Story of Japan - R. Van Bergen

How Perry Secured a Treaty

When Commander James Glynn returned to Washington in 1851, after his visit to Nagasaki in the Preble, he began to try to interest the President to make another effort to open Japan, and offered his services. But when the matter was taken into consideration, it became clear that a few ships would not be able to accomplish anything peaceably, and that, to insure success, it was necessary to send an imposing fleet. When, finally, it was decided that the United States should act, Commodore Aulick was selected to go to the capital of the Tycoon, and to present a letter from the President to "the emperor of Japan."

Commodore Aulick sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, June 1851, in the Susquehanna, and after stopping at the capital of Brazil, continued his voyage to China. Soon after he had arrived at Hong Kong, he received orders to return home, and Commodore Matthew G. Perry, brother of the hero who upheld the honor of the American flag on Lake Erie, was appointed to replace him.

There had been, before this, some talk about Perry's undertaking this mission, and he had spent considerable time in reading all the books on Japan he could find. From what he had gleaned of the Japanese character, Perry felt confident that with a strong force under his command, he could awe the Japanese into making concessions, whereas a small fleet would probably be treated with contempt. He was promised twelve vessels with which to proceed to Yedo Bay, and thereupon began to make preparations.

First he arranged to have ships laden with coal, dispatched to the Cape of Good Hope and Mauritius (maw-rish'-i-us), that his steamers might obtain there a fresh supply of fuel. Next he began to collect specimens of American industries and inventions. A firm in Philadelphia furnished a small locomotive, and rails to be laid down in Japan. He also took with him a telegraph and other new inventions with which you are familiar enough, but which could not fail to impress a people so fond of examining and appropriating anything new and useful. Finally the letter was prepared. You may be sure that it was no ordinary letter, but an imposing state paper. It was locked in a gold box that cost a thousand dollars, and this was securely hidden in a rosewood casket with golden hinges.

Modern ship in a typhoon


The commodore waited for a long time for the ships that had been promised him, but at last he grew tired of delays, and on November 24, 1852, sailed from Norfolk in the Mississippi. After stopping at several places on her journey, the Mississippi  anchored at Hong Kong, April 6, 1853, and shortly afterwards, accompanied by the Plymouth, Saratoga, and Supply, left for Shanghai, arriving May 4, Perry now went on board the Susquehanna, and after visiting the Loo Choo and other islands, sailed for Yedo Bay on July 2, 1853. Of the twelve vessels promised to him, only six had put in an appearance, and as he sent back the Supply  and the Caprice, the "imposing force" consisted of only four ships, the Mississippi, Susquehanna, Plymouth, and Saratoga, of which two were sailing vessels. It was, therefore, not the force displayed by the government of the United States, which impressed the regent's officers; but, as we shall see, the calm and proud bearing of the commodore.

At last the goal of the expedition, Yedo Bay, was reached, and in the afternoon of July 8, the vessels anchored. The order was given: "No one allowed to go ashore, no person from the shore to be allowed on board," and it was not long before the wisdom of this order became apparent. The foreign captains who had up to this time visited Yedo Bay had taken orders from the first officer showing the two swords of the samurai, and the Yedo government had begun to look with contempt upon foreigners who would submissively obey the orders of one of its lower officials. But on this occasion no respect was paid to any individual before his rank was known. Even the vice governor was refused admittance! And not until he stated, without regard to truth, that the laws of Japan forbade the governor from going aboard a foreign ship, was he permitted to put his foot on deck.

He wanted to see the commander at once! Ah, yes, but the commander was too great a person to be seen by so insignificant a man as Mr. Vice Governor. "Tell him, then, to go back to Nagasaki!" "Oh! but the Commander is too great a man to be told such a thing. Mr. Vice Governor could be sure that this Great Man would not listen to such talk. And, by the bye, Mr. Vice Governor, you had better send those guard boats away from these ships, or the Great Man might get angry, and then . . ." The gravity of the speaker impressed the native visitor. This line of conduct he could understand. It was in this manner that a powerful Japanese officer would have acted. His report brought the governor himself the next day in all the pomp of lacquered helmet, two swords, silks, etc., despite the vice governor's colored statement of the day before.

Down on their knees, with heads bent to touch the bottom of their boats, were the attendants of this mighty person, as he ascended the gangway of the "fire ship." But even he was not allowed a personal interview with the mysterious commander. "Go back to Nagasaki? He had not come for that purpose. He had a letter to the emperor in Yedo, and to Yedo he would go." "Would he wait four days so that the emperor could be appealed to, and an answer be received?" "No, he would consent to wait three days, but not a moment longer; and in the meanwhile his boats would do some surveying." "No, that  can't be done. No surveying under any circumstances!" "Ah, but the Great Man has ordered it, and who will oppose him?"

The Japanese governor went ashore, convinced that these were the most intractable foreigners he  had ever met, and that this mysterious Great Man must be very great indeed, to have things all his own way!

