TOKYO (majirox news) – Once upon a time—up to about a month ago—I half-believed in a theory beloved of Japanese friends that dear old Commodore Perry (he of the Black Ships fame) was an incarnation of evil. I saw him as an embodiment of the insolent Yankee barging his way into the celestial Japan of the Edo era in 1853. I even coined a phrase to sum up the scorn with which I regarded him and his works. It was this: the Rape of Edo.
In other words, the infamous Perry had sailed into Japanese waters, totally uninvited by anyone; anchored his ships off the Bay of Edo (facing towards Uraga); and had treated these sacred waters as if they belonged to the United States. He had infringed on Japanese sovereignty and undermined a beautiful civilization, namely Edo society. He shoved Japan into a role as a western-style power that duly and sadly got caught up in big power politics, once having built herself up as Asia’s first industrial nation.
And the person to whom this evil outcome might be assigned was none other than “Old Bruin,” as his captains called him, behind his back (they wouldn’t be so familiar in the presence of the old boy).
What has caused me to change my mind?
Firstly, reading Perry’s words. He died in 1858 (in New York City) and left to posterity a marvelous document. It is the old boy’s “Narrative,” as he calls it, his visits to Japan and Okinawa mainly in the years 1853-4. It is a lavishly illustrated 3-volume record of what Perry did, coming to Japan for eight days in 1853, and then again in the following year for a couple of months.
This was a time of euphoria in the United States, in the aftermath of four states being amalgamated into the Union (Texas, California, New Mexico and Oregon). America was coming of age. In this spirit, and looking far across the Pacific to Japan and beyond, a handful of visionaries among them Daniel Webster, a great figure in mid-l9th century Washington DC, as Secretary of State. He foresaw a time when the Pacific would be pretty much of an American lake, say as it is today.
Perry—and I will abridge the detail—found himself suddenly dragooned into the cause of making America the boss of the Pacific. He had wanted to retire, being weary in his bones after nearly half a century at sea or in the US Navy (and after one last post in the Mediterranean, as supreme US Navy man in the Med), but he had his arm twisted by others bent on setting up an empire, with roots to be sunk in Asia.
This is the first of a three-part series on Commodore Perry by Henry Scott Stokes.
He was the former Tokyo bureau chief of the Financial Times, The Economist and the New York Times. His upcoming book on Perry is published by Overlook Press of New York.