Commodore Perry's Expedition to Japan
as reported in The New York Times

During the early 1800's, the United States became increasingly concerned over Japan's mistreatment of American sailors who had been shipwrecked on Japanese islands. Matthew C. Perry, an American naval officer who had seen action in the War of 1812 aboard the USS President, flagship of Stephen Decatur, and later had helped found the country of Liberia in West Africa as a haven for free black Americans, was given the task of "opening" Japan to diplomatic and commercial relations with the United States with the hope that U.S. sailors could receive better treatment in the process.

An avowed American expansionist, Perry believed that "our people must naturally be drawn into the contest for empire." In 1852, he accepted command of the East India squadron in order to lead an expedition to Japan. The U.S. State Department directed him to negotiate a treaty of amity and commerce that would open Japan to relations in as full a range as possible.

Perry prepared diligently for the formidable task of inducing Japan to negotiate a document advantageous to the United States. In 1846, Japan had humiliated and expelled an American emissary, leading Perry to conclude that a resolute show of force would prove essential to the "opening" of Japan. He, therefore, shaped a small but powerful armada of four ships, including the steam-driven paddle wheelers Susquehanna and Mississippi. On July 8, 1853, Perry stormed boldly into Edo (Tokyo) Bay, the steamers belching black smoke and appearing as "floating volcanoes" to the alarmed Japanese. Six days later, with great pomp and ceremony, Perry went ashore to the accompaniment of a naval band playing Hail Columbia! The Japanese resisted Perry's proposals, and he temporarily withdrew from the country, promising to return to receive a reply to President Millard Fillmore's request for a treaty.

On February 13, 1854, Perry returned with seven warships, three of them steam driven. He debarked on March 8 with even greater pomp than the year before, this time accompanied by three armed naval bands playing The Star Spangled Banner. To impress the Japanese with American technological and military might, he exhibited a quarter-scale steam locomotive with tracks, a telegraph apparatus designed by Samuel Morse, a daguerreotype camera, and an illustrated history of the Mexican War, featuring the American naval bombardment of Veracruz. The Japanese yielded, and on March 31, 1854, they signed the Treaty of Kanagawa. This agreement promised safe repatriation of shipwrecked American seamen, opened ports as coal and supply stations, established American consular privileges at these ports, and granted most-favored-nation trading status to the United States.

For bringing Japan into diplomatic and commercial contact with the West, Perry received the thanks of Congress and honors from the cities of Boston and New York.

In 1858, Townsend Harris, the first U.S. diplomatic representative in Japan, arranged a more extensive trade treaty with the Japanese. That same year, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands and Russia also signed general commercial treaties with the Japanese. Most of these agreements granted the foreigners the right of extraterritoriality-that is, foreigners were allowed to live in Japan and be subject only to the laws of their own nations.

The treaties signed in the 1850's were called unequal treaties. They gave the foreign powers rights not granted to Japan in return. The enemies of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate, Japan's governing body, sharply criticized the government for having signed such discriminatory treaties, and several important daimyo, or regional leaders, from western Japan plotted to overthrow the shogunate and restore the emperor to power. In fact, in 1867, troops of the daimyo forced the shogun to resign, and the emperor regained his traditional powers, but the results of the treaties could not, at that time, be reversed, and Japan's position in the world would be forever altered.

Matthew C. Perry was born in Newport, Rhode Island on April 10, 1794, the younger brother of another United States naval officer, Oliver Hazard Perry. After his accomplishments in Japan, he retired to New York City, and devoted his time to the editing of a narrative of his expedition, and publicly urging Americans to "extend their dominion and their power across the Atlantic." He died in New York on March 4, 1858.

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