On July 14, 1853, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, flanked by two imposing black bodyguards, first showed his bulldog face to the Japanese contingent waiting nervously on shore. His four heavily armed “Black Ships”—two powered by steam and two by sail—had arrived six days earlier at Uraga Bay, threatening to breach the policy of national seclusion that the xenophobic Japanese had maintained for 250 years. During the first uneasy days at anchor, Perry remained sequestered behind the six-foot bulwarks of his flagship, the Susquehanna, communicating his inflexible intentions through subordinates.

He refused to sail south to Nagasaki, as requested, where Dutch merchants maintained an outpost on an island offshore. He would not wait four days for a reply from the nearby city of Edo (now Tokyo); three days, he insisted, should suffice. Under proper circumstances, he would personally hand over a letter from President Millard Fillmore addressed to the Emperor of Japan. He was determined, as he put it in the official account of his mission, to “demand as a right, and not as a favor, those acts of courtesy which are due from one civilized nation to another.”

Perry’s invisibility was part of a deliberate strategy of intimidation, based on his own careful study of Japanese society. “The more exclusive I should make myself, and the more exacting I might be,” he wrote, “the more respect these people of forms and ceremonies would be disposed to award me.” So it was that on the sunlit morning of July 14, Perry himself, resplendent in his full-dress uniform, preceded a ship’s boy bearing the presidential letter in a velvet-lined box of rosewood, with gold hinges and locks, as though it were the crown jewels. The letter assured the Japanese that American intentions were peaceful. The President sincerely wished that the two countries might “live in friendship” and enjoy free trade that “would be extremely beneficial to both.”

Perry’s mission proposed concrete measures to establish such an amicable relationship: first, that the Japanese no longer mistreat whalers and sailors shipwrecked on Japanese shores; second, that American steamships bound for China be allowed to refuel at coaling stations in Japan; and third, that one or more ports be made available for American ships to trade for supplies. Having delivered his letter, Perry announced that he would return in a few months, with a bigger force, for an answer.

The Japanese were deeply divided about what that answer should be. Nor was it clear who exactly should make the decision. While nominally a single country, Japanese society was in fact, as Lafcadio Hearn wrote, “a very bewilderment of complexity.” Fillmore’s letter was addressed to the Emperor, who resided in Kyoto, but the Emperor’s status was largely ceremonial. Meanwhile, the warlords of the Tokugawa family, who had ruled the country for two centuries and were based in Edo, were losing their grip on power. Some of the other feudal chieftains, known as daimyo, favored armed resistance to the Americans; some favored peaceful capitulation and trade; and some thought stalling combined with vigorous militarization was the best policy. It fell to a bureaucrat named Abe Masahiro, chief senior councilor to the Tokugawa family and a proponent of consultation and compromise, to balance these competing claims.

When Perry returned the following February, with an augmented fleet of ten ships, the Japanese were ready to negotiate a treaty. Many factors contributed to their decision, including the fear that Japan would suffer the same fate as China at the hands of the British if they refused (the First Opium War was a fresh memory), or that the Americans, who sailed menacingly within sight of Edo, would simply invade if rebuffed. They negotiated with great skill, however, limiting Perry’s demands for ports, for example, to the remote village of Shimoda. “Both sides had reason to be pleased,” as the historian Marius Jansen writes in his standard history of Japan, and celebratory gifts were exchanged. Perry, an enthusiastic ornithologist, presented a folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America along with Kentucky bourbon, Colt revolvers, and other examples of American technological prowess, including a sewing machine and a small steam-powered locomotive. The Japanese, with less to celebrate, offered in return lacquerware, bolts of silk, an abacus, and three miniature spaniels (or chin) from the Emperor’s kennel. Perry had succeeded in his mission and the Japanese had avoided the unequal treaties that had doomed China.

Four years later, by which time both Perry and Abe were dead and Japanese society was in even greater disarray, Townsend Harris, the American representative in Shimoda, negotiated the kind of unequal commercial treaty that the Japanese had resisted, arguing again that the alternatives were worse. After an anarchic period of civil strife and violence against foreigners, Japan, reunited under a centralized government and constitution, embarked on the years of rapid modernization and militarization known as the Meiji Period (1868– 1912). Basing its policies on the practices of Western imperial powers, Japan won wars against China (1895) and Russia (1904– 1905), and colonized Korea, Okinawa, and Formosa (Taiwan). Roughly a hundred years after Perry’s mission, the Japanese rashly tried to expand their power in the Pacific by bombing Pearl Harbor, which in some officers’ view was appropriate revenge for Perry’s bullying behavior at Uraga Bay.