The next day there was another visit. But the governor was told that no strangers would be allowed on board, not even the emperor himself. It was Sunday, and Commodore Perry was not the man to break the Sabbath for slight causes. The blunt statement about the regent—for we know now that the regent in Yedo had no right to the title of emperor—increased the respect of the Japanese; and it was only in a half-hearted way, and without any hope that they would be able to frighten the Great Man, that they began to throw up earthworks, and to collect an army of knights, clothed in rusty armor of the Middle Ages.

It was unwelcome news, brought to the Yedo government, when runners arrived with a detailed account of the four vessels and the mysterious person in command. It was evident that something must be done at once. But the foreigners with whom the "descendants of the gods" had dealt so far, had been satisfied to confer with petty officers, and custom could not be discarded at once. At last it was decided to send two squires to take charge of the letter to the regent.

Matthew Perry


And so the governor received orders to communicate to the Great Man that the "emperor" would commission two princes to receive the letter on shore. You see that Perry had well understood the Japanese. They thought these two squires were good enough princes to deal with barbarians. But Perry was not to be outdone. He did not know that these were sham princes, but he gave the governor to understand that it was not meet for an officer of his sublime rank to go so far from the anchorage in a boat, and so he moved his steamers within convenient range of the place appointed. And now the time came when oriental pomp was to be rivaled by occidental gold lace.

Through the three hundred sailors and marines, drawn up as on parade, marched the commodore with his staff. And here again he had taken the only means to awe his unwilling hosts. They gazed upon the two powerful sailors carrying the Stars and Stripes, upon the two boys bearing that mysterious red casket, and upon the two stalwart negroes, acting as guard. The Americans entered the temporary building erected for the purpose, and after the casket was opened and the letter displayed, it was handed to one of the sham princes, who was introduced as "The First Councilor of the Empire." Then a formal reply was delivered by the interpreter, to this effect: "We have received the letter of the President of the United States of North America. We have let you know that we don't care about having foreigners here, and if you want anything from us you must go to Nagasaki. Your mysterious Great Man made us believe that he would be insulted if we did not receive the letter at this place. Very well, we have done so. The answer we will give you later, and now you may go home."

"All right," said Commodore Perry, cheerfully. "And when shall I call for an answer? Don't be too anxious to see me soon! Shall we say April or May next year?" And he returned on board, leaving the "princes" convinced that they had not yet seen the last of him.

While Perry was in Hong Kong, where his ships were being repaired, he received an official communication through the Dutch at Deshima that the "emperor" was dead, and that it would be well if he postponed his promised call. But the commodore had obtained such strong evidence that the Japanese did not always stick to the truth, and could even invent facts on occasion, that he did not believe the report, but, suspecting some trick, rather hurried his preparations.

And yet, the news received was correct, except that it was not the emperor but the regent who was dead. This, however, did not materially alter the circumstances. All that the Japanese hoped for was delay; but Perry spoiled their plans by his prompt action.

In January, 1854, the fleet, consisting of the Macedonian, Vandalia, Lexington, Southampton, Saratoga, and Supply, with the steamers Susquehanna, Mississippi, and Powhatan, once more left for Japan. The commodore again stopped at the Loo Choo Islands, so as to give the sailing vessels a good start, and on Monday, the 13th of February, the fleet moved up Yedo Bay, the steamers towing the sailing vessels, until they came within about seven miles from where Yokohama now stands. This was only about twenty-five miles from Yedo, and so unpleasantly close that the regent's government decided: "Well, if these persistent people must have a treaty, we cannot help ourselves; only we must grant as little as possible." And now the play of the mysterious Great Man was to be acted once more.

"Where would the Great Man prefer the negotiations to take place?" they asked, mentioning two places at a great distance from the capital. The reply, after consulting with the invisible commodore, was:—

Landing of the American


"Never mind about those places. The spot opposite us will do as well as any other."

This answer did not suit. The Japanese tried flattery, coaxing, little presents, all to no avail. Finally they were told that the Great Man would very much like to have matters arranged by February 21; that, in fact, he would take no refusal. And so the Japanese sighed: "Well, it can't be helped! But where will you have it?" "Oh!" replied the commodore, still invisible, "I think that Yedo would be the best place." But that would not do at all. Perry sent some of his men ashore at Uraga (oo-rah-gah)  to confer about a meeting place and waited until February 24; then he advanced another eight miles, anchoring a little beyond Yokohama. Afraid that he would go still nearer to the capital, the government yielded, and the negotiations were held at Yokohama, which is only a short distance from Yedo.

Regents' barge


This time the commodore landed with five hundred well-armed men, and, after long and tedious discussions, a treaty was made on March 31, 1854. By the terms of the treaty American ships could enter the harbors of Hakodate in Hokkaido, and Shimoda (shee-moh-dab)  in Hondo, for coal, water, and provisions, and their sailors would be kindly treated. There was also an article promising trading facilities as well as several other privileges. And now came the exchange of presents. Perry presented the telegraph, with one mile of wire, the little locomotive and car, rifles, guns, clocks, sewing machines, maps, charts, etc., and the Japanese gave lacquer, bronze, porcelain, ivory, silk, all of which you may see in the Smithsonian Institute, at Washington. Perry then returned home, having succeeded where so many had failed.

Matthew Perry