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The Case for Commodore Perry in the Classroom

Joan E. Mortensen

University of Texas at Dallas

    On July 8, 1853, four United States Navy Warships steamed into Tokyo Bay to "open" Japan. The mission was commanded by Commodore Matthew C. Perry, a veteran of the Mexican War. The American "black ships" forced the end of a two hundred and fifty year policy of seclusion by the Tokugawa shogunate. The Japanese, still armed with samurai swords and muskets dating back to the 1500's, knew they were no match for American might. The shogun, the great "barbarian subduing generalissimo," was unable to drive these new barbarians away. In 1868, he was forced to step down and the sixteen year old Emperor Meiji was "restored," so that Japan might catch up militarily with the West. Japan responded to Perry's mission with a determination to join the ranks of the imperialists rather than be defeated by them. They learned Perry's lesson well. In 1876, Japan sent its own steam warships to "open" Korea. The Koreans gave into this show of force and opened three ports to Japan. The Japanese were on their way to becoming an imperial power. 1
   The story of Perry's voyage is a fascinating tale to tell in a world history class. It provides an excellent illustration of the world ramifications of industrialization and American Westward expansion in the early 19th century. It is also essential background for understanding Japan's rationale for attacking Pearl Harbor. A detailed study of Perry's mission opens up exciting venues of research for the student concerning naval history, the technology of nineteenth century, American assumptions about East Asia, and the goals and consequences of American foreign policy. It is also an excellent way to explore Japanese perceptions of the West. Primary sources are available on the internet to facilitate student research projects.
    Perry's mission was born out of America's drive westward. By 1850 United States expansion had reached the Pacific coast. Commodore Perry, himself, had commanded a naval squadron during the Mexican war. His ships had blockaded the Mexican coast, which aided in the capture of the city of Vera Cruz and allowed General Winifred Scott to take Mexico City. Perry was a big believer in Manifest Destiny. He said that "destiny has decided that the vast continent of North America shall fall under the influence and laws of the United States." 1
    Perry was very interested in the possibilities for United States expansion opened up by the use of steamships both in war and in trade. Robert Fulton is famous for adapting a steam engine to propel the Clermont down the Hudson in 1807. Not so widely known, however, is that Fulton also had experimented with a steam warship—the Demologos—during the War of 1812. By the 1830's, although steamships had crossed the Atlantic, not much had been done about the steam warship. Perry, however, was one of the first to grasp the importance of a steam navy. After Fulton died, the Demologos was rebuilt and renamed the Fulton.2 Perry was placed in command of the Fulton when it was launched in 1837. The next year, Congress allocated money for three steam warships. The largest of these was named the Mississippi and would serve as Perry's flagship during the Mexican War as well as on one of his two voyages to Japan. 3 4
    Perry saw the steamship as a way to fulfill Manifest Destiny. It would enable the United States to effectively compete with Great Britain for commercial as well as military dominance of the Pacific. An American presence in the Pacific seemed even more important after the gold rush to California. Perry wanted ports on a commercial Pacific steamship line. Japan, in his view, could be a coal depot for such a line. Perry, however, did not emphasize the entrepreneurial side of this venture while he was trying to get funding for the mission from Congress. Rather, he proposed the mission to Japan on more humanitarian grounds.4 His stated goal was to ensure that our shipwrecked sailors in the Pacific were to get humane treatment when they washed up on the shores of the Japanese islands.
    What were United States sailors doing near the coast of Japan? These sailors were from whaling ships. By the mid-nineteenth century, the US was emptying the supply of whales off the Atlantic coast and looking for whaling grounds in the Pacific. A most abundant supply of whales had been found in the Pacific near Japan. In 1851, Herman Melville, in Moby Dick, predicted that whaling would open Japan. "If that double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale-ship alone to whom the credit will be due; for already she is on the threshold."5 This prediction rang true. In 1848 some sailors from the crew of the whaler Lagoda had mutinied. They seized three boats and went ashore on the Northern island of Hokkaido. They were greeted by sword-wielding samurai and told to stay in a large house. The Japanese authorities did not want them in contact with the rest of the population. The large house was meant to serve as a prison, but the sailors kept getting out. So the Japanese ended up housing them in a big cage out in the open, without proper clothing, and with nothing but lice-infected mats on which to sleep.6 Several men in the group died. The men were finally picked up by another American vessel in April, 1849 and returned home to tell their story. 6
