First Encounter

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It was a bluff, of course. He did have the firepower to bombard the city, but he was also completely outnumbered and beyond immediate assistance if a landing party should be attacked. The bluff worked, however, and after five days of negotiation the commodore came ashore at the village of Kurihama to present the President’s letter. Behind their robed and sword-bearing officers, at least five thousand soldiers—lancers, bowmen, cavalry, and infantry armed with sixteenth-century firearms—lined the route from the wharf to the temporary structure put up for the ceremony. Perry himself was preceded by flag bearers and flanked by two tall, armed black sailors. He was dressed (and undoubtedly sweltering in the July sun) in full gold-braided regalia, and the letter and a copy were each in a rosewood box with golden fittings.

The thing was done, the letter presented; the first-act curtain fell. Perry—according to previous plan—sailed away to give the Japanese the ensuing winter to consider. He himself expressed confidence to the Secretary of the Navy that the Japanese could “be brought to reason only through the influence of their fears,” when they saw their seacoast “entirely at the mercy of a strong naval force.…” The Secretary nervously replied that “as Congress alone has the power to declare war, too much prudence cannot be exercised.”

(Perry’s return schedule was expedited by news that a Russian squadron, also trying to make contact, had arrived just after he left. He feared the Russians and was convinced that both they and the Americans would extend their power in eastern Asia, so that “the Saxon and the Cossack” would eventually meet in a mighty battle. “On its issue,” he predicted, “will depend the freedom or the slavery of the world.” His Cold War prophecy omitted any role for Japan.)

The interlocking of the two countries seems fated, for it was America that called modern Japan into being.

At the end of February 1854 Perry’s augmented expedition returned to Tokyo Bay, again watched by marveling thousands onshore as the lead ships moved easily against wind and tide. The Japanese had agreed to send high commissioners to treat with the “barbarians,” and after more poker diplomacy they concluded an agreement more or less granting Fillmore’s requests.

The actual treaty ceremony at Kanagawa was another wonderful tableau. Perry came ashore in a white barge, this time with six black attendants. The emperor was given a twenty-onegun salute, and the Japanese flag was hoisted to the flagship’s masthead. There was a shipboard party with hearty eating and drinking (the Japanese guests taking home samples of fish, meat, poultry, pie, and preserves in their sleeves). The Japanese offered a demonstration of sumo wrestling, and in return the Americans mounted a minstrel show in blackface.

But the real “show” took place before the final signing, when the presents for the emperor were displayed. The Japanese dignitaries scrutinized the various tools, rode enthusiastically on the miniature railroad, tried in vain to outrace telegraph messages from terminal to terminal, and without complaint sprayed each other and the onlookers with streams from the steam pump and hose. They were willing and eager students—not imitators but students —of Western ingenuity. They were already making the crucial decision to capitalize on the defeat represented by the admission of the Americans. They would perforce Westernize, but at their own pace and under their own control, showing a wrestler’s strength and skill in seeming to yield only to gain a later advantage.

The world knows that now, but at the time Japan’s return gifts of bronze censers, dyed cloths, and lacquered boxes left an impression that it was one more “quaint” Asian pushover for the forces of “progress.” The illusion weakened year by year until it too died at Pearl Harbor. Matching Japanese myths about American weakness were destroyed in the war that followed.

In one exchange in 1854 Perry lectured Imperial Commissioner Hayashi on Japan’s “inhumane” treatment of castaways and warned that it could provoke war.

Hayashi was firm in his reply. The stories of inhumanity were not true, he said. “If you in your country truly value human life you will not allow the resentment of successive years to crystallize. These are not matters so grave as to make war necessary. It would be well for you indeed to reconsider.”

Perhaps this season of remembrance should spur both countries to a closer look at remaining false images that each holds about the other.