When Perry Unlocked The “Gate of the Sun”


“Invasion of Japan!” trumpeted New York newspapers when Perry’s squadron set forth. Meanwhile the Times of London, looking down its nose at the presumptuous Yankees, snorted that it wondered “whether the Ernperor of Japan would receive Commodore Perry with the most indignation or most contempt.” Would the mission to bring American reason to the mysterious “half-barbarians” succeed? There were doubting voices even at home. The Baltimore Sun remarked sardonically that Perry would set out “about the same time with Rufus Porter’s aerial ship.”


With such words whirling about him, it was clear to the commander-diplomat that he must bring home a triumph—if not of one sort, then another.

As one officer who had served under him as far back as Mexican War days remarked, Perry was “a bluff yet dignified man, heavy and not graceful, something of a martinet; a duty man all over, held something in awe by junior officers, and having little to do with them; seriously courteous to others. The ship seemed to have a sense of importance because he was on board.” A crewman added, “So long as ye walk a chalk line there couldn t be a fairer man than the Commodore, but God help ye if ye slip off that line!”

Well-born, haughty, meticulously white-gloved and epauletted, sporting magnificently curled eyebrows over his piercing eyes and long, disdainful nose, Perry was the very model of a theatrical admiral—with one difference: he knew precisely how and when to apply his theatrics to the impressionable Japanese. In 1846 a previous American naval visitor to Japan, the undemonstrative Commodore James Biddle in U.S.S. Columbus , had suffered a humiliating rebuff when he was struck or pushed by a Nipponese soldier as he descended into a junk alongside his ship. Biddle had done nothing about it save to say that he would be satisfied if the man were handled under the laws of his own land. The Japanese would have been more impressed if Biddle had forthwith drawn his saber and struck the man’s head off; they looked upon the visitor and the Navy he represented as craven. Matt Perry wasn’t going to have any more of that . Yet neither (and this he kept to himself) was he going to lord it over the Nipponese simply because he had the bigger guns. From the side-whiskered Samuel Wells Williams, whom he had taken aboard as America’s first orientalist and expert in Far Eastern languages, Perry had learned of the kind of thing that was happening on the China coast as roughshod Western concessionaires and their opium-selling local confederates took over. He wasn’t going to have any of that , either.

He must be magisterial and grand, he decided (this was not difficult for the Commodore), but he must also be human. Japan appreciated this—although it took the Japanese several generations to fully comprehend it.

America knew little about Japan on the eve of Perry’s expedition, and Japan knew even less about America. There had been prior contact of a sort; in fact, over a hundred American ships, curious, had at various times dared the approach to the forbidden islands, but usually they were just driven off. In Japan, though officiais tried to squelch even the mention of the sea-borne Yankees, a comparable curiosity had grown as to what Americans were like. Rumors coming from Dutch traders had told of the imminent approach of an American fleet of black ships, and an old ballad went around, very much as had the legends in Montezuma’s Mexico of the advent of strange gods under white sails:

Through a black night of cloud and rain , The Black Ship plies lier way , An alien tiling of evil mien , Across the waters gray . Down in her hold, there labor men Of jet black visage dread; While, fair of face, stand by her guns Grim hundreds clad in red .

So a translation of the ballad by a Japanese scholar runs.