The dramatic story of the opening of Japan has been told many times. Late in his life, the distinguished Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison offered a sympathetic treatment from Perry’s perspective in “Old Bruin”: Commodore Matthew C. Perry (1967). More recently, Peter Booth Wiley, in Yankees in the Land of the Gods (1990), drew on the work of Japanese historians to give some sense of both sides of the encounter. Now, George Feifer, author of a highly regarded account of the Battle of Okinawa, has retold the story of Perry’s mission, with an eye toward parallels with the failed American policies in Iraq. “Deeply moved by belief in their new republic’s virtue and obligations,” he writes with his habitual ironic tone, “our great-great-grandfathers were resolved to bring freedom and democracy to a distant people whose inferiority they took for granted.” Perry “believed he’d be welcomed as a liberator”; having opened Japan, he “all but lost interest in the land of his ‘mission accomplished.'”

Like Clint Eastwood in his recent film Letters from Iwo Jima, Feifer wishes to convey what the mission might have felt like from the Japanese perspective. Determined “not to write about other people without trying to put myself in their shoes,” he is hampered by his reliance on translated materials and secondary sources, and resorts in some key moments to the dubious testimony of historical novels “based on original sources.” His research is broad, however, and he is a vivid writer of narrative.

Feifer’s chapters on Perry’s little-known sojourn in Okinawa, where he performed a sort of dress rehearsal for his “psychological siege” of Edo, are particularly illuminating. The Okinawan people are ethnically distinct from the Japanese, and have a longstanding tradition of peaceful relations with their neighbors. Perry sensed that the Okinawan leaders he met with were being manipulated by other parties—Chinese, he suspected, though the true men in power were Japanese from the Shimazu domain in the southern island of Kyushu. The resulting confusions resemble those in Melville’s story Benito Cereno, in which a gullible American ship captain is unaware until it is almost too late that the Spanish captain he is dealing with is in fact the victim of a slave rebellion.

Perry’s mission to Japan is Feifer’s central episode, however, and he enlists Abe Masahiro, who formulated the initial Japanese response to Perry, as the “chief protagonist of this story.” Abe is in some ways an unlikely choice for a hero. Long regarded as a weak and vacillating leader, he appears in Jansen’s history of Japan as at best a quixotic figure, someone who naively “hoped to establish a consensus” by circulating American demands to all the daimyo, only to find that no such consensus existed. Abe’s primary achievement may have been to draw the imperial court into the decision-making process, thus opening Japanese politics and preparing the way for the Meiji “restoration” of 1868. Feifer conceives of Lord Abe as the Japanese Abe Lincoln, “a knight of good sense who held as much of the country together as anyone could have,” and who sought to “bind the nation.” By a less wishful assessment, he might be regarded as the Japanese Henry Clay, someone who postponed through compromise the inevitable civil strife of the 1860s and 1870s.

It is through Abe’s response that Feifer aims to register the shock of Perry’s intrusion on the Japanese. Gentle, suave, conciliatory, and calm, Abe in Feifer’s view is the perfect temperamental foil for Perry the bully. He writes affectionately of Abe’s “long liking for sake” and the concubines who “gave him eleven” children. This in contrast to Perry’s joyless rigidity—as Morison lamented, “there are no overstayed liberties, no escapades, no girls, no jolly brawls in young Perry’s record, somewhat to the regret of his biographer.”

More significant for the opening of Japan, Feifer discerns in what is known of Abe’s behavior signs of an “inclination to listen to people of all walks of life” as well as an “inclination toward meritocracy.” These “inclinations” are meant to suggest that Japan itself, before Perry’s arrival, was on the way to progressive change from within, as several historians have recently suggested, and that Perry’s mission sent Japan in a different and more dangerous direction.1 Feifer asks, rhetorically, “Would the rampages into which fervent militarists drew Japan have happened without the instant passion for military mastery aroused by the Commodore’s wallop to Japanese self-esteem?”


