Perry and His Black Ships at the Gates of Japan

Article excerpt

In March 1854, a resourceful Naval commodore well up in years accomplished what many other Occidentals had been unable to do - persuade feudal Japan to open its ports to trade / BY GARY NOLAN NAGATO

At a time when most men were contemplating a leisurely well-earned retirement, American Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, accepted the most challenging assignment of his long and successful Naval career. Ordered to the Capitol by President Millard Fillmore, Perry was politely informed that a board of fellow Naval officers had nominated him to lead a provocative expedition to the barbarian land of Japan. Once there, Perry was to find a way to open trade with the mysteriously aloof Japanese. A younger brother of the famed hero of the War of 1812, Oliver Hazard Perry, Matthew well knew that the Japanese had refused to allow any significant commerce with their island nation for well over 250-yrs. Foreigners were simply unwelcome in this land of Lotus blossoms and bombastic samurai warriors. Even accidently shipwrecked sailors were met with unwarranted cruelty and hatred that saw them tortured and imprisoned with absolutely no provocation.

In 1639, fearing an endless barrage of foreign influences, the Japanese government decided to permanently close its country to outsiders. Following this move, many nations unsuccessfully tried to open up Japan to the outside world. Countries such as England, France, Holland, Spain, and Portugal successfully dominated many Asian states from the 17th to 18th centuries. However, Western countries had a difficult time approaching Japan because the government established a law that, if a foreign ship came close to Japan, it was to force the intruder to leave with military action. Surprisingly, only the United States succeeded in overcoming this embargo even though it was the youngest of nations only about 100-yrs old with very limited experience dealing with Asians.

The US Navy itself was still struggling to define its purpose and destiny on the world stage. Matthew Perry, a commodore of the US Navy, was very different from his Western counterparts. Perry tried to negotiate with the Japanese by not only using American military power but also by impressing upon the Japanese the value of egalitarianism and change. Perry also tried to negotiate with the Japanese as a fair-minded American who was more practical than aristocratic and more technologically oriented than politically motivated. The Japanese were impressed by his understanding demeanor and, after much discussion, decided to sign a treaty with him. Much of Perry's success can be directly attributed to the commodore himself, In his late 50s, Perry was a physically huge hulking man with a booming voice and commanding manner. Midshipmen working with him were afraid of him because of his appearance and tempestuous personality; especially his intolerance toward the ignorant and lazy. But Perry was also known as a fair and diligent leader who had a strong pride in the Navy. He was also described as a person who was stubborn, lacked humor, and was frequently imperious. By the time he was 3-yrs old, young Matthew had already learned how to meet challenges like fighting with his older brothers by calling them despicable names.

The War of 1812 saw Matthew G. Perry serving aboard his brother Oliver's USS Revenge and Niagara. Born at Newport Rhode Island in April 1794, it was foreordained that young Matthew - like his father, four brothers, and two brothers-inlaw - would make the Navy his career. Seeing little action after receiving his commission in 1809, he went on to serve under Commodore William Bainbridge in the Second Barbary War and later planted the flag of the United States at Key West, Florida, which as captain of the USS Shark, Perry claimed in the name of the United States.

Convinced that as steam-powered ships mandated better trained crews, Perry pushed for enlisted men's education as well as that of officer's. …