Commodore Perry and the “Expedition to Japan” (1853) souvenir postcards, c. 1920.

1920sCommerceGovernmentHistoric EventsNotable Landmark
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Perry’s original flagship, the USS Mississippi, as rendered by a Japanese artist in 1853. The USS Susquehanna, flagship of the East Indies Squadron, joined the expedition at Canton, China, and from there became Perry’s flagship before the expedition’s arrival in Tokyo Bay.

See also:
Matthew C. Perry Landing Memorial, Kurihama, c. 1949.
Commodore Perry negotiating at Ryosenji Temple in 1854, Shimoda, c. 1930.

“On a July day in 1853, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry of the United States Navy arrived at Yedo, now Tokyo, Bay. He carried with him a letter from the President of the United States to the Emperor of Japan.

“His was an extremely sensitive mission. He was sent to arouse Japan from what older Japanese historians have termed The Great Peace, but modern ones, The Long Sleep, to end more than two centuries of Japanese isolation.

Portrait of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, commander of the Expedition to Japan and the designated representative of the U.S. government tasked with breaking Japan’s self-imposed isolation, the establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Japan, and the laying groundwork for the negotiation of trade agreements between the two countries.

“Several other Americans as well as representatives of various European nations had attempted to do as much and failed. Because he was the man he was and because the timing of his expedition was better than he knew, Perry succeeded.

“In opening Japan to commercial and cultural relations with the Western world, Perry loosed economic, political, and social forces which were to have a momentous influence not only on Japan but on the Western world as well.

“Because modern Japan regards Perry as the man who opened the way for its remarkably swift development, it has for some years honored him annually with the Kurobune Sai, or Black Ship Festival. This year our country is joining Japan in a centenary celebration of Perry’s landing at Kurihama and the birth of American-Japanese relations.”

Centennial Celebration of the Opening of Japan: 1853-1953, U.S. Department of State, 1953

A Japanese artist’s historical depiction of Commodore Perry’s landing at Uraga (1853) souvenir postcard, c. 1920. The small delegation of Americans making landing on the beach, numbering no more than 250, including 100 Marines, were quietly observed by over 5,000 sword-wielding samurai, matchlock-toting provincial soldiers, and mounted cavalry.

“At first only the snow-covered cone of Mount Fuji was visible, but the rising sun dissipated the mist, revealing white cliffs and green rice paddies and scattering fishing junks. Fishermen and rice farmers resorted to prayer at sight of the black ships moving swiftly without sails and against the current, the lead ships belching black smoke like floating volcanoes. ‘Black ships of evil omen’ they called them.

“In response to signal guns on shore, Japanese interceptor boats pushed off, but those that crossed the bows of the ships hurried out of the way of the churning paddle wheels. Toward noon the squadron moved into the waters of Yedo Bay and edged into the bight of Uraga, closer to the capital than foreign ships had previously gone.

“The order had gone around that only the flagship Susquehanna was to receive visitors and it no more than three at a time and those must have business. If the Japanese were exclusive about their shores, the Commodore would be exclusive about his ships.

“… That night the Americans were tense and puzzled by such phenomena as they observed. Beacons were alight on every hilltop and along the shore. From time to time a great bell tolled. After the 9 o’clock firing of the flagship’s 64-pounder, many of the bonfires were quenched, but the bell tolled on. Adding to the eerie quality of the night, a strange meteor appeared at midnight, ‘a great blue sphere with a red, wedge-shaped tail.’ 1 Until it vanished 4 hours later, the ‘spars, sails, and hulls of the ships reflected its glare so distinctly as though a blue light were burning from each vessel.’

“Memorial monument to Perry’s landing”, Perry Park, Kurihama, c. 1920.

“At sunrise a boatload of Japanese artists came out to sketch the foreign ships. At seven, a large official boat with escort came along-side the Susquehanna, and the interpreter announced the Governor of Uraga, Kayama Yezaeman. Again Perry kept out of sight but acknowledged the higher rank of the second visitor by adding two commanders to the reception committee. Kayama, too, asked the Americans to go to Nagasaki. The invisible Commodore said that, if a suitable person were not appointed to receive the documents in U raga, it would be his duty to go ashore with ‘a sufficient force and deliver them in person.’ It was agreed that Kayama would have 3 days to communicate with Yedo.

“… Perry’s preparations for the landing were elaborate. He intended his first appearance to be impressive. Despite the summer heat, full dress uniform was in order: broadcloth and gold braid to his chin, a plethora of decorations, gold-weighted hat, and heavy sword. Barring the unlucky few detailed to ship duty, all men and officers aboard would accompany him, and woe betide anyone whose buttons or boots lacked luster.

“Not to be outdone in pageantry, the Japanese had bordered the bay with painted screens emblazoned with the arms of the Emperor. Flags and banners were bright in the early sun. Some 5,000 troops had been assembled. Regiments of soldiers armed with matchlocks, bows, and swords lined the beach, backed by rows of colorfully uniformed cavalrymen on beautiful horses. [Continued below]

Uraga Beach, c. 1920. The location of Perry’s landing as it appeared 70 years later.

“Along the water’s edge a hundred guard boats, red flags flying at the sterns and 25 to 30 men in each, were arranged in parallel lines. When all was ready, Kayama and Nagashima in rich and elaborate robes, each with his own boat and retinue, went out to the Susquehanna to escort the visitors ashore.

“Commander Buchanan’s launch, flanked by the Japanese officials’ boats, led the American flotilla of 15 or more craft. When the boats were halfway to shore, the 13 guns of the flagship announced the Commodore’s departure. Buchanan was the first American to land. Major Zeilin of the Marines came next. A hundred marines marched up the wharf and lined up on either side; a hundred sailors followed suit; the two brass bands of the squadron brought up the rear.

“Perry and his suite entered the ‘house of reception’ through a tent of painted canvas, passed through a red-carpeted entrance hall, and stepped up to the council chamber, which was carpeted in red and lined with rich silk hangings. Two dignitaries in gold and silver brocade robes arose and bowed. The interpreter announced them as Toda, Lord of Idzu, and Ido, Lord of Iwami. Ido, a provincial governor like Toda, had been sent from Yedo as an observer.

“With a maximum of ritual the American documents were transferred from their rosewood and gold caskets to the crimson lacquer chest provided by the Japanese to receive them. The documents were the President’s letter, the Commodore’s letter of credence, and three letters from the Commodore to the Emperor, all with translations. The silent lords presented Perry with a receipt.

“Perry had gained entry to Japan without bloodshed and become the first foreign ambassador to be received on Japanese soil in more than two centuries. In later years the date of his landing, July 14, 1853, was to become known as the birthday of New Japan.”

Centennial Celebration of the Opening of Japan: 1853-1953, U.S. Department of State, 1953

“Kurihama Sumiyoshi jinja (shrine)”, Kurihama, c. 1920. Sumiyoshi Shrine, a short walk up the beach from Perry’s landing, is thought to be over 1000 years old. Sited near the entrance to Tokyo Bay, the spirit enshrined here was a guardian deity of the Miura clan, the provincial lords of the Miura Peninsula during the Tokugawa period, and the Miura clan navy. (Colorized)

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