Convinced that Japan could have been engaged with more sensitivity and finesse, Feifer argues that the Japanese “wouldn’t have resented doing the things asked if a different manner had been used; if the things hadn’t been demanded.” He notes that “some Japanese commentators are convinced that a more patient, tolerant officer would have made a great difference.” But just such an officer had in fact tried to open Japan in 1846, when Commodore James Biddle entered Uraga Bay with two warships to inquire politely about the possibility of establishing relations with Japan. Biddle had orders from President James Polk (not, as Feifer thinks, Andrew Jackson) “not to do anything to excite a hostile feeling or distrust of the United States,” and adopted what Morison calls a “folksy” approach to the Japanese.

As a convivial gesture of friendship, Biddle, who showed himself freely, allowed curious Japanese to board his ships even though his own men were barred from going onshore. When he was invited to board a Japanese boat in order to receive a reply, he was apparently jostled or shoved by a guard—either as a deliberate insult (Biddle’s version) or because he had mistakenly boarded the wrong boat (the Japanese version). Biddle was ordered to leave Japan and never return. Perry was determined not to be jostled.


Like the Japanese troops waiting on shore on July 14, 1853, Feifer has persuaded himself that Perry’s elaborate façade was Perry as he actually was. As Feifer sees him, Perry is incapable of introspection since “the qualities that propel people to bold action often diminish their desire to ruminate.” “Maybe a more reflective person,” he writes elsewhere, “wouldn’t have undertaken the mission, or at least might have entertained some doubt that the opening would greatly benefit Japan too. Perry had none.” And yet, Perry was a far more interesting and complicated person than Feifer gives him credit for.

If shame was a motivating factor in Japanese foreign policy, it was also a theme in Perry’s early life. Born into a naval family with Quaker roots in Newport, he entered the Navy in 1809 at age fourteen, as a midshipman under the command of his famous older brother, Oliver Hazard Perry, victor of the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812. The career of their father, Captain Christopher Perry, had ended abruptly in 1801, when he was accused of improperly enforcing discipline. One of his sailors had been found so drunk below deck that, as Morison notes, “it was thought necessary to lay him out flat and have three or four ship’s boys urinate into his mouth.” Perry claimed that this unusual procedure was meant to induce vomiting, and that it was, as Morison remarks, “a therapeutic, not a correctional measure.” But this and other irregularities led to Perry’s humiliating dismissal at the age of forty. It seems reasonable to conclude that Commodore Perry’s firm and punctilious discipline aboard ship, and in his dealings with the Japanese, owed something to his unease at his father’s aborted career. Feifer notes that Captain Claret, the harsh disciplinarian of Melville’s White-Jacket, may have been based on Perry’s reputation.

Self-taught from a young age, Calbraith Perry, as he was known, was inquisitive in scientific and cultural matters and a proponent of modernization in the Navy. He was an eager botanizer, bringing back bamboo and other indigenous plants from Japan, and a passionate collector of seashells. The mission to Japan was scientific as well as diplomatic. Perry wrote that a commander “ought to be behaving in the spirit of the age and according to Science; to observe, study, measure, count, estimate, sample and record in the service of Knowledge and for the entertainment and instruction of all.” He learned foreign languages as he served aboard ships in the Mexican War and along the coast of Africa in search of slave traders. During ten years of administrative work in the naval yards of Brooklyn and New York, he pushed for the transition to steam navigation (he is often called “The Father of the Steam Navy”), for improved lighthouses, and for the education of naval officers and enlisted men, efforts that eventually resulted in the founding of the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

It was probably the insecurity of an autodidact that prompted Perry, after his return from Japan, to seek the help of Nathaniel Hawthorne, a fellow Jacksonian Democrat, to ghostwrite the official account of the mission. Perry was disappointed in the subdued reception he had received in Washington, which was distracted by growing sectional tensions over slavery, and he hoped that a skilled writer might increase his visibility. Hawthorne, who had written a campaign biography for his friend Franklin Pierce, was not averse to such hackwork. On a trip to Britain in December 1854, to look into innovations in the construction of steamships, Perry went to Liverpool, where Hawthorne was serving as American consul. “Commodore Perry called to see me, this morning,” Hawthorne wrote in his journal, “a brisk, gentlemanly, off-hand (but not rough) unaffected, and sensible man, looking not so elderly as he ought, on account of a very well-made wig.”

