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First Encounter

June 2024
6min read

I am of the generation that actually can remember Pearl Harbor (I was nineteen when the radio flashed the news), and the strangest thing about its fiftieth anniversary is that it came so fast. I seem to have mislaid a half-century somewhere. Readers over sixty will understand the feeling.

There are, however, reflections of a more universal character that the moment provokes. For both the United States and Japan, that tragic Sunday was a pivot point in their long, strange, up-and-down relationship. By the end of the day the United States had suffered its worst military defeat, and among the casualties was the sacred national faith that the oceans offered eternal protection from attack. But the state of shock induced by Pearl Harbor quickly wore off, and three years and eight months later, the tables were turned when ruined Japan surrendered to American occupation and rule. Now it was Japan’s people who confronted a stunning moment of reversal and revelation. Up to then they had never lost a war either.

And today Japan is back as an industrial titan, a world power in all but the armaments that we forbade it by treaty, and a major economic rival of the United States. What next for these two giants? Their cultures differ enormously, but each is infused with a stronger than usual sense of uniqueness—of being specially destined to lead others. The interlocking of their histories does, somehow, seem fated. For it was a modernizing America that called modern Japan into being.

It happened in 1853, and the story is worth recalling as an appropriate anniversary exercise. It is an odd mixture of power politics, tense drama, and comic opera.

In November of 1852 lame-duck President Millard Fillmore addressed an amiable letter to his “Great and Good Friend” the emperor of Japan. He proposed that their two countries should “live in friendship and have commercial intercourse with each other.” He knew that for two centuries Japanese law had restricted trade with the West to a single Dutch ship a year calling at a single port, Nagasaki. But, he noted, “as the state of the world changes…it seems to be wise, from time to time, to make new laws.”


The tone was one of sweet reason, but the method of delivery was something else. The message was to be taken directly to Tokyo (then called Yedo), regardless of any Japanese wishes in the matter, by warships of the U.S. Navy’s East India squadron.

The designated commander of the fleet was a perfect choice. Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry had been in the Navy for forty years. He had fought the British and subdued Mexicans, Caribbean pirates, and African slave traders. He was a caricature “old sea dog” who nonetheless had modern ideas that made him support steam power, professional education for officers, and use of the Navy in scientific expeditions. His preparations were in complete tune with the times. First, he requisitioned two of the most modern and powerful ships of the fleet—the paddle-wheelers Mississippi and Susquehanna, each armed with devastating’eight-inch Paixhan guns, for his force. Then he selected, for gifts to the emperor, an array of the most up-to-date products of American industry: a miniature locomotive, tender, and tracks; pistols, carbines, and rifles; telegraph sets and wires; telescopes, lifeboats, clocks, batteries, weights and measures, and agricultural tools (also seeds, potatoes, whiskey, wine and brandy, and a copy of Audubon’s Birds of America).

He determined in advance that he would be most impressive to the non-Western mind by outdoing the Japanese in the matter of formality. He would make himself visible only to the highest dignitaries, and when he did appear, it would be in the fullest panoply of rank. Finally, he gave the entire mission a rehearsal by calling, on the way to Yedo, at what he called Great Lew Chew Island to arrange for a supply base there. The Lew Chews (now Ryukyus) were a quasi-independent province of Japan at the time. Americans in 1945 would get to know “Great Lew Chew” as Okinawa.

Perry took himself to an interview with the governor of Great Lew Chew in a sedan chair borne by four coolies and preceded by two pieces of artillery, a brass band, and a company of Marines. He got what he asked for, which was just as well, since in case of refusal the commodore had intended simply to grab the island as a hostage for the satisfaction of American demands. It would be, he assured the Navy Department in Washington, “a measure not only justified by the strictest rules of moral law, but…also…by the laws of stern necessity.”

