As Well As The Art Of Diplomacy, There Are Also The Arts Of Diplomacy


On any list of events that have altered the course of history the opening of Japan to foreign trade in 1854 must surely rank high. While the United States was pushing its boundaries westward to the Pacific and reaching the early stages of industrialization, Japan lay cradled in the tight shell of its own seventeenth century. Under an absolute ban on intercourse with the rest of the world imposed in 1638, Japanese citizens could not leave the islands, and foreigners could not enter them. No seagoing vessels were built, and Japanese fishermen shipwrecked on foreign shores were not allowed to return. The only contact permitted with the outside world was a very limited trade with certain Chinese, Korean, and Dutch merchants.

For the United States, Japan’s impervious isolation was a problem and a challenge. Steam vessels could be used in the China trade only if coaling stations could be found; American whalers who wandered into Japanese coastal waters needed protection and provisioning. Establishing relations with Japan was becoming imperative by 1850.

The deed might have been done by force; the British had won concessions from China during the previous decade by waging the Opium War. The United States assigned to the task Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who chose instead to use all of the arts of diplomacy to win Japanese friendship and respect as well as a trade agreement.

Few American diplomatic missions have employed so many different kinds of art in diplomacy as the Perry expedition to Japan used in 1854. Like other emissaries before and since, Perry alternately threatened and cajoled, exercising the skill that is usually referred to in the phrase “art of diplomacy.” But Perry went further: from initial contact to final treaty he made extensive use of the physical arts and crafts of his country to help persuade the secluded island empire to open its ports to Western trade, ending two centuries of isolation.


In careful preparation for the mission, gifts were chosen to please the rulers of Japan and to impress them with the wealth of the United States and the superiority of its fine and practical arts. Since the recently issued final volume of John J. Audubon’s The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America was much coveted at a thousand dollars a copy, the five volumes of this work and its companion, The Birds of America , appeared to be presents fit for an emperor. Live plant and tree specimens were carefully tended during the voyage by the “agriculturist” of the expedition: forty oak trees, half red and half white; many fruit and ornamental trees; one poinsettia; and one prickly pear. Wine and whiskey, perfume and mirrors were packed in with pumps and plows, stoves and weapons. To demonstrate the novel art of photography a daguerreotype camera was included to take presentation portraits of Japanese officials. A working telegraph was expected to show the Japanese the latest thing in communications.

The most remarkable gift, however, was a quarter-size model railroad, perfect in every detail down to a quartersize coal bucket, made by the Norris Locomotive Works of Philadelphia. The steel, brass, and copper steam locomotive, tender, and coach reached a speed of 15.7 miles an hour on a circular track 370.5 feet long with a passenger or two astride the handsome rosewood passenger carriage made by the Kinball and Gorton Company. For all of this the Department of State paid $4,065.

As a result of Perry’s efforts articles of agreement were completed, and drafts were prepared in Japanese and English to be signed by the plenipotentiaries of both nations. Perry’s copy, the American “original” copy of the treaty, was brought back to the United States for President Pierce to send to the Senate for its advice and consent. In appearance it was a very simple document.

As a final impressive flourish, however, a good deal of money and effort were invested in the preparation of the American “exchange copy,” which was signed by the President and returned to Japan to signify the ratification of the agreement by Perry’s government. A large wax impression of the Great Seal of the United States was attached to the document with golden cords and encased in a gold box, or skippet. Samuel Lewis, a Washington jeweler, was paid $1,220.52 for the skippet and for gold hinges, buttons, screws, and a lock for the velvet-lined rosewood box in which treaty and skippet were placed.

In sending out an important diplomatic mission laden with rare and expensive gifts and in commissioning a handsome and costly binding, skippet, and treaty box for the Perry treaty, the United States government was actually conforming to European diplomatic custom—a conformity the United States had at first resisted as incompatible with a republican system. In Europe by the end of the eighteenth century the exchange copy of a treaty was often an elaborate work of art designed to reflect the majesty and culture of the royal personage whose signature appeared on the final page. And ostentatious gift-giving among monarchs and diplomats presented further opportunities to pay subtle compliments to foreign potentates while boasting silently of the wealth and skills of the donor’s country.