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  • James Houser

March 31, 1854 - Commodore Perry opens up Japan (and they don't like it)

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

March 31, 1854. Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy signs a treaty with the Tokugawa Shogunate, the military government of Japan. After almost 250 years of isolation from the wider world, Japan is finally open to the modernizing influences of the modern world. Japan will undergo shock therapy from the medieval age to the modern age – and in so doing become one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

Since the end of the Japanese age of war in 1615, the Tokugawa Shogunate had ruled in the Emperor’s name. A hereditary military dictatorship, the Shogunate centered its power in a ruler called the Shogun – always a member of the Tokugawa lineage. The Tokugawa clan had sought to restore peace and order to Japan, and did so by removing all traces of modernity and progress.

The Shogunate gradually restricted and eventually forbade the use of firearms, emphasized the primacy of nature and the flowering of culture, and enforced a strict class system and rabid isolationism, including the merciless suppression of Christianity. Tokugawa rule oversaw rapid economic growth and mass urbanization, but effectively sought to keep Japan preserved in amber – a perfect society in total isolation from the world. Foreign trade was only maintained with the Chinese and the Dutch, and even this was only through one port under a strict government policy.

This, of course, could not last. The world was changing around them. As Japan sat in splendid isolation, revolutions of thought, technology and politics rocked the world outside. The American and French Revolutions, the Industrial Revolution, the birth of modern science and liberal ideals all passed Japan by. It’s not as if these changes missed Asia; China lost several humiliating wars to the Western Powers, and Britain and France expanded into Southeast Asia and across the Pacific. Of all the regions of the world, only Japan remained cut off and isolated by its own will.

The Japanese fears of Western intervention seemed to be borne out. The Tokugawa worried about Western interference in Japan, as well as the growth of trade and ideas being enough to throw them out of power. They rejected any attempt by the Western Powers to open their ports, fearing the consequences. In 1844, King William II of the Netherlands sent a letter warning the Tokugawa that if they did not end isolation on their own, it would be forced upon them. Two years later, the Americans sent an official request that Japan open their ports, but they were turned away.

It was inevitable that Japan be exposed to the outside world, by force if necessary. All major Western nations sought markets for their goods, and Japan was the only market not yet tapped by one power or another. It turned out that America was first to the punch. In 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry went to Japan with a fleet of warships. His instructions were to “convince” the Japanese to open their ports. Ever since America had conquered California from Mexico in 1848, they had been looking to the west for new business opportunities. The United States didn’t want Britain and France to gain a monopoly on the Asian trade routes. American economic interests in China were increasing, American whaling ships were scouring the Pacific, and the new Manifest Destiny continued to point west.

On July 8, 1853, Perry arrived off the coast of Japan with a letter for the Shogun. There was a lot of debate within Japan on how to deal with the barbarian invader; the Chinese defeat in the Opium Wars at the hands of Britain was not far from their minds. Japan was suddenly staring down the barrel of gunboat diplomacy. The Asian powers, proud and independent, were nearly helpless against their Western adversaries in the 19th Century. What was a proud nation to do?

The reigning Shogun, Tokugawa Iesada, was young and sickly, and had left power in the hands of a Council of Elders led by Abe Masahiro. Abe was unsure how to respond to Perry’s ultimatum, and ended up polling the regional warlords for their opinions on how to proceed. This had the long-term effect of making the Shogun government look weak, and the vote produced a tie. When Perry left, promising to return, the government was still divided and paralyzed by indecision. Should they resist the Western demands, and possibly end up humiliated and weakened like China? Or should they surrender and allow Western influence, money, and culture to infiltrate their isolated paradise?

When Perry returned with an even larger fleet on February 13, 1854, he made it clear that he would not leave without a treaty. The Japanese had no choice but to comply. On March 31, 1854, the Treaty of Peace and Amity was signed in Yokohama. It guaranteed peace between the United States and Japan, the opening of several ports and trade, most-favored-nation status for the United States, and the opening of an American consulate. Japan was now officially open to the world.

This could barely be called diplomacy, of course. Japan had no effective response to American warships, most of their cannon and muskets being hopelessly obsolete and in poor condition. Perry threatened to burn Tokyo to the ground if the Japanese did not comply with his demands. Japan chafed under this imposition of terms on their sovereign soil. The “unequal treaty system” would ride them hard in the years to come and inculcate an inferiority complex that could only be overcome through armed conflict. Japan, humiliated, had to avenge its humiliation by the West – and especially the United States.

The treaty had far-reaching consequences inside Japan. The inflow of Western capital, weapons and ideas caused many factions to see the Shogun as an impediment to Japan’s advancement. The Shogunate continued its efforts to preserve the quiet, orderly Japan of the isolation years, while others saw it as a weak, ineffectual government that had failed to preserve Japanese independence and kowtowed to the West. These factions saw the necessity for Japan to modernize, and modernize fast, or they would suffer the same fate as the rest of the non-white world that had been occupied and colonized by Europe and America.

In 1868, these factions would start the Boshin War, which would overthrow the Shogunate and “restore” the Emperor Meiji to his place at the head of the state – which, in truth, meant that the modernizers were now in charge. From that time on, Japan would conduct “shock therapy” with mass conversion to industrialization, liberalism and Westernization in an effort to catch up with their new adversaries. The shock and humiliation of Perry’s expedition had kicked the Japanese nation into high gear. From this time on, would strive not only to grow equal to the Western powers, but to avenge their old humiliation.

It’s a bit of a stretch to draw a line between Perry’s treaty and Pearl Harbor. The seeds of the Japanese attack, though, were sown there. American quest for profits ended up creating a future enemy that had reason to fear and desire vengeance against their powerful competitor to the east. The opening of Japan, and the modernization that followed, would have happened one way or another. It was how it happened, and who made it happen, that resulted in the difference.

Japan, a nation that had been opened with force, learned that force worked, and force could accomplish its goals. These were lessons that it was hard to unlearn.

Book Recommendation: Not a lot of great books on the Perry Expedition or Japan's opening. What I DO recommend for Japanese history is Herbert P. Bix's excellent Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (New York: HarperCollins, 2000).

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