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The Perry Expedition was a U.S. naval and diplomatic expedition to Japan, involving two separate trips to and from Japan by ships of the United States Navy, which took place during 1853–54. The expedition was commanded by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry. It resulted in the opening of Japan to American and international trade, and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and the western "Great Powers".

Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794–1858) was a senior-ranking officer in the navy of the United States of America, who was assigned the command of a USN expedition to the "far east" in 1853. The goals of this expedition included exploration, surveying, and the establishment of diplomatic relations and negotiation of trade agreements with various nations of the region; opening contact with the government of Japan was considered a top priority of the expedition, and was one of the key reasons for its inception.

The Tokugawa shogunate had virtually isolated Japan from Western countries, and severely restricted contact with even near-neighbors such as China, since the early-mid-1600s; a policy known as Sakoku. It had resisted, sometimes by force, attempts by Americans and Europeans to establish business and diplomatic ties.

On July 8, 1853, Perry sailed into an officially hostile, but militarily unprepared, Japan with four warships. He led a U.S. mission which sought to begin diplomatic and trade relations, and to ensure the safety of Americans shipwrecked in Japan. Perry intimidated the Japanese by threatening to bombard their cities. He presented Japanese officials with a letter from U.S. President Millard Fillmore to the Emperor of Japan, proposing peace and friendship; at the time, the complex political relationship between the Emperor and the shogunate was not well understood by western governments. Perry left Japan with promises of friendship on both sides.

Perry returned the next year, and on March 31, 1854, Japan entered into a treaty of peace, friendship, and trade with the United States. This was Japan's first official relationship with any Western nation other than Holland, since the first decades of the Edo period; it marked the beginning of the modern era in Japan. Over time, the Japanese would use ideas and knowledge from western countries to transform their nation into a great industrial and military power.

Perry published a three-volume account of the expedition, Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, in 1856.

The Opening of Japan, 1852-1854

Japanese woodblock print of Perry (center) and other high-ranking American seamen

In advance of his voyage to the Far East, Commodore Perry read widely amongst available books about Tokugawa Japan. His research also included consultation with the renowned Japanologist Philipp Franz von Siebold. Siebold spent 8 years working, teaching, and studying at the isolated Dutch island-trading post of Dejima in Nagasaki harbour, Japan, before returning to Leiden in the Netherlands.[1]


Perry's expedition to Japan was preceded by several naval expeditions by American ships:

  • From 1797 to 1809, several American ships traded in Nagasaki under the Dutch flag, upon the request of the Dutch, who were not able to send their own ships because of their conflict against Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. Japan limited foreign trade to the Dutch and Chinese at that time, under the policy of sakoku.
  • In 1837, an American businessman in Canton named Charles W. King saw an opportunity to open trade by trying to return to Japan three Japanese sailors (among them, Otokichi) who had been shipwrecked a few years before on the coast of Washington. He went to Uraga Channel with Morrison, an unarmed American merchant ship. The ship was attacked several times, and sailed back without completing its mission.
  • In 1846, Commander James Biddle, sent by the United States Government to open trade, anchored in Tokyo Bay with two ships, including one warship armed with 72 cannons, but his requests for a trade agreement remained unsuccessful.[2]
  • In 1849, Captain James Glynn sailed to Nagasaki, leading at last to the first successful negotiation by an American with "Closed Country" Japan. James Glynn recommended to the United States Congress that negotiations to open Japan be backed up by a demonstration of force, thus paving the way for Perry's expedition.[3]

First visit, 1852-1853

Odaiba battery at the entrance of Tokyo, built in 1853-54 to prevent an American intrusion

One of the cannons of Odaiba, now at the Yasukuni Shrine. 80-pound bronze, bore: 250mm, length: 3830mm.

In 1852, Perry embarked from Norfolk, Virginia for Japan, in command of the East India Squadron in search of a Japanese trade treaty. Aboard a black-hulled steam frigate, he ported Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and Susquehanna at Uraga Harbor near Edo (modern Tokyo) on July 8, 1853. His actions at this crucial juncture were informed by a careful study of Japan's previous contacts with Western ships and what could be known about the Japanese hierarchical culture. He was met by representatives of the Tokugawa Shogunate who told him to proceed to Nagasaki, where there was limited trade with the Netherlands and which was the only Japanese port open to foreigners at that time (see Sakoku).

Threat of force and negotiation

Japanese coastal wooden cannon built by the Daimyos at the Bakufu's order for Commodore Perry's arrival. 1853-54.

As he arrived, Perry ordered his ships to steam past Japanese lines towards the capital of Edo, and position their guns towards the town of Uraga.[4] Perry refused to abide to demands to leave.[4] He then demanded permission to present a letter from President Millard Fillmore, and threatened to use force if the Japanese boats around the American squadron did not disperse.[4]

Perry attempted to intimidate the Japanese by presenting them a white flag and a letter which told them that in case they chose to combat, the Americans would necessarily vanquish them.[5][6] Perry's ships were equipped with new Paixhans shell guns, capable of wreaking great destruction with every shell.[7][8] The term "Black Ships", in Japan, would later come to symbolize a threat imposed by Western technology.[9]

After the Japanese agreed to receive the letter from the American President, Perry landed at Kurihama (in modern-day Yokosuka) on July 14, 1853[10] presented the letter to delegates present, and left for the Chinese coast, promising to return for a reply.[11] Fortifications were built in Tokyo Bay at Odaiba in order to protect Edo from possible American naval incursion.

