- Historic Sites
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
Some more specific information about the Americans was also available. A young Japanese sailor named Nakahama Manjiro, shipwrecked in the Pacific in 1841, had been picked up by an American vessel out of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Under the simpler name of John Mung, he had been brought to the United States as a curiosity [ AMERICAN HERITAGE , December, 1956]. From this experience he had managed to return home and to report that “the people of America are upright and generous, and do no evil. … Refined people do not drink intoxicants, and only a small quantity, if they do. Vulgar people drink like the Japanese. … Husband and wife are exceedingly affectionate to each other, and the happiness of the home is unparalleled in other countries. The women do not use rouge, powder and the like.” But while these discoveries by Japan’s first pro-American greatly whetted the curiosity of the younger generation, they were not prepared for what descended on them on July 8, 1853, near the gates of their own imperial capital.
“Popular commotion at the news of ‘a foreign invasion’ was beyond description,” writes a Japanese chronicler. “The whole city was in an uproar. In all directions were seen mothers flying with children in their arms, and men with mothers on their backs. Rumors of an immediate action, exaggerated each time they were communicated from mouth to mouth, added horror to the horror-stricken. The tramp of warhorses, the chatter of armed warriors, the noise of carts, the parade of firemen, the incessant tolling bells, the shrieks of women, the cries of children, dinning all the streets of a city of more than a million souls, made confusion worse confounded.”
Down the bay, meanwhile, gesticulating Japanese ‘officials in guard boats converged to try to stop this ruthless violation of their country’s laws, while a boatload of artists came alongside the paddle-wheelers to record the scene for posterity. The officials tried to clamber aboard, but, in accordance with Perry’s flaghoist, they were held back with bared steel. The artists did better, lingering in the lee of the black ships to catch glimpses of guns, fantastic machinery, marines, and of a gilded, godlike, white-gloved personage whose lieutenants soon made it known that he was the American Lord of the Forbidden Interior.
An old Japanese manual shows how port officials were indoctrinated to deal with unwanted visitors such as these. They were to say, in case an English-speaking ship hove into sight of land, “Ho deyu do” (How do you do?). Next, they were to say, in pidgin, “We are officer in Yudo, and he is interpreter, tell him what you please.” (This, phonetically, came out as “We e-ru ofuhishu-ru in i-doo endo hi isu interupuritoru te-ru himu watto yu-purissu.” ) Then, said the manual, they were to challenge the visitors with such remarks as “Is here anybody wich can understand duch or the Rusch language among the mailing? … From wence come thit ship? … At sea of Jappan the foreigner may not fish. … You must go way with first speedy wind. … It is a great prohibition of Jappan to negotiate with strangers. … We have often warnt your country man, that they must no more come here, what is reason of coming you?”
It was with patter such as this that Japanese officials tried to climb aboard, meanwhile—in case the Americans didn’t understand pidgin—holding up a scroll written in French ordering the ships to leave. The Lord of the Forbidden Interior, secreting himself in his quarters, produced S. Wells Williams and H. A. L. Portman, who, speaking in Japanese and Dutch, tried to make several things clear. First of all, the American commander would receive no one aboard his flagship but a functionary of the highest rank. As his official narrative puts it, Perry had determined “to meet the Japanese on their own ground, and exhibit toward them a little of their own exclusive policy, if they stood on their dignity and assumed superiority, that was a game at which he could play as well as they.”
Furthermore, having read every available book and tract on Japan before setting forth, Perry had been impressed by evidences of Japanese evasiveness, mendacity, and duplicity. So he began by being somewhat mendacious himself. Through the closed door of his cabin he instructed Professor Williams to say that the rank of the American lord whose pennant flew at the foretruck was that of admiral. (The Japanese could not be expected to know that no admiral then existed in the entire American fleet.)
“We have the vice-governor of Uraga aboard,” explained an official in a lacquered hat, coming alongside in a barge. “He is of very high rank.”
But Perry was not receiving any vice-governors, anil as guard boats and the artists edged closer, armed crews manned the rails of his ships. “Why did you not bring the governor?” his interpreter called down.
“He is forbidden to board ships. Will the Lord of the Forbidden Interior designate an officer of rank low enough to talk to the vice-governor?”
Perry, from behind his door, appointed his flag lieutenant. Round one in establishing official relations with the Japanese had been won.