TOKYO (majirox news) – There never was a more extraordinary American than Matthew C. Perry, say the Japanese. The proof is in their art.
Samuel E. Morison, the historian of the US Navy, was shown about 50 different portrayals of Perry–some of them caricatures; some of them plain sketches—during the five years he was working on his biography of “Old Bruin” and visiting Japan for research. The Japanese were fascinated by the man, and their art did not stop short at portrayals of the famous old Yankee sea dog.
Why not paint his astonishing vessels the Black Ships—the first Western steamships to penetrate the holy of holies, the Bay of Edo? That 1853 visit of Old Bruin’s got the citizens of Edo turning out in the tens of thousands.
“Look at that black smoke,” they cried out in surprise over the spectacle. Here was a subject fit for the finest woodblock artists in the world. They went to town with portrayals of Perry’s hybrid warships–some of them contemporary, some of them done a century and a half after the Commodore’s foray into the Bay.
The Japanese public are still being regaled with new variations of the Black Ships, which are presented as grotesque and warped versions of Perry’s warships, with their hulls decorated with vile-looking masks and grimacing gargoyles.
For examples of this late 20th century art see the drawings by Hayao Miyazaki, the leader of the cine-theatrical genre we know as anime. Miyazaki has dug into a rich lore for his Black Ships-style galleon images.
What was it about bluff old Perry and his steamships that made great material for Japanese satirists down the centuries? Perry touched the Japanese to the quick. His background would not have made him notorious. Not at first glance.
He was American. His 17th century ancestors came from West Country stock in England. They were Quakers. They emigrated in search of freedom, and they found it by being in at the creation of the United States in 1776. The Perry family were a U.S. Navy clan. Old Bruin counted a dozen relatives in positions of high command in his time.
Still, it was a fluke of history that this ancient mariner was in the right place at the right time, to open Japan to the outside world in 1853. With that intrusion—whether you love or hate him or both—Perry made himself notorious in Japan. God Bless Old Bruin and his weird Black Ships.
This is the third part of a 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.