Second visit, 1854

Commodore Perry's fleet for his second visit to Japan in 1854

Perry returned in February 1854 with twice as many ships, finding that the delegates had prepared a treaty embodying virtually all the demands in Fillmore's letter. Perry signed the Convention of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854 and departed, mistakenly believing the agreement had been made with imperial representatives.[12] The agreement was made with the Shogun, the de facto ruler of Japan.

Japanese 1854 print relating Perry's visit.

On his way to Japan, Perry anchored off Keelung in Formosa (modern day Taiwan), for ten days. Perry and crew members landed on Formosa and investigated the potential of mining the coal deposits in that area. He emphasized in his reports that Formosa provided a convenient mid-way trade location. Formosa was also very defensible. It could serve as a base for exploration as Cuba had done for the Spanish in the Americas. Occupying Formosa could help the US to counter European monopolization of the major trade routes. President Franklin Pierce declined the suggestion, remarking such a remote possession would be an unnecessary drain of resources and that he would be unlikely to receive the consent of Congress.

Bust of Matthew Perry in Shimoda, Shizuoka

Return to the United States, 1855

When Perry returned to the United States in 1855, Congress voted to grant him a reward of $20,000 in appreciation of his work in Japan. Perry used part of this money to prepare and publish a report on the expedition in three volumes, titled Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan. He was also advanced to the grade of rear-admiral on the retired list (when his health began to fail) as a reward for his services in the Far East.[13] Perry was known to have suffered severe arthritis that left him in frequent pain, that on occasion precluded him from his duties.[14]

A map of coal mining on Formosa Island in the Narrative of the Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry's Expedition to Japan.

Perry spent his last years preparing for publication his account of the Japan expedition, announcing its completion on December 28, 1857. Two days later he was detached from his last post, an assignment to the Naval Efficiency Board. He died awaiting further orders on March 4, 1858 in New York City, of rheumatism that had spread to the heart, compounded by complications of gout.[15]this is

See also


1. World Book, Brauer, Kinley J. "Perry, Matthew Calbraith." World Book Online Reference Center. 2009. [Place of access.] 18 March 2009 <>.

  1. Sewall, p. xxxviii.
  2. Sewell, pp. xxxiv-xxxv, xlix, lvi.
  3. English Wikipedia on Preble Logbook
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 The Perry mission to Japan, 1853 - 1854 by William Gerald Beasley, Aaron Haight Palmer, Henry F. Graff, Yashi Shōzan, Ernest Mason Satow, Shuziro Watanabe p.153ff
  5. "Among the items presented to the Japanese were a white flag and a letter from Perry. The letter attempted to intimidate Japanese officials by explaining that in the event the Japanese elected war rather than negotiation, they could use the white flag to sue for peace, since victory would naturally belong to the Americans"Matthew Calbraith Perry: antebellum sailor and diplomat by John H. Schroeder p.286 Note 44
  6. The economic aspects of the history of the civilization of Japan Yosaburō Takekoshi p.285-86 [1]
  7. Arms and men: a study in American military history Walter Millis p.88 [2]
  8. Black Ships Off Japan - The Story of Commodore Perry's Expedition Arthur Walworth p.21 [3]
  9. Sewall, pp. 167-183.
  10. "Perry Ceremony Today; Japanese and U. S. Officials to Mark 100th Anniversary." New York Times. July 14, 1953,
  11. Sewall, pp. 183-195.
  12. Sewall, pp. 243-264.
  13. Sewall, p. lxxxvii.
  14. "Commodore Perry's Expedition to Japan". Ben Griffiths 2005. Retrieved September 12, 2009. 
  15. Morison, Samuel Eliot. (1967). 'Old Bruin' Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry p. 431.

External links

  • Dupree, A. Hunter, 'Science vs. the Military: Dr. James Morrow and the Perry Expedition', The Pacific Historical Review, vol. 22, no. 1, (1953), pp. 29–37.
  • Hawks, Francis. (1856). Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan Performed in the Years 1852, 1853 and 1854 under the Command of Commodore M.C. Perry, United States Navy, Washington: A.O.P. Nicholson by order of Congress, 1856; originally published in Senate Executive Documents, No. 34 of 33rd Congress, 2nd Session. [reprinted by London: Trafalgar Square, 2005. ISBN 1-84588-026-9 (paper)]
  • Samuel Eliot Morison, Old Bruin (1967).
  • John Schroeder, Matthew Calbraith Perry (2001).
  • Sewall, John S. (1905). The Logbook of the Captain's Clerk: Adventures in the China Seas, Bangor, Maine: Chas H. Glass & Co. [reprint by Chicago: R.R. Donnelly & Sons, 1995] ISBN 0-548-20912-X.
  • Perry Visits Japan: A Visual History

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