Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Black Ships & Samurai ; MIT's Black Ships & Samurai Shows That History Is a Matter of Perspective

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Black Ships & Samurai ; MIT's Black Ships & Samurai Shows That History Is a Matter of Perspective

Article excerpt

Although those involved might not always like to admit it, history is largely a matter of perspective. In some cases those perspectives are simple differences of opinion, in others they are much more serious matters, and occasionally, the added factor of an encounter between alien cultures can make things especially interesting. In the mid-19th century, such an encounter took place between an expansionist America and an isolationist Japan. Black Ships & Samurai offers a fascinating comparison of two histories of the same event.

Launched last year, Black Ships & Samurai is part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's "Visualizing Cultures" course, and is made available online through the Institute's OpenCourseWare Initiative. For those not familiar with the Initiative, it is an effort by MIT to place all its course materials - from class syllabuses to lecture videos - online, where they can be freely accessed by anyone with an internet connection. Virtual students may not get university credit for using the materials, but those who wish to learn for the sake of learning - or those who may want to prepare for upcoming courses in the real world - can find content from 500 courses in 33 academic disciplines at all five of MIT's schools. (A similar, albeit less extensive resource is available for the musically inclined at the Berklee College of Music's, Berklee Shares website.)

Black Ships & Samurai examines both the Japanese and American viewpoints of the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 and his return in 1854 (when the American concept of Free Trade could be summarized as, "open your borders to trade...or else"). A pair of images on the home page give an early introduction to the disparate feelings the two sides must have had about the mission, as well as their distinctive methods of recording the events. On the American side is an oil painting of the majestic ships under majestic skies heeled over majestically in rough seas as they make their heroic journey west. On the Japanese side, a woodcut depicts a pitch black ship with a demonic figurehead and enormous eyes on its stern firing canon and belching smoke. …

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