    In promoting the Japan expedition, Perry chose to emphasize alleviating the plight of stranded sailors such as these, carefully concealing "the real object of the expedition-the search for coal and a coal depot for a trans-Pacific steamship line…".7 He made the case for a Japan expedition in Washington, where it was especially well received by Daniel Webster, President Fillmore's Secretary of State, who shared Perry's desire for commercial dominance of the Pacific. Perry was granted men and a squadron of warships in order to open up Japan. On November 24, 1852, after months of preparation, Perry set out from Norfolk, Virginia, traveled around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, and stopped in Ceylon, Macao, and Hong Kong. On July 8, 1853, the Americans steamed into Edo bay (near Tokyo). They had four steamships, sixty-one guns, and 967 men. Perry had thought that an impressive display of the heavy artillery, guns, and rockets on the steam warships would, in his words, "do more to command their fears, and secure their friendship, than all the diplomatic missions have accomplished in the last one hundred years."8 Merely the sight of the steamers, themselves, was sure to frighten the Japanese, for the ships would seem to move effortlessly, perhaps even mysteriously along, with no need for the wind or sea currents.9 Perry appeared to be right. The Japanese were petrified. Foreign warships had never appeared in Edo Bay before, let alone steam frigates billowing black smoke out of their stacks in the harbor.10 The Japanese called them the "black ships." The arrival of Perry's "black ships" made an indelible mark on the Japanese. 7
     Small Japanese guardboats approached Perry's ships, but the U.S. sailors pushed them off when they got too close. Artists on some of these boats drew pictures of the ships and the strange, large-nosed Westerners they saw for the Japanese popular press. They paid close attention to the guns. One ship, in particular, had ninety-two guns. Japan had been isolated for centuries. In Japan, the sword was the still the weapon of choice. The use of firearms, embraced by the Japanese during the Warring States Period (1477-1600), had been abandoned by the time Perry sailed into Edo bay. Firearms were ungraceful, unfit for a class of elite warriors. The Japanese knew of the new flintlock guns through their contacts with the few Dutch merchants they permitted to live on the island of Deshima in Nagasaki bay, but had done nothing to develop them. The sword was the "soul of the samurai."11 8
     Someone had to tell the shogun that the Americans were here. The shogun led a secluded life in Edo castle surrounded by 400 women attendants. He had little direct involvement in government affairs. He was told of Perry's arrival while watching a Noh play. Upon hearing the news, he purportedly went into a state of shock and his health began to fail. He died later that month.12 9
    Perry said he had come to deliver a letter from the American President, President Fillmore. The Japanese asked him why he needed four warships and all those guns just to deliver a small letter. The Americans replied "Out of respect for the Emperor."13 The Japanese decided that they had better take the letter. The Japanese worked the entire night of July 13, 1853 to build a ceremonial hall and platform grand enough to receive such a letter. In the morning, with the navy band playing "Hail Columbia," and escorted by two massive bodyguards, Perry entered the pavilion and presented the letter. The Japanese then gave him a receipt saying "the letter being received, you will leave here."14 After the ceremony the Americans invited the Japanese aboard their ships, where the Japanese busied themselves measuring all the guns and studying the workings of the ships' engines. 10
    Perry soon ended the festivities and ordered the steamers off. Much like General MacArthur, he promised to return. And he did, the next year, 1854. This time he had seven ships, three of them steamers, all of them powerfully armed, and 1600 men. He demanded a treaty opening up ports to United States vessels. He came bearing gifts, representing the fruits of Western technology. He brought the Japanese a telegraph and a miniature train complete with small benches and curtains on the windows, at which the Japanese were amazed. The train came with 370 feet of circular track. The Japanese samurai, armed with their two swords, robes flying behind them, sat on top of the cars as they went around the track.15 Perry also, most notably, gave the Japanese an account of America's victory over Mexico in the Mexican War. After the gift exchange, the Japanese entertained their American guests with a sumo demonstration. The Americans, in turn, performed a minstrel show. The Treaty of Kanagawa, signed in Japan on March 31, 1854, opened up two ports to U.S. ships but was not a commercial treaty. 11
    In 1858 the Americans negotiated a commercial treaty with Japan. In the 1860's, however, the United States became so preoccupied with the Civil War that America's foreign policy makers seemed to forget about Japan and did not turn their attention to Asia again until the end of the nineteenth century. 12
    The Japanese, however, did not forget Perry. They had taken careful note of the powerful swivel guns on America's "black ships" and knew their old cannon were obsolete. The Japanese ruling class, the samurai warriors, decided to act. Perry's arrival had at first provoked a xenophobic response. Portraits of Perry and his men seem demonic. Contrast these Japanese portraits of Perry with this 1852 daguerreotype of him. 13

