.

Commander Adams' journey with the treaty to Washington and back to Japan was the sequel. By naval vessel (Saratoga) and commercial steamer he traveled to Honolulu, San Francisco, Panama and the East Coast of the United States, arriving in Washington 3 months and 8 days after leaving Japan. The treaty was presented to the Senate by the President and ratified in time for Adams to leave New York in the early autumn of 1854. He voyaged to England and thence across Europe and on to Hong Kong where the Powhatan conveyed him to Japan. He arrived at Shimoda, January 26, 1855. The elapsed time between the signing of the treaty in Japan and its return from the United States was under 10 months.

A devastating earthquake had rocked Honshu during Adams' absence and one of its victims was a Russian man-of-war. The Americans relieved the shipwrecked Russians by supplying all the Powhatan provisions that could be spared. Meanwhile, the Russians negotiated a treaty almost identical with that of Perry. Adams noted that the Japanese regarded the Russians with none of the good will evidenced toward Americans. The advantages of Perry's diplomacy were further demonstrated when a French ship was refused entry to Shimoda because Japan had no treaty with France.

The impact of Perry's success was to be world-wide. In the following century Japan, by adopting modern techniques, was to become one of the earth's great industrial, mercantile and military powers, only to lose that position in the holocaust of World War II.

Today Japan is again on the way out of darkness, and all Americans have a deep-seated interest in her political and economic future. This Centennial offers an opportunity to point out the extent of that interest.


Published: Wed Aug 23 14:43:02 EDT 2017