A senior officer of the US Navy, Commodore Perry was responsible for delivering a letter from Willard Fillmore, then President of the United States, to the Emperor of Japan. Burdened with that responsibility, as a glorified postman of sorts, Perry single-handedly turned his simple but in reality highly complex mission into a capital event in world history.
Using the veiled threat of a bombardment by his Black Ships—these were up-to-date warships armed with the latest “shell-guns” — to enforce his will, Perry cracked open the door into a brilliant civilization that had shut itself away for centuries in an effort to exclude the West and to keep out Christian fathers who had sought to convert the Japanese to their Faith. However the forces of the Shogun had omitted to furnish the capital Edo, then the biggest city in the world, and its strategic Bay of Edo (Bay of Tokyo) with coastal defenses. Japan was defenseless.
Jumping in there feet first in July 1853 Perry opened a Pandora’s Box. The letter proposed that the US and Japan be friends and build up trade. Still, the Japanese asked: why did Perry need four big warships—armed with “shell-guns”– to deliver a letter?
It was a ruse, to subordinate Japan to the US. The letter was a ruse based upon a strategy worked out in Washington DC, and implemented by “Old Bruin” Perry. The aim was to re-open Japan for US convenience. It took Perry only six days, in the summer of 1853, to undermine the historic foundations of Edo Japan, laid down in 1603, by challenging the authority of the Shogun in Edo.
The US postal gambit undid 250 years of peace in Japanese eyes. For the US Navy it was a bloodless victory. For the Japanese it was a humiliation. They could not fight Perry and his Black Ships. All they could do was to grind their teeth, on and on for nearly 100 years.
Tragedy—in the shape of Pearl Harbor in 1941– should have been averted, if US leaders had thought before waking the Sleeping Beauty the way they did — at gunpoint.
But if America had not moved, then other nations would have jumped in? That is said. Russia was ready in 1853, and the UK Royal Navy was getting ready. Still it was America that rooted out their beautiful Edo Era civilization, some Japanese say.
This is the second 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.