Figure 1

Top and middle illustrations are Japanese portraits of Commodore Perry from The Black Ship Scroll, created by an anonymous artist in 1854. The script beside the bottom portrait of Perry reads, "True Portrait of Commodore Perry, envoy of the Republic of North America.” Bottom image is a daguerreotype of Perry made in 1852.16

Figure 1


Figure 1

    Most of all, the Japanese wanted to "expel" the barbarian. Yet they ultimately determined that they could only do this by getting to "know the barbarian" first. They acted quickly, forcing the shogun to step down, and then embarked on a program of rapid modernization. German officers helped them modernize their army. The British assisted them with their navy. The Japanese were able to build their own railroads and steamships within 20 years of Perry's arrival. They learned that European powers had colonies and decided it is better to have colonies than to be one. Japan began to build an empire, first taking Korea, then Manchuria, then China. 14
    On September 2, 1945 the Japanese and American delegates met on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri as it anchored in Tokyo Bay for the ceremony ending the war. Two flags hovered overhead as they signed the official surrender document. One had flown over the White House on the morning of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The other, hung over a back turret, was a tattered Old Glory with only thirty-one stars. This had been Perry's flag. It had flown on his old steamer, the Mississippi, when he had ventured into these same waters one hundred years before. 17 At this ceremony, General Douglas MacArthur evoked Perry's name in his speech:

We stand in Tokyo today reminiscent of our countryman, Commodore Perry, ninety-two years ago. His purpose was to bring to Japan an era of enlightenment and progress, by lifting the veil of isolation to the friendship, trade and commerce of the world. But alas, the knowledge thereby gained of Western science was forged into an instrument of oppression and human enslavement.18

Perry's voyage is a wonderful teaching vehicle through which to explore the world-wide ramifications of the fusion which took place between America's sense of Manifest Destiny and new military technology in the late 19th century. This story is also pivotal to understanding the causes of Japanese militarism in the early twentieth century.
Class Research Projects   
    A Study of Perry's voyage points to many student research topics and is particularly suited to an inter-disciplinary approach to history. A sample of possible research topics is listed below: 16
    1. Students might look into the development of steam warships and what it meant for the American navy. The earliest steam warships were merely sailing vessels with auxiliary steam engines. Students can explore the transition from clipper ships to steam warships in U.S. naval history. 17
    2. Students might also study Japan's early attempts to acquire steamship technology and build a modern navy. Fukuzawa Yukichi's autobiography describes his pride that the Japanese were able to navigate a Japanese steamship on a trans-Pacific journey without the help of foreign experts only seven years after first seeing a steamship. 18
    3. Perry, himself, is a fascinating historical figure. He was born into an old navy family in Rhode Island. His vision of American power was largely shaped by his experience in the Mexican War.   19
    4. The German artist William Heine traveled with Perry and recorded the sights and events of Perry's journey. His drawings can be contrasted with those of the Black Ship Scroll, a 30 foot long scroll painted by an unknown Japanese artist and now property of the Honolulu Academy of the Arts. Students can study cross cultural perceptions. For example, the Japanese portraits of Perry and his men on the scroll almost all have long noses and hairy faces. Even though Perry had no facial hair, portraits all show him as having either a beard or mustache. The Japanese had long called Westerners "hairy barbarians" to the point where they saw hair when there was none.   20
    5. Students can explore the significance of the gifts exchanged between the Americans and Japanese at Kanagawa in 1854. Even though the Japanese presented the Americans rolls of silk, fine porcelain, decorative fans and lacquer, Perry was disappointed by the gifts and concluded that American ideas of Japan had been greatly "exaggerated".19 American gifts of revolvers, rifles and the miniature railroad were meant to display American technology and power. 21
    6. Students can explore the logs of ships used in the Pacific whaling industry in the 19th century and study the impact of this industry on American foreign policy.   22
    7. References to Japan abound in 19th century American literature, such as those in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Mark Twain's The Gilded Age, or in Walt Whitman's poem "The Errand Bearers," which celebrated Japan's first embassy to the United States in 1860.  23
    8. Students can research the 1850's Congressional debates over the Japan expedition. 24
Online Resources  
Cross-cultural Camera: How Photography Bridged East and West. The American Museum of Photography, 2004,< >(accessed Feb. 27, 2006). This site displays the lithographs of the Japanese scenes drawn by the German artist William Heine during Perry's voyage.

