- 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
But off the headlands of Yedo Bay, the Commodore ordered all his ships into line in order to give their second entrance into its glassy waters the precision of a diplomatic march. “The whole bay became filled with black ships,” reports a Japanese chronicler. The artists came out in force. Obviously the American Lord was going to have to be given an answer.
This occurred at a viceregal ceremony on March 8, 1854, at Yokohama, from which we may date the opening of regular relations between the two great powers of the Pacific. This time Perry mustered all of 27 boatloads of men supported by three bands, while the Japanese in resignation erected five buildings and assigned the shogun’s chief minister to receive him. American marines, their bayonet-tipped rifles at “Present arms!” stood stiffly in a double file as Perry proceeded magisterially to the Treaty House between richly costumed Japanese officials under streamers emblazoned with their own heraldic beasts. At the moment he crossed the threshold, on a signal as precise as it was brilliant, his ships let loose a twenty-one-gun salute in honor of the Emperor, followed by one of seventeen guns for the chief of the high commissioners, while the Japanese ensign was broken out at the masthead of Perry’s flagship.
When the smoke had rolled away, the dazzled Japanese were quite in the master showman’s hand—or so it seemed. Yes, they said, while His Majesty the Emperor could not of course give satisfactory answers “at once” to all the American proposals, their government was disposed to enter into some friendly arrangement with the United States. In fact (this after some prodding by the Commodore), a treaty of amity might be in order, opening two ports to American commerce as a beginning, and guaranteeing our citizens consular protection.
Then commenced the ceremonial feasting and drinking that was to become the final hazard of Perry’s historic expedition. The Japanese began it at the Treaty House by drinking off whole cups of sake bottoms up, explaining to the Americans that it was a Japanese custom for the host to drink first. There was nothing for the Americans to do but follow suit. Soon after came a return engagement on board the American flagship, for which Perry had set aside “live bullocks, some sheep, and a supply of game and poultry.” The Japanese swarmed aboard to indulge also in the Commodore’s supplies of French wines, champagnes, whiskey, and punch, becoming “quite uproarious” as they proposed healths and toasts (so the official report says) and “shouting at the top of their voices” over the din of the bands and entertainers. Then, when the feast was over, the alcoholized guests astonished their hosts by spreading out long rolls of paper in which they proceeded to wrap up every scrap of food they could lay their hands on, tucking them away into their robes as they entered the longboats. One titled visitor even made off with five saltcellars.
Before this joyous climax there occurred the ceremonial presentation of American gifts for the Emperor and his officials. They included examples of American art and technology, from muskets, swords, clocks, telescopes, farm tools, lifeboats, and a telegraph station to four volumes of Audubon’s Birds of America , one hundred gallons of Kentucky bourbon, and a miniature locomotive, tender, and passenger car complete with tracks. The Lilliputian train, in particular, was a smash success in a country which had barely entered the horse-and-buggy era; when it was set up near the Treaty House crowds of Japanese screeched with delight every time the American engineer tooted the whistle as he came around the bend. As for the whisky, most of it went straight to the Emperor’s palace, where it served further to reduce effective resistance to the barbarian invaders.
In exchange the Japanese offered the Americans, among other rewards, a special evening performance by prize wrestlers—immense, pot-bellied men encased in rolls of blubber who charged at each other like mastodons, to the mingled delight and amazement of Perry’s crews. “All of a sudden they gave a yell and sprang … grasping at the armpits, and kept shoving, yelling, tugging, hauling, bawling, twisting and corvetting about, with seemingly no aim whatever,” a superior U.S. lieutenant recorded, adding that their style, or lack of it, was something he wasn’t accustomed to.
In the end, after such jollifications, Perry got his treaty. It was not as sweeping a one as enthusiasts back home had demanded—in fact, the Japanese recovered in time to surround it with many a reservation—but it did at least open the door of Japan. The hosts hedged on the matter of allowing commercial credit to Americans or of admitting American women at the treaty ports, and on these points Perry yielded, knowing this would all come with time. On the other hand, when the Japanese proposed that American mariners on landing “shall have no intercourse with the Dutch and Chinese,” who enjoyed some strictly circumscribed privileges ashore, Perry shot back imperiously, “The Americans will never submit to the restrictions which have been imposed upon the Dutch and Chinese, and any further allusion to such restraints will be considered offensive.”