This Week in History: Japan re-opens its ports to the West


The mission of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry to Japan (1852-1854) ended Japan’s isolation from the West and began a new era of American-Japanese relations. The mission reflected growing American interest in Far East trade in the mid-nineteenth century.

In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Western missionaries and traders deeply offended the traditional sensibilities of the Japanese. As a result, Japan broke off all contact with the Western world and from 1620 maintained a rigid policy of isolation. Entry to Japan was forbidden to all foreigners. The only exception was the permission granted to the Dutch and Chinese to trade in one Japanese port. For two centuries, Japan was cut off from the rest of the world and Western powers showed little initiative in resuming contact.

In the nineteenth century, however, there was growing pressure in Europe and America to reestablish contact with Japan. The reasons were primarily commercial. Trade with China expanded rapidly in the nineteenth century. The proximity of Japan to China increased interest in this hidden empire as a potential trading partner. Interest in Japan was not only commercial. As the physical and social sciences developed in Europe, intellectuals became increasingly curious about this mysterious island, of which so little was known in the West.

In the early nineteenth century, the European nations and the United States repeatedly attempted to establish relations with Japan and were repeatedly rebuffed. In 1836, United States envoy Edmund Roberts died en route to Japan to negotiate a treaty. In 1846, Commodore James Biddle embarked on a similar mission. He reached his destination but the Japanese government refused to negotiate with him.

By 1850 the American government was under increasing pressure to negotiate a treaty with Japan. Marine merchants demanded an agreement for the protection of American seamen shipwrecked in Japanese waters. Furthermore, the increasing use of steamships in commerce with the Far East created a demand to establish refueling stations in Japan. Most importantly, the increase in Far East trade stimulated demand for new markets. It was clear to all that establishment of trade relations with the Japanese Empire would be very lucrative.

Under these pressures, President Millard Fillmore decided to make another attempt at negotiating a treaty with Japan. In 1852 he appointed Commodore Matthew Calbraith commander of the expedition to Japan and “minister plenipotentiary,” empowered to conduct negotiations and finalize an agreement with the government of Japan. Perry was instructed to negotiate a treaty of commercial relations with Japan, using force only if absolutely necessary. In November, 1852, Perry sailed from Hampton Roads, Virginia with five navy steamships and four sail ships. He bore gifts that had been chosen to demonstrate American technological superiority, including a telegraph machine and a miniature train set, with a track and real steam engines.

Eight months later, Perry entered Tokyo Bay. The Japanese were greatly impressed by the steam ships, a technology unknown to them. Perry understood the importance of honor in Japanese culture and realized that previous negotiators had failed because they lost respect in the eyes of the Japanese. He therefore conducted himself with an overbearing haughtiness and insisted on speaking only to the highest officials. Perry’s statesmanlike diplomacy contributed to the success of his mission. At first, Japanese officials insisted that the Americans sail to Nagasaki, the only port in which Westerners were permitted to contact representatives of the Japanese government. Perry, however, refused to leave Tokyo Bay until he was promised that the letter he bore to the Emperor from the President would be delivered to the Emperor, along with the American treaty proposals. Before leaving Tokyo Bay, Perry informed the Japanese officials that he would return in the spring expecting a favorable response, with a larger military force.

While Emperor Komei and his advisers deliberated their response to the American proposals, Perry explored the area. In the belief that acquiring territorial footholds would improve prospects for American trade in the Far East, Perry took possession of several of the Bonin Islands and established a refueling station on Okinawa. His actions were repudiated by the government in Washington.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government concluded that the “American devils” were the least threatening of the Western powers. The year before, Russia had sent them a naval expedition. Fearing attack, and aware that China had proved unable to resist Western military force, the Japanese concluded that to remain free from Western domination they must acquire Western military and industrial technology. These considerations convinced the Japanese to accept the American treaty proposal.

In February, 1854, Perry returned to Japan with seven warships. He exploited his military advantage by insisting upon very liberal terms, similar to the agreement the United States had negotiated with China in 1844. He did not succeed in gaining all of his demands. The final agreement, signed on March 31, 1854, gave the Americans less than Perry had hoped. The treaty did not include the establishment of refueling stations. American citizens were not given extraterritorial rights nor were they allowed to reside in Japan permanently. Furthermore, American citizens and ships were only allowed two small ports of entry. These terms have led some to question the value of the treaty in establishing a secure basis for relations between the two countries.

However, the Japanese did permit the United States to maintain a consulate at Shimoda, a small port near Tokyo Bay. Japan committed to aid shipwrecked American sailors and to convey them and their belongings to the American authorities. Most importantly, the treaty ensured that Japan would offer the United States any future concessions that she might offer to other nations.

While the immediate effects of the treaty were minimal, its long-range impact was significant in that it ended the period of Japan’s isolation. Although few of his contemporaries understood the importance of his expedition, Perry’s treaty began a new era in Japanese history and the history of East-West relations. Perry’s expedition set in motion a historical process which influenced future developments in the history of Japan and its relations with the West.

 Source Citation:

“Perry Opens Japan to American Trade, 1854.” Historic U.S. Events. Detroit: Gale, 2012. U.S. History in Context. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.


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