Commodore Matthew Perry
Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry was the leader of an American mission sent by President Millard Fillmore to Japan to pursue the establishment of formal trade relations between the United States and Japan. He visited Japan twice, in 1853 and 1854, stopping at the Ryûkyû Kingdom as well four times (on the way to and from Japan in 1853, and again the following year). The arrival of his ships, known as the "Black Ships" (kurofune), which led to the signing of the Harris Treaty several years later, opening several Japanese ports to Western commercial activity, are generally taken to mark the beginning of the Bakumatsu Period.
Perry has long been celebrated in both the American and Japanese popular imaginations for having "opened" Japan to the modern world and to commercial intercourse, ending Japan's long period of supposed isolation, with some accounts portraying the Edo period as a "dark ages," in which Japan was held back from advancing into modernity. Scholarship has, for decades, however, emphasized Edo period Japan as quite actively engaged in foreign interactions, albeit in a guarded, controlled, manner through maritime restrictions, and as a period of great economic development and cultural flourishing.
Early Life and Career
Perry and his fleet of four ships departed Norfolk, Virginia, on 1852/10/13 (Nov 24). Before arriving in Japan proper in July of 1853, they first called at Naha, the chief port of the Ryûkyû Kingdom, on May 26 (4/19), departing Ryûkyû more than a month later, on 5/26.
Perry was met aboard ship by the Ryukyuan royal regent, Sessei Ôzato Chôkyô, who attempted, unsuccessfully, to convince the Commodore to give up his intentions of entering Shuri castle. Makishi Chôchû, a high-ranking official in the royal government sent to serve as interpreter, further tried to refuse Perry and his men permission even to set foot on the island, but they did so anyway, over the protests of Makishi and the other Ryukyuan authorities. Makishi would continue to serve as interpreter and in a lead role otherwise throughout Perry's visits to Ryûkyû. Bernard Bettelheim, a British missionary who had already been living on the island for several years, also imposed himself upon Perry as interpreter. A few days later, Perry's men took over a schoolhouse in Tomari, claiming it as their temporary residence on the island, while Perry himself led an exploration of some of the most nearby of the Ryukyu Islands.
On June 6 (4/30), Perry forced his way into Shuri Castle, but was denied audience with either the ten-year-old king or the queen mother. The same would occur the following year. These forced entrances into the palace were for Perry boastful and demonstrative moves, displays of his power, demonstrating to the Ryukyuans (and perhaps for his own enjoyment) that he possessed the power and authority to make such demands (such as entering the palace), and to see those demands met. Even so, his demand to meet with the king was never fulfilled, as the Ryukyuan authorities successfully stood to their insistence that the regent would be the highest ranking individual Perry would ever meet with.
He later claimed a portion of the Gokoku-ji complex where Bettelheim was living as pasture for the fleet's cattle, and then spent the remainder of June exploring the Ogasawara Islands, which he claimed for the United States before returning to Okinawa on June 30 (5/24) and departing Okinawa in earnest two days later.
He landed at Uraga near Edo for the first time on 6/3, meeting soon afterwards with Tokugawa officials, to whom he presents his formal credentials and formal communications from Pres. Millard Fillmore. While in mainland Japan, his interpreters included Moriyama Einosuke, who had learned English from Ranald MacDonald, and John Manjiro. These documents, incidentally, used the term "emperor" to refer to the Tokugawa shogun; it was only at some point after this time that it became standard to refer to the tennô as the "Emperor" in English. After delivering these letters, he departed Japan on 6/9, claiming he would return "in due course" to receive the emperor's reply.
Perry then returned to Okinawa, arriving at Naha on 6/20 (July 25), and requesting to bury Hugh Ellis, a crewman of the USS Mississippi who had died the previous day. Ellis is buried at the Tomari International Cemetery in Naha. Perry also requests to establish a coaling station on the island for American ships and is initially refused, but the Ryukyuans capitulate once Perry threatens to seize Shuri castle by force. He departs Okinawa on 6/27 (August 1), and spends the next several months in Hong Kong, before returning to Okinawa in December, spending 11/15 (Dec 15) until 12/30 (Jan 28, 1854) exploring the various Ryûkyû Islands.
Perry returned to Naha on 12/22 (Jan 20, 1854), this time with a fleet of eight ships. He stayed in Naha for only four days, during which time he forced his way into Shuri castle again, but again was refused audience with the king.
He then arrived in mainland Japan on 1/16 (Feb 13). The Convention of Kanagawa was signed on 3/3 (March 31), opening the ports of Hakodate and Shimoda to American trading ships, obligating the Japanese government to provide provisions and good treatment otherwise for American or European castaways throughout Japan, and arranging for the establishment of formal relations in the Western/modern style, with a permanent American consulate to be established shortly afterwards.
In the meantime, in response to the recent arrivals of both Perry and a number of other Western ships, the shogunate ordered all bells in the country to be melted down and refashioned into cannon and rifles - with the exception of bells at head temples (honzan), those used for timekeeping, and those of great age and fame.
Perry returned to Naha for the final time on 6/7 (July 1), to find that in the intervening time, there had been several incidents between the local residents and American crewmen he had left behind. In the worst of these incidents, a crewman named William Board either raped a young Okinawan woman, or assaulted an old woman (accounts differ), and was then killed by an angry mob of local residents. He was buried in the Tomari International Cemetery alongside three of his crewmates who also died at various times during that year. A number of members of Perry's crew who died in mainland Japan are buried at Gyokusen-ji, in Shimoda.
This grievous incident aside, the Treaty of Amity between the United States and the Ryûkyû Kingdom was signed on 6/17 (July 11). Perry departed Ryûkyû for the final time on 6/23 (July 17), taking with him the missionary Bernard Bettelheim, and a number of significant "gifts" he had insisted one taking; these included a number of blocks of Okinawan limestone which he hoped to install into the Washington Monument, then under construction, and a temple bell from Gokoku-ji, forged in 1465, which Perry then installed at Annapolis. This bell was then rung whenever Navy beat Army in football, up until 1987, when it was returned to Okinawa and replaced at Annapolis by a replica.
Commodore Perry arrived in New York on 11/25 (Jan 12, 1855). The Treaty of Amity between the US and Ryûkyû was ratified by Congress shortly afterward. The following year, Perry presented his Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan to Congress.
Upon his death in 1858, Perry was buried in his family's plot at a cemetery in his hometown of Newport, Rhode Island. A bronze statue of Perry stands in Touro Park in Newport today, alongside a stone lantern donated by the government of Japan.
Japanese and Okinawan objects Perry brought back from Japan were among the earliest objects to enter the Smithsonian collection, and many remain there today.
His widow, Jane Perry, was visited in 1860 by members of the first Japanese embassy to the United States. August Belmont, a grandson of the commodore, became in 1907 one of the founding members of Japan Society in New York.
Sketches and daguerreotypes depicting scenes of the mission, produced by Eliphalet Brown Jr., remain today an oft-seen, or oft-cited, source of visual information about these events; journals or diaries by Perry and his men, alongside more official documents also serve as valuable historical documents about the experiences and actions of Perry and his crew.
- Kerr, George, Okinawa: The History of an Island People. Revised Edition. Tuttle Publishing (2000), 312.
- Ben-Ami Shillony, "Restoration, Emperor, Diet, Prefecture, or: How Japanese Concepts were Mistranslated into Western Languages," Collected Writings of Ben-Ami Shillony, Synapse (2000), 69-71.
- The Okinawan limestone was not added at that time, but other blocks of limestone from Okinawa were later added into the structure in the late 20th century.