An American navy steam ship - ‘Black Ship’ - as portrayed by a Japanese artist.
Under the Tokugawa Shogunate (c. 1603– 1868) Japanese relations with the outside world— especially with Europeans—were limited and tightly regulated; a few Dutch traders resident at Nagaski were the only Europeans allowed to remain in Japan. By 1800, however, Japan’s rulers were aware of an increasingly aggressive European presence. Sporadic encounters with Russian, U.S., and British ships that had entered Japanese waters (sometimes deliberately, sometimes in distress), clandestine trade through Hokkaido, and British attempts to replace the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars were all noted; so was British success in the Opium War with China (1839–1842).
When American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived with four ships at Uraga, in Edo Bay (now Tokyo), and refused to be diverted to Nagasaki, he precipitated a crisis. Perry demanded that Japan open itself to outside trade, provide refuges for damaged ships, and accept Western-style diplomatic relations. He promised to return the next year, with a larger fleet if necessary. The document below describes the elaborate preparations for Perry’s return in 1854, when Japanese leaders—having concluded that resistance was futile—agreed to most of Perry’s demands. This intensified an already-existing political crisis in Japan, and contributed to the 1868 replacement of the Tokugawa by the reformist, nationalist oligarchs of the Meiji Restoration.
Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Westerners often portrayed East Asia as a land of ceremonial, make-believe, and effeminate men, while describing themselves as both more masculine and more realistic. But in this document—extracted from Perry’s notes of the voyage— we see an elaborate concern for appearances on both sides, and a Westerner’s acknowledgment of Japanese strength as well as weakness.
As the atmosphere cleared and the shores were disclosed to view, the steady labors of the Japanese during the night were revealed in the showy effect on the Uraga shore. Ornamental screens of cloth had been so arranged as to give a more distinct prominence as well as the appearance of greater size to the bastions and forts; and two tents had been spread among the trees. The screens were stretched tightly in the usual way upon posts of wood, and each interval between the hosts was thus distinctly marked, and had, in the distance, the appearance of paneling. Upon these seeming panels were emblazoned the imperial arms, alternating with the device of a scarlet flower bearing large heart-shaped leaves. Flags and streamers, upon which were various designs represented in gay colors, hung from the several angles of the screens, while behind them thronged crowds of soldiers, arrayed in a costume which had not been before observed, and which was supposed to belong to high occasions only.
All on board the ships were alert from the earliest hour, making the necessary preparations. Steam was got up and the anchors were weighed that the ships might be moved to a position where their guns would command the place of reception. The sailing-vessels, however, because of a calm, were unable to get into position. The officers, seamen, and marines who were to accompany the Commodore were selected. . . .
Before eight bells in the morning watch had struck, the Susquehanna and Mississippi moved slowly down the bay. Simultaneously with this movement of our ships, six Japanese boats were observed to sail in the same direction, but more within the land. The government striped flag distinguished two of them, showing the presence on board of some high officials, while the others carried red banners, and were supposed to have on board a retinue or guard of soldiers. On doubling the headland which separated the former anchorage from the bay below, the preparations of the Japanese on the shore came suddenly into view. The land bordering the head of the bay was gay with a long stretch of painted screens of cloth, upon which was emblazoned the arms of the Emperor. . . On the beach in front of this display were ranged regiments of soldiers, who stood in fixed order, evidently arrayed to give an appearance of martial force, that the Americans might be duly impressed with the military power of the Japanese. . . .
A luxuriant valley or gorge, walled in with richly wooded hills, opened at the head of the bay, and breaking the uniformity of the curve of the shore gave a beautiful variety to the landscape. On the right some hundred Japanese boats, or more, were arranged in parallel lines along the margin of the shore, with a red flag flying at the stern of each. . . .