Perry’s hair was his own, however, and Hawthorne was generally impressed with the Commodore’s authenticity:

I seldom meet with a man who puts himself more immediately on conversible terms than the Commodore. He soon introduced his particular business with me—it being to inquire whether I could recommend some suitable person to prepare his notes and materials for the publication of an account of his voyage. He was good enough to say that he had fixed upon me, in his own mind, for this office, but that my public duties would of course prevent me from engaging in it. I spoke of Herman Melville…. It would be a very desirable labor for a young literary man, or, for that matter, an old one; for the world can scarcely have in reserve a less hacknied theme than Japan.

A conflict of interest prevented Hawthorne from accepting the job. It is delightful to speculate on what Melville, who wrote in Moby-Dick of “that double-bolted land, Japan,” might have made of Perry’s epic journey. Perry, who ended up writing his own narrative, seems not to have pursued the possibility; it is yet another reason for his present obscurity.2


The course adopted by Japan after Perry’s mission may have been understandable, but it was not inevitable. It is unfortunate that Breaking Open Japan can be read as a defense of the worst extremes of a hundred years of Japanese foreign policy, with responsibility shunted onto the United States. In discussing what he calls “Pearl Harbor’s Perry connection,” Feifer seems to agree with Japanese soldiers who saw a direct link between the two events. “July 14, 1853, would live in shame and humiliation, if not quite in infamy,” he writes, “especially among the army officers who would essentially govern Japan in 1941.”3 Japanese officers may indeed have been convinced that the attack on Pearl Harbor was appropriate revenge for the humiliation of Perry’s Black Ships, but this hardly means that the Japanese had no choice in the matter. It is patronizing to think that a bullied nation can only bully in turn.

At what point, one wonders, does the statute of limitations regarding Perry’s possible effect on the Japanese psyche expire? In recent months, another Abe, the former prime minister of Japan, denied that during the Battle of Okinawa Japanese soldiers forced civilians to commit suicide. This followed Abe’s previous denial that Japanese soldiers had forced women from occupied territories, especially Korea, to serve as sexual slaves or “comfort women.” Should such repugnant denials of accepted historical facts also be ascribed to the humiliation wrought by Perry and his Black Ships? Surely there comes a time when a nation, whatever indignities it has suffered in the past, must be held responsible for its own actions.

There were many paths to Japanese modernization and self-defense beyond annexing Korea and Okinawa, and making war on China, in order to vie with European powers for domination in Asia. The Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oë, in his 1994 Nobel Prize lecture, wrote eloquently of a certain “ambiguity” in Japanese culture, divided between imitation of the West and its own geographical location: “The ambiguous orientation of Japan drove the country into the position of an invader in Asia, and resulted in its isolation from other Asian nations not only politically but also socially and culturally.”4 Instead, Oë argues, Japan should have made common cause with its Asian neighbors. He finds in such Meiji intellectuals as the novelist Natsume Soseki a “sense of morality” that might have led to alternative policies. As Ian Buruma writes, “If xenophobia, authoritarianism, and war marked much of the coming [twentieth] century, the road to more open, democratic arrangements was not completely blocked.”5

And how should the Unites States behave toward Japan and other Asian countries? Feifer takes Perry to be representative of a pervasive and pernicious American attitude of superiority from the early years of the republic to the present era of shock and awe. He is hardly the first to call Perry an imperialist—even Morison conceded that he was—though unlike Morison, Feifer finds empires based on trade as pernicious as those based on territorial expansion, just as he blurs the distinction between brandishing guns and firing them.6 He derisively quotes a phrase from Emerson to the effect that America is “the great charity of God to the human race,” as though Emerson meant America itself was God’s gift to the world.

Emerson’s words, as originally delivered during the Civil War, strike a very different note:

Power can be generous. The very grandeur of the means which offer themselves to you should suggest grandeur in the direction of your expenditure. If your mechanic arts are unsurpassed in usefulness, if you have taught the river to make shoes, and nails, and carpets…let these wonders work for honest humanity, for the poor, for justice, genius, and the public good. I wish you to see that this country, the last found, is the great charity of God to the human race.7

Emerson was fully aware of American abuses, starting with slavery in the American South. He knew that power is rarely harnessed for good, in America or anywhere else. But surely the kind of generous exercise of power he calls for, for the poor and the public good, would be in the world’s interest as well.

This Issue

December 6, 2007