- Historic Sites
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
I am of the generation that actually can remember Pearl Harbor (I was nineteen when the radio flashed the news), and the strangest thing about its fiftieth anniversary is that it came so fast. I seem to have mislaid a half-century somewhere. Readers over sixty will understand the feeling.
There are, however, reflections of a more universal character that the moment provokes. For both the United States and Japan, that tragic Sunday was a pivot point in their long, strange, up-and-down relationship. By the end of the day the United States had suffered its worst military defeat, and among the casualties was the sacred national faith that the oceans offered eternal protection from attack. But the state of shock induced by Pearl Harbor quickly wore off, and three years and eight months later, the tables were turned when ruined Japan surrendered to American occupation and rule. Now it was Japan’s people who confronted a stunning moment of reversal and revelation. Up to then they had never lost a war either.
And today Japan is back as an industrial titan, a world power in all but the armaments that we forbade it by treaty, and a major economic rival of the United States. What next for these two giants? Their cultures differ enormously, but each is infused with a stronger than usual sense of uniqueness—of being specially destined to lead others. The interlocking of their histories does, somehow, seem fated. For it was a modernizing America that called modern Japan into being.
It happened in 1853, and the story is worth recalling as an appropriate anniversary exercise. It is an odd mixture of power politics, tense drama, and comic opera.
In November of 1852 lame-duck President Millard Fillmore addressed an amiable letter to his “Great and Good Friend” the emperor of Japan. He proposed that their two countries should “live in friendship and have commercial intercourse with each other.” He knew that for two centuries Japanese law had restricted trade with the West to a single Dutch ship a year calling at a single port, Nagasaki. But, he noted, “as the state of the world changes…it seems to be wise, from time to time, to make new laws.”
The tone was one of sweet reason, but the method of delivery was something else. The message was to be taken directly to Tokyo (then called Yedo), regardless of any Japanese wishes in the matter, by warships of the U.S. Navy’s East India squadron.
The designated commander of the fleet was a perfect choice. Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry had been in the Navy for forty years. He had fought the British and subdued Mexicans, Caribbean pirates, and African slave traders. He was a caricature “old sea dog” who nonetheless had modern ideas that made him support steam power, professional education for officers, and use of the Navy in scientific expeditions. His preparations were in complete tune with the times. First, he requisitioned two of the most modern and powerful ships of the fleet—the paddle-wheelers Mississippi and Susquehanna, each armed with devastating’eight-inch Paixhan guns, for his force. Then he selected, for gifts to the emperor, an array of the most up-to-date products of American industry: a miniature locomotive, tender, and tracks; pistols, carbines, and rifles; telegraph sets and wires; telescopes, lifeboats, clocks, batteries, weights and measures, and agricultural tools (also seeds, potatoes, whiskey, wine and brandy, and a copy of Audubon’s Birds of America).
He determined in advance that he would be most impressive to the non-Western mind by outdoing the Japanese in the matter of formality. He would make himself visible only to the highest dignitaries, and when he did appear, it would be in the fullest panoply of rank. Finally, he gave the entire mission a rehearsal by calling, on the way to Yedo, at what he called Great Lew Chew Island to arrange for a supply base there. The Lew Chews (now Ryukyus) were a quasi-independent province of Japan at the time. Americans in 1945 would get to know “Great Lew Chew” as Okinawa.
Perry took himself to an interview with the governor of Great Lew Chew in a sedan chair borne by four coolies and preceded by two pieces of artillery, a brass band, and a company of Marines. He got what he asked for, which was just as well, since in case of refusal the commodore had intended simply to grab the island as a hostage for the satisfaction of American demands. It would be, he assured the Navy Department in Washington, “a measure not only justified by the strictest rules of moral law, but…also…by the laws of stern necessity.”
With American power, culture, technology, and religion well represented aboard, the Susquehanna and Mississippi (plus two smaller sailing ships) dropped hook in the capacious Bay of Tokyo on July 8, still some thirty-odd miles south of the capital itself. The Americans were soon surrounded by Japanese guard boats and other small craft carrying officials who demanded boarding rights. But they were kept off at gunpoint and allowed only on the flagship Susquehanna, where they learned through interpreters that the American commander had a letter to deliver, only in person and only in the neighborhood of Yedo, to the most prestigious possible surrogate of the emperor. If that were not arranged, he would sail on toward the palace with those terrible guns.