The Shock of Intrusion


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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.