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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
Lieutenant Contee, admitting Vice-Governor Saberosuke on board—the first Japanese emissary to be received on an American ship—began by flatly insisting that “no boats shall hang around our vessels to Watch them.”
“It is Japanese custom,” was the answer.
“We too have our customs, and with men-of-war one of the laws is that no boat is allowed to come within a certain range.”
“What is name of thit ship, how many people, guns?”
”… W7e are armed ships, and our custom is never to answer such questions.”
No one had ever talked like this to the Japanese before. What came next was even more formidable. The lieutenant explained that his commander had brought a letter from the President of the United States to the Emperor of Japan, and that he wished a suitable officer sent on board to receive a copy of it, in order that a day might be fixed for formal delivery of the original. The Vice-Governor, no doubt uneasily aware, as he stood in his silks aboard U.S.S. Susquehanna , that his head might come off on his return to shore unless he persuaded the white devils to leave, countered that in any case the American squadron must quit Yedo Bay and proceed down the coast to Nagasaki, the only port where foreign business could be transacted. In reply to this he was told that the American admiral had come here purposely because it was near the capital; that he would not move on to Nagasaki; that he expected the letter to be properly received where he was; that “his intentions were perfectly friendly, but that he would allow no indignity.” Moreover, if the guard boats were not removed at once, they would be dispersed by force. The unhappy Saberosuke removed them at once. Round two was won.
At this distance the attitudes Perry struck on that first day in Japan smack of the saber-rattling that was to mark American diplomacy in many outlying seas during the second half of his century. Yet actually his mission cast its shadow even further ahead and looked toward a time of East-West equality and friendship. Everything depended on how Perry read his instructions—which admittedly were perhaps the most sweeping yet tantalizing ones ever given an emissary of the United States.
On one hand President Fillmore’s State Department had told him to impress upon the Japanese that the approach of Americans into their area was inevitable and to demand that they abandon their policy of enmity. This was an ultimatum, no less, as the President himself hinted when he described Perry’s ships as “persuaders.” On the other, the Commodore was warned that his mission was “necessarily of a pacific character” and that he was not to use force except in self-defense. In his contact with the Japanese, “who are said to be proud and vindictive,” he was to be at the same time “courteous and conciliatory” and “firm and decided.” He was to “submit with patience and forbearance to acts of discourtesy … by a people unfamiliar with our ways,” yet he was to allow no insult. This, said the directive, placed in his hands “large discretionary powers"—which indeed it did, including the power to destroy himself by a misstep in either direction. Finally, after having virtually washed its hands in advance of any blunders its emissary might commit, Washington bethought itself again and handed him the sop that “any error of judgment” on his part might be viewed with “indulgence"—i.e. he might escape court-martial after all if things went wrong.
Such self-contradictory orders, by the challenge they offer his own inventiveness, can either paralyze an envoy or make him. They made Perry.
His first duty as a commander, of course, was to guard his ships against attack. No coastal batteries had yet fired on him from the surrounding headlands. Yet as he lay at anchor and night approached, the possibility remained that war lords might yet converge in the hills to descend upon him with every weapon at their command. Perry was of a steeled, suspicious nature, yet not more so than the occasion required. For as news of his arrival spread, precisely this sort of surprise attack was being weighed by the shogun’s council, which on the appearance of the American squadron had been seized with a panic little less than that of the common people of the capital.
In the days that followed, while the government was floundering over what to do or say, its agents on the spot practiced their own Oriental variety of psychological warfare, sending out to the ships negotiators bearing deceptive instructions, false names and imaginary titles. They went to elaborate lengths to ensure that when Perry was received on shore, he would be conducted only to a makeshift building constructed for the purpose and would not be permitted to defile the sacred premises of official Japan. In this Gilbert and Sullivan masquerade, however, the shogun’s men found themselves matched by a comparable American actor whose bluff airs concealed his own extraordinary guile. Perry would, in fact, have made an ideal admiral of Japan.