Matthew Calbraight Perry in the objective of an American photographer, and as seen by a contemporary Japanese painter.

Commodore Perry lands on the Japanese seashore at Kurihama. Painting by Gessan Ogata (Masatsugu Tai).



In July 1853 Commodore Matthew Calbraight Perry left in Japan an inlaid box containing the hand-written letter of the president of the United States, Millard Fillmore, addressed to the shogun. He did not press for answer through, leaving the addressee possibly a lot of time to think. After all the letter was speaking about important issues: opening Japanese ports, rescuing castaways, and above all - profitable trade contacts, not existing between the two countries ever since the younger of them had appeared on the political map of the world.

The United States of America in the middle of the 19th century, generally speaking, had made a long and impressive record of economical development since the brave new world threw the challenge in the face of the British Empire four score years before. When 13 British colonies declared their independence in 1776, they were concentrated on the east coast of the American continent; whereas in the middle of the 19th century, when Commodore Perry set for Japan, he represented the power of the country that had set its foot on the Pacific coast, from Portland and Astoria to San Francisco and San Diego, and its citizens had invented the mowing-machine, typewriter, sewing-machine, coal-cutting machine and phosphorus matches, as well as Colt revolver and Gatling gun. Young country, whose economy was developing vigorously, and the geographic location, territory, natural and human resources predestined it for a serious role - after all, this is how the empires are built - reached the Pacific, set its foot on the Hawaii, and started doing business and politics in China. And on the way to the Chinese ports, which opened the gates to the richness of the new markets, stood Japan, about which a bad word had been circulating: it had no mercy for foreign ships - quite a problem in the era of sails and merely beginnings of the steam propulsion.

Perry's mission was catalysed by two earlier events: one was the political doctrine announced in 1851 by the president of the United States, Millard Fillmore, according to which no nation was allowed to fence itself from the contacts with other nations; the other one was the decision of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company to open a regular line between San Francisco and Shanghai. Perry's visit, and especially the gun salute, left a deep impression on the Japanese; so did the contrast between their light "junks" and mighty American ships.

Seven months after his first appearance in the waters of the Bay of Tokyo, Perry came to Japan again - this time with nine strongly armed ships. The guns - ultima ratio regum (kings' ultimate argument), as they used to say in old Europe - proved more than convincing, and on 31 March 1854 Perry had his agreement signed by the shogun. It opened two Japanese ports for the trade with the United States; three years later, in 1857, another agreement opened as many as eight ports. In each of them American citizens enjoyed the position privileged in every respect; in particular they could bring American goods in without duties. Soon other powers forced Japan to sign similar agreements - also at the gun-point, of course.

To sweeten the deal procured by the American "gunboat diplomacy", Perry left to the governor of Uraga a model of the steam engine, that rode along a 100m-long railway with the whopping speed of 35 miles per hour. Japanese imperial officials, after they overcame their fear, found a lot of pleasure in riding such a vehicle. Also a model of the telegraph, installed in the village of Yokohama, allowed immediate connection with capital Edo (since 1868 known as Tokyo) dozens of miles away. Immediate acceptance of those inventions was bound to tear down the old Japanese society. There came something that not only helped - like the firearms - to rule, but also to change, along with other machines, the very way the Japanese people worked and lived. But how could those nine, and originally only four, ships enforce "capitulation" on the ruler of the country, which was populated by 26 million inhabitants, had vast riches, was well organized and governed, and already possessed a numerous and rich class of merchants?

Shogun and his court must have been under the impression of what happened in the neighbouring China - the country, which to Japan became what Greece was to Europe. There in 1840-1842 the British, to maintain immoral in every respect opium trade, staged a number of military actions, bombarded Chinese ports, and sent troops to force the Chinese emperor to cede to the British the island of Hongkong, open five ports for unrestricted trade with the British, grant extraterritorial privileges to the British citizens, as well as to pay a colossal for that time contribution of £20,000,000. Needless to say, the trade in opium, which the British treated as a peculiar sort of currency, kept thriving. In 1844 the United States and France enforced similar agreements with China, and later also Russia, Belgium and Sweden did the same.