With American power, culture, technology, and religion well represented aboard, the Susquehanna and Mississippi (plus two smaller sailing ships) dropped hook in the capacious Bay of Tokyo on July 8, still some thirty-odd miles south of the capital itself. The Americans were soon surrounded by Japanese guard boats and other small craft carrying officials who demanded boarding rights. But they were kept off at gunpoint and allowed only on the flagship Susquehanna, where they learned through interpreters that the American commander had a letter to deliver, only in person and only in the neighborhood of Yedo, to the most prestigious possible surrogate of the emperor. If that were not arranged, he would sail on toward the palace with those terrible guns.

It was a bluff, of course. He did have the firepower to bombard the city, but he was also completely outnumbered and beyond immediate assistance if a landing party should be attacked. The bluff worked, however, and after five days of negotiation the commodore came ashore at the village of Kurihama to present the President’s letter. Behind their robed and sword-bearing officers, at least five thousand soldiers—lancers, bowmen, cavalry, and infantry armed with sixteenth-century firearms—lined the route from the wharf to the temporary structure put up for the ceremony. Perry himself was preceded by flag bearers and flanked by two tall, armed black sailors. He was dressed (and undoubtedly sweltering in the July sun) in full gold-braided regalia, and the letter and a copy were each in a rosewood box with golden fittings.

The thing was done, the letter presented; the first-act curtain fell. Perry—according to previous plan—sailed away to give the Japanese the ensuing winter to consider. He himself expressed confidence to the Secretary of the Navy that the Japanese could “be brought to reason only through the influence of their fears,” when they saw their seacoast “entirely at the mercy of a strong naval force.…” The Secretary nervously replied that “as Congress alone has the power to declare war, too much prudence cannot be exercised.”

(Perry’s return schedule was expedited by news that a Russian squadron, also trying to make contact, had arrived just after he left. He feared the Russians and was convinced that both they and the Americans would extend their power in eastern Asia, so that “the Saxon and the Cossack” would eventually meet in a mighty battle. “On its issue,” he predicted, “will depend the freedom or the slavery of the world.” His Cold War prophecy omitted any role for Japan.)

The interlocking of the two countries seems fated, for it was America that called modern Japan into being.

At the end of February 1854 Perry’s augmented expedition returned to Tokyo Bay, again watched by marveling thousands onshore as the lead ships moved easily against wind and tide. The Japanese had agreed to send high commissioners to treat with the “barbarians,” and after more poker diplomacy they concluded an agreement more or less granting Fillmore’s requests.

The actual treaty ceremony at Kanagawa was another wonderful tableau. Perry came ashore in a white barge, this time with six black attendants. The emperor was given a twenty-onegun salute, and the Japanese flag was hoisted to the flagship’s masthead. There was a shipboard party with hearty eating and drinking (the Japanese guests taking home samples of fish, meat, poultry, pie, and preserves in their sleeves). The Japanese offered a demonstration of sumo wrestling, and in return the Americans mounted a minstrel show in blackface.

But the real “show” took place before the final signing, when the presents for the emperor were displayed. The Japanese dignitaries scrutinized the various tools, rode enthusiastically on the miniature railroad, tried in vain to outrace telegraph messages from terminal to terminal, and without complaint sprayed each other and the onlookers with streams from the steam pump and hose. They were willing and eager students—not imitators but students —of Western ingenuity. They were already making the crucial decision to capitalize on the defeat represented by the admission of the Americans. They would perforce Westernize, but at their own pace and under their own control, showing a wrestler’s strength and skill in seeming to yield only to gain a later advantage.

The world knows that now, but at the time Japan’s return gifts of bronze censers, dyed cloths, and lacquered boxes left an impression that it was one more “quaint” Asian pushover for the forces of “progress.” The illusion weakened year by year until it too died at Pearl Harbor. Matching Japanese myths about American weakness were destroyed in the war that followed.

In one exchange in 1854 Perry lectured Imperial Commissioner Hayashi on Japan’s “inhumane” treatment of castaways and warned that it could provoke war.

Hayashi was firm in his reply. The stories of inhumanity were not true, he said. “If you in your country truly value human life you will not allow the resentment of successive years to crystallize. These are not matters so grave as to make war necessary. It would be well for you indeed to reconsider.”

Perhaps this season of remembrance should spur both countries to a closer look at remaining false images that each holds about the other.

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