- 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
While inquisitive eyes ran over his ships and their armament, it was explained to Perry that months—many months—would pass before he could expect to receive an answer to the President’s letter. Very well, he replied, with a look of infinite patience; he had time and would take his ships to the China coast for the fall and winter and come back for the answer early the following year. Some of his officers dropped the implication that he might then return with an augmented force.
Before leaving to give the rulers time to think, Perry made one splendid appearance at the landing place they had grudgingly prepared for him at Kurihama. On the appointed day, all his ships took station in line offshore to guard against possible treachery. All his officers donned full dress, while bannered Japanese barges hovered about and silken screens bearing the imperial arms were set up on land. Then fifteen U.S. cutters and longboats, bearing officers, pipe-clayed marines, sailors in Sunday blues, and two bands, rowed to the temporary wharf. Captain Franklin Buchanan of U.S.S. Susquehanna jumped ashore from the lead boat, being, as the official chronicle puts it, “the first of the Americans who landed in the kingdom of Japan.” Surrounding the three hundred Americans as they formed into line stood thousands of Japanese warriors in their long, loose vestments, bearing swords, bows, lances, spears, and matchlock guns. Behind them gathered peasants and their womenfolk. Escorted to the newly built reception hall, the American commander and his suite took places on red-covered seats opposite two imperial princes and their retinue, while braziers burned in mid-July amid the suffocating, total silence. Two tall, especially chosen Negro crewmen bore the decorated boxes containing President FiIlmore’s letter and other documents and placed them before the huddled Japanese—again in utter silence. The princes then bowed and rose, giving the signal to the Commodore to return to his boats and re-embark, “the bands meanwhile playing our national airs with great spirit.”
After Perry sailed away, the rulers of Japan were impelled to do something they had never dreamed of before, namely, to ask the advice of their subordinates up and down the country as to how to proceed next. This was the first searing effect of the American visitation, a prophetic interruption in absolute dictatorship. Messengers were rushed out to the feudal chieftains along the length of Honshu, soliciting their opinions. They debated and communed with their ancestors.
Some wanted to fight. One of them, the Prince of Mito, promptly wrote back that there were no less than “ten reasons in favor of war.” First, he said, “the annals of our history speak of the exploits of the great, who planted banners on alien soil; but never was the clash of foreign armies heard within the precincts of our holy ground. Let not our generation be the first to see the disgrace of a barbarian army treading on the land where our fathers rest.” Secondly, he argued, the Americans might introduce “the evil sect” of Christianity. Furthermore, the Americans might wish to obtain Japanese treasures in exchange for “trashy articles” of trade. Valiant samurai, he added, were assembling to fight the enemy; would it be politic to disappoint them? Moreover, the “haughty demeanor of the barbarians” at their anchorage had provoked the illiterate populace; could the government afford to lag behind? And finally, wasn’t this an opportunity to revive flagging Japanese spirits dulled by a too-long peace?
Yet there remained the question of what to fight the barbarians with. Japan had no navy, only weak shore defenses, and there was very little money in the exchequer. “Without warships I feel uneasy with regard to any scheme for pursuing them,” argued Lord Ii of Hikone, as well he might. In the end, amid the sputter of conflicting opinions, the shogun’s council took the easiest way out—it temporized. Japan, said its decree, was “to evade any definite answer” to the Americans and in effect to play a game of cat and mouse with them. Eventually, it was hoped, the visitors would become discouraged.
The following February the Lord of the Forbidden Interior was back—this time not with four ships but with all of ten, pennants flying, wheels turning, gun muzzles out, crews formed up amidships, and all approaching in faultless alignment. The Japanese had suspected that an armada like this might descend upon them, although they had few inklings of the difficulty Perry had encountered in mustering it on the China coast. They did not know of the barnacled condition of his veteran ships, of the depletion of his crews through disease, desertion, and the end of enlistments, or of his squabbles with the Navy Department to get more ships and men. That winter of waiting, twelve thousand miles removed from Washington, had been a sore test for Commodore and men alike. But morale had revived as the squadron, now raised to the size of a fleet, weighed anchor again in the China Sea. Although Perry’s orders were stern, frigates raced each other for first place. “For seven days we kept side by side with the Macedonian under shortened sail, the store-ships following with every stick of canvas spread,” recounts an officer of U.S.S. Vandalia . “At night sometimes advantage was taken by both parties of the darkness to clap on forbidden canvas, and daylight sometimes surprised them before they had it removed.”