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When Perry Unlocked The “Gate of the Sun”
Japan’s feudal, shut-in history suddenly came to an end when the bluff American commodore dropped anchor in Tokyo Bay
April 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 3
Then the black-hulled squadron, with leadsmen in the chains, moved slowly into the strait that leads into Yedo Bay [now Tokyo Bay], while mists lifted from the rice paddies, villages, and ridges on either side. Angry guard boats ornamented with black tassels swarmed about. The flagship made a signal: “Have no communication with shore: allow none from shore.” Anchors rattled out as the ships came in line abreast of the narrows. In the moment when the echoes died away, all Japan’s age-old, shut-in history suddenly ended, to be followed by another chapter—one that in turn was to close just 92 years later when another American warship, over twenty times the bulk of Perry’s side-wheeler, anchored in the same bay to receive the total surrender of the empire that had turned on the republic that had first awakened it from medieval slumber.
Old World nations generally look on diplomacy as a fine art and have been served by generations of professionals schooled in its forms and graces. On the other hand, our own American tradition, reared in isolation, has been to discard that idea and to see in diplomacy something of an alien luxury weighted from time to time with sudden necessity. So we have let ourselves be represented abroad over the generations by a unique amalgam of trained and amateur talent ranging from scholars and eminent sportsmen to deserving meat packers. Of our choices few have been more original than that of the brassbound commodore asked to conduct one of the most demanding and delicate diplomatic negotiations in our history; in terms of results achieved, few choices have been more brilliant.
A fact our schoolbooks sometimes neglect to teach is that Perry’s expedition, undertaken by special de cision of President and Cabinet, was at bottom an act of aggression and a virtual challenge to war. Perry’s genius, for all his bluster and his pivot guns, lay in his preventing an actual war and in achieving a peaceable agreement that surmounted immense barriers of language, culture, suspicion, and ignorance and afforded satisfaction and respect all around. In bringing this about, he was diplomatic enough to know that he must yield on some points—more than the fire-eaters at home liked—in order to persuade the Japanese to yield on others. The question was which points to barter and whose face to save. No one had trained Old Matt Perry to be a diplomat. He came by the art instinctively, by dint of extraordinary human comprehension and native wit—qualities without which even the bestschooled ambassadors fail.
The American Republic had sought to isolate itself from dynastic Europe, only to find itself in 1850 moving out beyond its own continent into the far Pacific. For its part, the Japanese Empire, after some unhappy experiences with European traders and missionaries, had isolated itself in 1825 from virtually the entire outside world. The difference between the two withdrawals was that Japan’s remained recessive while America’s became aggressive. Under the encrusted shogun who ruled in the emperor’s name, Japan virtually declared the nineteenth century out of bounds. Ships of foreign infidels were prohibited under pain of armed attack from entering Japanese ports, while Japanese subjects were similarly prevented from sailing further from the islands than junks, carefully limited to coastwise she, could carry them. This, thought the shogun, would keep their sacred soil and customs inviolate for all time to come. The Japanese failed to reckon with Yankee whalers, now scouring the nearby seas, or with American merchantmen bound for Canton and anxious for a port of call for business, coaling and provisions, or with the California gold rush, now bringing masses of Americans to the Pacific water’s edge, eyes turning toward the Orient.
Moreover, they failed to realize the drive and bumptiousness of these white devils five thousand miles away. While the samurai went through their ancient rituals with silken robes, paper banners, lacquered swords, and weird cardboard headgear, in America such words as these were resounding: “It is our Manifest Destiny to implant ourselves in Asia” (The New York Herald ); “The apparition of the Caucasian race rising upon the Yellow race … must wake up and reanimate the torpid body of Asia. … The moral and intellectual superiority of the White race will do the rest” (Senator Thomas Hart Benton); “The ‘Gate of the Sun,’ as the islanders call their empire, must open voluntarily or perforce. … The time has come for it in the providence of God” ( The Presbyterian Review ).
Finally, the old courtiers of Yedo failed to understand one of the first rules of aristocracy—courtesy—and it was this that was to prove their immediate undoing. When shipwrecked American seamen or vessels in distress sought succor on their shores, the Japanese made short shrift of them, jailing whole crews as suspects, interlopers, and spies, thereby giving the American State Department a splendid opportunity to point out that this sort of thing just wouldn’t do: the rights of nations also involved elementary human duties, and Commodore Perry was coming to clarify this matter—and to obtain open ports and coaling stations, to boot.