Dower, John and Shigeru Miyagawa, Black Ships and Samurai. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003,< >(accessed Feb. 27, 2006). This site contains 200 Japanese and American displays depicting Perry's mission to Japan, including the entire Black Ship Scroll, a complete list of all gifts exchanged by the Japanese and Americans as well as paintings of the presentation of silk to American officers, and the dogs given to Perry by the Japanese commissioners.

Halsall, Paul, "Commodore Matthew Perry: When We Landed in Japan, 1854", Internet Modern History Sourcebook, 1998,< >(accessed February 27, 2005). This website presents excerpts from the notes and journals of Commodore Perry.

Mystic Seaport. The Museum of America and the Sea, 2005, < > (accessed March 19, 2005). Library collections of correspondences and ship logs from whaling voyages in the Pacific.

Naval Historical Center. Department of the Navy, 2005, < > . (accessed March 19, 2005). The Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships at this site presents detailed information on early steam warships.

Toppan, Andrew C., Haze Gray and Underway. Naval History Information Center, 2003, <http://> (accessed March 19, 2005). This site provides ship histories for the Powhatan, Perry's flagship on his 1854 journey as well as on other earlier steamers.

Zerfas, Lew, Edward Yorke McCauley: An American Master and Commander, 2004, < >(accessed June 17, 2005). Edward Yorke McCauley (1827-1894) was twenty-five years old when he served as a midshipman on the U.S.S. Powhatan, one of the men-of-war ships in Perry's squadron. He had studied about Japan by reading Dutch and Russian accounts and was an accomplished sketch artist, who kept a diary on the voyage.

Fukuzawa Yukichi, The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa, (trans.) Eiichi Kiyooka (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966) Contains Fukuzawa Yukichi's account of his 1860 voyage to America, as well as his impressions of both America and Europe in the 1860's.

McCauley, Edward Yorke, With Perry in Japan: The Diary of Edward Yorke McCauley, ed. Allen B. Cole ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1942). McCauley's diary is an excellent eyewitness account of Perry's voyage and contains his personal reflections on Japan.

Miyoshi, Masao, As We Saw Them: The First Japanese Embassy to the United States (New York: Kodansha International, 1994). This book is a comprehensive study of the first Japanese voyage to the United States in 1860, undertaken to ratify the 1858 commercial treaty between Japan and the United States.

Morison, Samuel Eliot, "Old Bruin": Commodore Matthew C. Perry, 1794-1858 (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, 1967). This account of Perry's life contains maps and descriptions of the scenes from Perry's trip to Japan.

Trautman, F. (trans.), With Perry to Japan: a Memoir by William Heine (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990). A memoir by the German artist William Heine who accompanied Perry.

Wiley, Peter Booth, Yankees in the Lands of the Gods (New York: Penguin, 1992). This work explains the deliberations in Congress over a Japanese expedition as well as analyzes the impact Perry's arrival had on the Tokugawa political system. It also describes the voyage itself in great detail.

Biographical Note: Joan Mortensen received a Ph.D. in East Asian history from Indiana University and currently teaches Chinese and Japanese history at the University of Texas at Dallas.   


1 Matthew C. Perry as cited in Peter Booth Wiley, Yankees in the Lands of the Gods (New York: Penguin, 1990), 68.

2 Department of the Navy, "The Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships," Naval Historical Center, 2003, <> (accessed March 19, 2005).

3 Ibid.

4 Wiley, Yankees, 88.

5 Herman Melville, Moby Dick, edited by Charles Child Walcutt, (New York: Bantum Books, 1967), 108. This quote is also cited in Wiley, Yankees. 5.

6 Wiley, Yankees, 22-25.

7 Ibid., 88.

8 Ibid., 81.

9 Ibid., 307.

10 Ibid., 81.

11 Noel Perrin, Giving Up the Gun: Japan's Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879 (Boston: David R.Godine, 1979), 45-72.

12 Wiley, Yankees, 307.

13 Ibid., 297.

14 Ibid., 321.

15 Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 49.

16 John Dower and Shigeru Miyagawa, Black Ships and Samurai Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003, (accessed March 19, 2005).

17 James McClain, A Modern History of Japan (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2002), 523.

18 General Douglas MacArthur, as cited in Wiley, Yankees, 482.

19 Dower, Black Ships and Samurai



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