Somewhere between July 1853 and February 1854 the shogun must have had come to the conclusion that trying to resist with the forces at his disposal - and which so obviously proved obsolete and unfit to deliver any resistance - had no sense. Therefore there was opened the way to changes and reforms. But in the people, who for centuries were isolated from the outer world in genuine belief in their superiority and divine origins of their rulers, agreements made under brutal foreign force sparked nothing but protest. Popular rage turned against the shogun, who belonged to the not-so-popular, after centuries-long rule, Tokugawa clan. The popular resent brought to power influential daimiyo from the south, particularly from the Satsuma and Choshu clans, as well as the imperial court in Kyoto.

In the autumn 1862 soldiers of the Satsuma clan killed a British merchant from Shanghai, Charles Lenox Richardson. The shogun paid his share of the compensation demanded by the British, but the Satsuma clan refused either to pay or to execute the killers. As a result, in August 1863, five British ships under the command of Rear-Adm. Augustus Kuyper on frigate Euryalus approached Kagoshima - the main city and port on Kyushu. There they seized three Japanese ships, plundered them thoroughly leaving not a single item of any value, and then burned them. Around the noon Japanese coastal batteries opened fire. Euryalus - what an irony of the History! - for two hours was not able to return fire, as the hatch to her powder-magazine was blocked by the crates containing coins received as the ransom from the shogun. Although the Japanese guns were not modern, they scored several hits. One cannonball hit the bridge of the Euryalus and killed two officers; another two cannonballs penetrated her deck. One British ships went aground, and another sustained heavy damages. All that must have angered the British, who set ablaze the famous Satsuma porcelain works. All the next day the British ships bombarded the batteries and the city, after which they returned to Yokohama, where they announced their victory. The victory though was rather Pyrrhic one, as the British lost 63 sailors and officers killed and wounded, what in comparison to the Japanese losses, estimated for £100,000, looks rather pricey. And as a matter of fact, that naval action in defence of private interests was conducted without much enthusiasm as well.

Somewhat different was the punitive expedition against the prince from the Choshu clan, who had a nasty habit of shooting at any ship sailing in the Strait of Shimonoseki, and once had a bad luck to do it to the American, French and Dutch ships more or less at the same time. The Strait of Shimonoseki separates the south-western end of the Honshu from the northern end of the Kyushu, and nowadays, under its bottom, there is a tunnel built to link both islands. In September 1864 nine British ships, reinforced by the the ships detached by the French, Dutch and Americans, sailed to that key strait, along which ran sea routes between Yokohama and Nagasaki. As soon as the ships of the "white devils" arrived, they bombarded the Japanese batteries, and then disembarked troops, which destroyed remaining Japanese guns - some of them, as it occurred, were cast in bronze. After that the town of Shimonoseki was thoroughly plundered and set afire. Within next days the destruction of the Japanese batteries continued; powder magazines were blasted, while guns and cannonballs were dumped in the sea. The whole action cost 8 killed and 30 wounded. Prince Choshu softened and succumbed to humiliating terms: he promised not to attack foreign ships, not to build fortifications, and... to pay the costs of the expedition against himself.

Soon after that Great Britain forced Japan to conclude a trade agreement, which was very unjust to Japan. Moreover, Japan had to pay £3,000,000 in contributions. That only strengthened resentment against the shogun, skilfully inflamed by the daimiyo from the south and the imperial court. Shogun Iemochi, one but the last of the Tokugawas, campaigned against the prince of Choshu, who caused so much of disgrace to Japan, but was beaten by the Choshu troops. He could not bear such a disgrace and committed suicide. His heir, Keiki, was also defeated in several battles with the supporters of the emperor, and eventually had to succumb to his grace.

On 3 January 1868 all political and military power was concentrated in the hands of emperor Mutsuhito, who ruled in Japan until 1912. Mighty clans from the south, including the Satsumas and the Choshus, made a sudden volte-face - turned tables and became eager and sincere advocates of Japan's modernization and Europeanization under the emperor's rule. A British chronicler of the Japanese transformation, who spent years in Japan, summarized it as follows:
From the moment when the intelligent Samurai of the leading Daimiates realised that the Europeanisation of the country was a question of life and death, they (for to this day the government has continued practically in their hands) have never ceased carrying on the work of reform and progress. [Chamberlain B. H. (2009).]