Stokes on the Commodore


Matthew Perry Entertaining Japanese Commissioners on Ship

TOKYO (majirox news) – Who would be the most famous or noted American in Japanese eyes, taking the whole sweep of modern history?

Some would say General Douglas MacArthur for the way he shaped Japan during the post World War II occupation.

MacArthur’s own choice, leave aside himself, was Matthew C. Perry, the Commodore of the Black Ships, the man who forced open Japan to the West in 1853. We know that from a famous piece of MacArthur-style PR. MacArthur staged the historic Japanese surrender ceremony on the deck of the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. For a special touch he had the Navy Academy release the historic ensign that Perry flew from his flagship in 1853, when he spent a grand total of 8 days off Japan. MacArthur ordered the ensign displayed on the battleship for all to see.

I have reached day eight of Perry’s short visit in 1853 in a book I am writing on the Black Ships. The fact that “Old Bruin,” as he was known among US Navy officers, in recognition of his burly physique, made a giant impact on the Japanese is incontrovertible. There is a lovely piece of evidence to confirm it.

Old Bruin’s biographer, famous Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard-trained scholar on the history of the US Navy in World War II, said he encountered about 50 different portraits of Perry, all of them by Japanese artists, portraying him as a long-nosed devil.

The 3-volume Narrative that Perry authored upon his return to the US is a classic record of his trips to Japan, Okinawa and China during 1853-4. It is full of illustrations by two official artists and remarks by “the Commodore” on the glorious future of Japan as an industrial power, which was prescient.

Perry was a man of many parts: a terrific engineer, he turned the US Navy to steam engines and paddle-wheels; he acted as a diplomat and took on high-level missions in Egypt and in the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. He chased pirates in the Caribbean (not very well, they were too fast) and hunted down slave traders off West Africa. He also saw active duty in the Mexico War of 1847, holding the rank of Commodore (the top rank in the US Navy at the time). He was a master of amateur theatricals, who insisted his ship’s company played musical instruments and made up a band.

In the midst of all this, his sailors perceived him as a disciplinarian. In fact, he regretted the decision by the US Navy to ban flogging as the traditional form of punishment on board ship. He said that flogging was the only way to keep order among the older crewmen.

Opening up Japan

In wrenching open the country, the way he did, he achieved an absolute miracle in my humble opinion. The resistance must have been colossal. Where he prevailed was by surprise. No one in Japan was ready for the steam navy. Old Bruin was a pioneer of the steam navy, a main advocate in Washington DC, in the Congress, among engineers and US Navy people. That steam thing caught the Japanese totally off-guard. By that time steamships were becoming commonplace in other parts of the world, even as close as Hong Kong and Shanghai.

In Edo they were seeing steamships for the first time. They paid the price for having insisted on 250 years of self-enforced self-isolation. They were mentally and physically unprepared for the Black Ships. The Bakufu—the Japanese Government of that era—lacked a navy.

They had built a string of forts around the Uraga Channel, which was the only way into the Bay of Edo. But these forts were, at one glance, totally incapable of fighting off an American challenge. Old Bruin’s role in all this was front and center. He ended up in the impossible moral position of whispering: open up, let’s be friends, and if you don’t then I shall blast you to smithereens.

It didn’t come to that. The Bakufu climbed down. Either side fired not a shot, casualties were zero. The episode left a sour taste, however, that still lingers today. American hypocrisy had a field day. And Old B, sad to say, was in the middle of it. At the end of the day, something terrible happened, something almost indescribable. America used the threat of force to get its way and tore apart the fabled civilization of Edo Japan—one of the richest urban cultures the world has ever seen. Such was the rape of Edo. Then the largest city in the world.

Many of the episodes involving Old Bruin in his Japanese incarnation have me screaming with laughter. But not the culmination. That was awful, that led to an eventual mighty clash at Pearl Harbor. Because the Japanese never forgot the experience of being ground into the earth by Perry and his Black Ships. That action lingered in the Japanese mind for nearly a century, as a smoldering awareness that finally burst forth in December 1941.

This is an opinion piece by Majirox News writer Henry Scott Stokes. His book is published by Overlook Press of New York.

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2 Responses to Stokes on the Commodore

  1. Ken on 03/05/2011 at 4:27 pm

    If Perry hadn’t done it someone else would have done it such as Russia, England or some country. If so, today Japan would be much different.
    We can’t put think of what would have been, but it is facsinating to imagine it.

  2. Matthew on 03/07/2011 at 6:06 pm

    Insightful article.
    Like Henry says, Edo as an era was a miraculous cultural success for Japan, the heydays of popular art, many of which still survive today, providing examples of what “cool” or “粋” means in Japan.
    Although Perry delivered the final blow, the Bakufu was already on the verge of disfunctionality – it really was a matter of who would and when, not if. Japan needs another one of these Perry styled eye-openers (open up, or I’ll blast you to smitherines), and this time, it should come from within.

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