Commodore Perry's Expedition to Japan

Who was Matthew Perry?

Matthew Calbraith Perry was a sailor in the Navy in the mid nineteenth century. He was an avid sailor, diplomat, naval reformer, and advocate of the steam navy. He served in the United States Navy for forty-two years. First he considered a career as a civilian merchant man, but decided to go into the navy. He was appointed to Lieutenant Perry of the brig Chippewa. Then Lieutenant Perry was promoted to First Lieutenant Perry of the Cyane. In 1821 Perry gained first command of the schooner Shark. He was transferred to the North Carolina. Then he was given the commanding post at the Brooklyn Naval Yards.

Matthew Perry’s family lived on the western shore of the Narragansett Bay. His parents were Sarah and Christopher. He was the forth child and was born April 10, 1794. His brother was Oliver Hazard Perry of Battle of Lake Erie fame (commanding officer on the American side).


Why did the United States want to open Japan?

The biggest reason that the United States sent Matthew Perry to Japan was to use it as a "coaling base" or a base where steamships, which used coal, could restock their coal supply. Japan was a perfect location for this because it was at almost the same latitude as San Francisco. The United States Navy already used Hawaii as a port for coaling, but they needed another port for steamships in the east.

Another big reason the United States wanted to open Japan was to make sure shipwrecked sailors in Japan got good treatment. A whaling ship called the Lagoda was shipwrecked in Japan many years before and many of the sailors had been treated very badly. Also, some Japanese sailors that had been shipwrecked wanted to return to Japan but hadn’t been allowed passage.

The final reason was for trade. The trading had brought in a lot of revenue for the Americans and they wanted to trade more with other countries to increase revenues.

Japan before Commodore Perry arrived

Japan chose to isolate itself in the 1600’s when the Tokugawa Shogunate took control. A Shogun is a military leader in Japan. The Tokugawa Shogunate was a family who controlled Japan for about 200 years. Tokugawa took control after defeating all the opposing feudal lords. After Tokugawa got control of the power, the powerless emperor gave him the title of Shogun. Tokugawa promptly replaced all the feudal lords with friends and allies. Each lord had to spend one year in the capital every two years so the Shogun could keep an eye on them.

No Europeans were allowed into Japan except the Dutch who were allowed to land a ship every year. The Dutch had enough political pull to make sure that no foreign nations except themselves were allowed to trade at all with Japan.

Planning the Expedition to Japan

Matthew Perry got the position to lead the expedition in 1851 after Commodore Aulick was relieved of the command of the Japan fleet.  Commodore Perry would not let any diplomats go along on the expedition for he feared that they would ruin the expedition.  Commodore Aulick (his predecessor) demanded that the Japan fleet have at least three first class steamships and a sloop of war. Aulick wanted the steamers for two reasons. The first was that he thought a ship without sails would scare the Japanese and the second reason was for their speed. He also asked that the ships be equipped with heavy caliber guns, explosive shells, rockets, etc. to scare the Japanese or destroy them if necessary.

Perry wanted a larger fleet of ships for the expedition. He made the Secretary of the Navy, William Graham, promise to increase the size of the fleet if he was to take command, or to switch Perry to the command of the Mediterranean fleet. The fleet’s size was expanded to include the steamers Mississippi, Susquehanna, Powhatan, and the Allegheny. The Plymouth and Saratoga were the two sloops on the expedition. The final ship promised to Commodore Perry was the ship of the line Vermont.

The First Visit to Japan

Commodore Matthew Perry’s first visited Japan on July 8th, 1853. He went to the Japanese capital, Edo (now Tokyo), and made demands. He demanded that ports be opened to Americans, that prisoners be treated well and given back, etc. The Japanese rejected his demands and Perry withdrew from Japan knowing he would return.

Here is the American view of the first landing by the East India Squadron:

The American View

Here is the Japanese view of the first landing by the East India Squadron:

Japanese View

The Second Visit to Japan

Perry returned to Japan in February, 1854. He came with seven ships, four sailing ships, three steamers, 1,600 men and dropped anchor 26 miles from the Japanese capital, Edo. The Japanese, worried about the American ships, activated the harbor defenses which included mobilizing soldiers and sending them to harbor forts and batteries.

As soon as the East India Fleet dropped anchor two guard boats came up to Perry’s flagship, but were turned away and sent to the Powhatan where they could talk to Captain Henry Adams. Later, when Perry had recovered from the arthritis attack that had forced him to turn the Japanese away initially, he responded to Japanese demands that he leave and negotiate somewhere else by saying that trade must begin soon, and that all further negotiations were to be carried out in Edo. The Japanese took this as a serious threat because Perry had told them that he planned to move up the bay toward Edo if demands weren’t met soon. He would also shell the city if necessary to get his point across.

The Landing

Perry landed for peace and trade talks on March 8th, 1854. Three naval bands were there playing the Star Spangled Banner. He told the Japanese how the Chinese and United States had both benefited from trade. After much intense negotiations, the Japanese gave in and signed the Treaty of Kanagawa on March 31st, 1854. The treaty guaranteed that the Japanese would save shipwrecked Americans, that they would provide food, coal, water, and other provisions for the American ships that docked in Nagasaki. Then in five years the same supplies could be procured at Shimoda and Hakodate. It also granted the United States permission to build a consulate in Shimoda. The Japanese would sign to all of these things but wouldn’t sign for trade. Eventually the Japanese gave in and trade was granted as well. This ended Japan’s two-hundred year isolation policy.

Effects of the Treaty of Kanagawa

For Japan, the treaty had a wide variety of effects. First of all, the treaty brought in a large amount of foreign money. This disrupted the Japanese currency a lot. The shogun were ineffective in trying to end the inflation that the foreign money brought. This led to the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and then to the Meiji Restoration when the emperor returned to power. The Shogunate was overthrown in 1867 by the daimyo (warlords) troops.

The Treaty of Kanagawa also sparked other western nation’s interest in Japan. Great Britain, Russia, France and the Netherlands signed "unequal treaties" with Japan. These "unequal treaties" granted foreign nations more rights than Japan. This also helped to overthrow the Shogun. Townsend Harris went to Japan as the first United States ambassador soon after the treaty was signed.

The treaty brought good things for Commodore Perry. He was recognized in Boston and Washington for his efforts. He was also given congressional thanks.


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