On this day in 1853, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, representing the U.S. Government, sails into Tokyo Bay, Japan, with a squadron of four vessels. For a time, Japanese officials refused to speak with Perry, but under a perceived threat of attack by the menacing “Black Ships” resembling dragons, they accepted letters from President Millard Fillmore. This in turn made the United States one of the first Western nations to establish standing relations with Japan since it had been declared closed to foreigners two centuries before.
As for Perry himself, the man known as the “Father of the Steam Navy” hailed from a nautical family which included older brother Oliver Hazard Perry, the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie (1813).The younger Perry himself skippered the USS Shark and physically planted the U.S. flag at Key West in 1822, physically claiming the Keys as United States territory so as to dominate the “Gibraltar of the West.” As commanding officer of the first U.S. steamship, the “Fulton,” Perry led a naval squadron to Africa to help suppress the slave trade (1843), and successfully commanded naval forces during the Mexican War (1846–48).
In March 1852 Pres. Fillmore placed Perry, called by his honorary rank of commodore, in charge of the naval expedition to open Japan to the U.S. After studying the situation, Perry concluded that Japan’s traditional policy of isolation would be altered only if superior naval forces were displayed and if Japanese officials were approached with a “resolute attitude.” With two frigates and two sailing vessels, he entered the fortified harbor of Uraga on July 8, 1853–an act widely publicized throughout the world.
Calling himself an “admiral,” Perry refused to obey Japanese orders to leave and sent word that if the government did not delegate a suitable person to receive the documents in his possession, he would deliver them by force if necessary. The Japanese defenses were inadequate to resist him, and after a few days of diplomatic sparring they accepted his letter from Fillmore requesting a treaty. He also brought gifts for the emperor, including a working model of a steam train, a telescope, and a telegraph.
In February 1854 Perry reappeared in Edo (modern Tokyo) Bay–this time with nine ships–and on March 31 concluded the Treaty of Kanagawa, the first such pact between the two countries. The treaty assured better treatment of shipwrecked seamen, permitted U.S. ships to obtain fuel and supplies at two minor ports, arranged for a U.S. consul to reside at Shimoda, and opened the way for further U.S. trading privileges.
Perry’s success demonstrated the inability of the Shogun, Japan’s hereditary military dictator, to enforce his country’s traditional isolationist policy; the Japanese were soon forced to sign similar treaties with other Western nations. These events ultimately contributed to the collapse of the shogunate, the modernization of Japan, and as fate would have it, a very difficult Sunday morning in Honolulu on December 7, 1941.