Two boats approached as the steamers entered the opening of the bay, and when the anchors were dropped they came alongside the Susquehanna. Kayama Yezaiman, with his two interpreters, came on board, followed immediately by Nagazima Saboroske and an officer in attendance, who had come in the second boat. They were duly received at the gangway and conducted to seats on the quarter-deck. All were dressed in full official costume, somewhat different from their ordinary garments. Their gowns, though of the usual shape, were much more elaborately adorned. . . .
A signal was now hoisted from the Susquehanna as a summons for the boats from the other ships . . . Captain Buchanan, having taken his place in his barge, led the way, flanked on either side by the two Japanese boats containing the governor and vice-governor of Uraga with their respective suites; and these dignitaries acted as masters of ceremony and pointed out the course to the American flotilla. The rest of the ships’ boats followed after in order, with the cutters containing the two bands of the steamers, who enlivened the occasion with their cheerful music.
The boats skimmed briskly over the smooth waters; for such was the skill and consequent rapidity of the Japanese scullers that our sturdy oarsmen were put to their mettle to keep up with their guides. When the boats had reached halfway to the shore, the thirteen guns of the Susquehanna began to boom away and re-echo among the hills. This announced the departure of the Commodore, who, stepping into his barge, was rowed off to the land. . . .
The advance boat soon touched the spot, and Captain Buchanan, who commanded the party, sprang ashore, being the first of the Americans who landed in the Kingdom of Japan. He was immediately followed by Major Zeilin, of the Marines. . . The marines (one hundred) marched up the wharf and formed into line on either side, facing the sea; then came the hundred sailors, who were also ranged in rank and file as they advanced, while the two bands brought up the rear. The whole number of Americans, including sailors, marines, musicians, and officers, amounted to nearly three hundred; no very formidable array, but still quite enough for a peaceful occasion, and composed of very vigorous, able-bodied men, who contrasted strongly with the smaller and more effeminate-looking Japanese. . . These latter had mustered in great force, the amount of which the Governor of Uraga stated to be five thousand; but seemingly they far outnumbered that. . . The loose order of this Japanese army did not betoken any very great degree of discipline. The soldiers were tolerably well armed and equipped. . . .
The United States flag and the broad pennant were borne by two athletic seamen, who had been selected from the crews of the squadron on account of their stalwart proportions. Two boys, dressed for the ceremony, preceded the Commodore, bearing in an envelope of scarlet cloth the boxes which contained his credentials and the President’s letter. These documents, of folio size, were beautifully written on vellum, and not folded, but bound in blue silk velvet. Each seal, attached by cords of interwoven gold and silk with pendent gold tassels, was encased in a circular box six inches in diameter and three in depth, wrought of pure gold. Each of the documents, together with its seal, was placed in a box of rosewood about a foot long, with lock, hinges, and mountings all of gold. On either side of the Commodore marched a tall, well-formed Negro, who, armed to the teeth, acted as his personal guard. These blacks, selected for the occasion, were two of the best-looking fellows of their color that the squadron could furnish. All this, of course, was but for effect. . . .
For some time after the Commodore and his suite had taken their seats there was a pause of some minutes, not a word being uttered on either side. Tatznoske, the principal interpreter, was the first to break silence, which he did by asking Mr. Portman, the Dutch interpreter, whether the letters were ready for delivery, and stating that the Prince Toda was prepared to receive them; and that the scarlet box at the upper end of the room was prepared as the receptacle for them. [The letter of the President, Millard Fillmore, expressed the friendly feelings of the United States toward Japan and his desire that there should be friendship and trade between the two countries. The documents were laid upon the scarlet box and a formal receipt was given for them.]
Yezaiman and Tatznoske now bowed, and, rising from their knees drew the fastenings around the scarlet box, and informing the Commodore’s interpreter that there was nothing more to be done, passed out of the apartment, bowing to those on either side as they went. The Commodore now rose to take leave, and, as he departed, the two princes, still preserving absolute silence, also arose and stood until the strangers had passed from their presence. . . .
The whole interview had not occupied more than from twenty to thirty minutes, and had been conducted with the greatest formality, though with the most perfect courtesy in every respect.