Saturday, September 16, 2017

Perry's Gunboat Diplomacy in Japan

Japanese depiction of a Black Ship
In 1853, the Japanese were surprised by news of foreign “black ships” anchoring in Uraga Bay. What they witnessed was the beginning of a classic gunboat diplomacy.

Gunboat diplomacy was a classic tactic of powerful western powers against unsuspecting weaker countries during the height of imperialism in the 19th century. With limited number of powerful and advanced warship, it aimed to change the policies of lesser states through intimidation and threat of force. Countries such as China and Vietnam suffered in the hands of Western gunboat diplomacy and saw their countries fall to chaos or worst, colonization. Japan, on the other, was no exception from Western harassment.

Japan in the 18th century had enjoyed an unprecedented era of peace brought by the Tokugawa Shogunate who ruled the country since 1603. But as they said, peace time create weak men, thus line of opulent and incompetent Shoguns brought the country in standstill. Samurais lost touch of their martial skills in an age of peace. The country could have remained in peace if western civilization failed to invent the steamboat that expanded their presence in East Asia.

From 1633, Japan isolated itself through the Sakoku or Closed Country Policy in fear of Western colonization. Only the Dutch and the Chinese maintained limited contact with the Japanese in the small island of Dejima in Nagasaki. Back then, only few ships came to Japan due to distance and the policy maintained its integrity. But the advent of steam power shortened the distance between the West and the Land of Rising Sun.

Japan struggled to cope with the new situation. They tried to impose their isolation through force by shooting on approaching foreign warships. But the news of China’s demise in the Opium War led to their realization of their vulnerability against far advance Western weaponry. Their isolation kept them away from the latest technological development. Their Dutch Knowledge (known as Rangaku) failed advance the country profoundly. As a result, they relaxed their response on foreign ships by giving them warning first to prevent any crisis with the West. Their treatment of cast away sailors, however, continued to be horrific. They treated foreign cast away sailors like criminal in fear of them being pirates. Horror stories of sailors sent to prisons and treated like criminals reached many ears in the United States.

The United States saw nothing but a lot of opportunity in sending an expedition to Japan. Besides responding to terrifying stories of sailors washed into Japan’s shores, they had economic and political gains. First, Japan sat as a perfect coaling station for American ships engaged in the China trade and in the Pacific whale trade. It also served as a perfect base for American warships operating in the Far East. Diplomatically, it provided the United States a chance to expand its influence in the East making their mark in the geopolitical landscape dominated by Europeans. They also had the Manifest Destiny as another factor contributing to proposals for an expedition. The United States wanted to export the idea to the Far East where they must teach civilization to the Japanese, meaning treating ships and cast away sailors with great care and opening its borders as Western civilized countries do. With all these, in 1851, State Secretary Daniel Webster approved and endorsed an expedition to Japan to US President Millard Fillmore, who then agreed to the whole enterprise.

Matthew C. Perry
On November 1852, the Commodore assigned to lead the expedition left for the East on board the USS Mississippi. The initial choice for the job went to Commodore John Aulick, but a series of scandal deprived him of the honor that went to another seasoned officer – Commodore Matthew C. Perry. Perry began his career at the age of 15 and became known for advocating the upgrade of the navy to steamships. The steam warships Mississippi, Susquehanna, and Powhatan served under Perry as part of the expedition to Japan. Perry brought for his trip a letter of credence that gave him the power to negotiate and sign treaties with the Japanese as well as a letter from President Millard Fillmore to the Emperor of Japan urging the latter to open his country and to establish friendly relations with the United States. In 1853, Perry arrived in the Far East and rendezvoused with other warships assigned for the mission – the steam warship USS Susquehanna and the sailing warships Saratoga and Plymouth. Together they sailed for Japan.

On July 8, 1853, Perry’s expedition arrived in Uraga Bay, a part of the larger Edo Bay and located 20 miles south of the Japanese capital. His warships sailed into position with the steamships towing the sail ships amidst smaller Japanese ships with onlookers at awe of the never before seen ships that they called “black ships.” The reaction of the Japanese was what Commodore Perry wanted.

Perry’s execution of gunboat diplomacy rooted in the use of intimidation, impression, and threat of force. He knew Japan’s weakness and determined to use it to accomplish his mission – to extract a Treaty of Friendship and Trade that would open the country to the Americans. He already succeeded creating a shock and awe effect to the Japanese by sailing with his steamships.

He then intimidated the Japanese by not playing into their rules. He already achieve some success by sailing to the Edo Bay rather than the traditional Dejima Island. When the Japanese officials boarded to talk with the Americans, he sent deputies to talk to them and refused to meet anyone who did not stood in equal rank as him. He also conducted surveys of the coastline despite Japanese protest. Firing blanks in night or when Japanese ships came close to the squadron also added a fearsome factor.

In negotiations, Perry stood firm. He refused to go to Nagasaki and sent an ultimatum to the Japanese demanding they send an envoy within 3 days to accept the letter of the President of the United States or he himself would sail to Edo, which horrified local officials. Finally, in fear the Japanese submitted to Perry’s demands and Edo unprecedentedly sent envoys to Uraga.

On July 14, 1853, Perry landed ashore and made sure to impress the Japanese with his entourage. 300 men joined him in full uniform and regalia. Gun salutes made to honor the Commodore and a band followed Perry while playing music.
Commodore Perry Meeting with the Envoys from Edo

The Japanese responded in all of Perry’s actions and display. They kept on high alert in case of worst scenarios. During the meeting, they lined up their samurais in full battle gear to making at imposing impression. They executed the meeting with great solemnity and dignity to the awe of the Americans.

During the meeting, Perry handed over the letter to his Japanese counterpart and made some small talks discussing the ongoing Taiping Rebellion in China. Eventually, Perry expressed his intention to leave Japan and return in the following year to get the reply to the letter of President Fillmore. He estimated his return to around March or April. Soon after, he had his Japanese counterpart and other officials treated to a tour of the steamships and displayed the US Navy’s latest guns. After the delivery of the letter, Perry ended his first visit on July 17, 1853 leaving for China.
Abe Masahiro
The Japanese reacted divisively over Perry’s first visit. Abe Masahiro, serving as head of the ruling council as the Shogun Ieyoshi laid dying, deeply thought of the unprecedented events that just occurred. So unsure of how to proceed, he decided to ask the Daimyos or local Lords their stand on the issue by sending them a copy of the letter. The American demands soon became public knowledge and divided response returned to Abe. Some Lords desired war against the foreign “barbarians”, while other accepted the weak position of Japan and agreed to open the country for the meantime until the country had strengthen itself to stand up once again. Then, the Shogun passed away and Abe’s government sought to avoid deepening divided opinions for the sake of smooth transition. They did it by asking Perry to postpone his return beyond the March or April of 1854. This attempt went in vain as Perry determined to return as schedule and he viewed it as a mere delaying tactic.

The Japanese met worse situations soon after. Just a month after Perry left, a Russian expedition arrived in Nagasaki demanding the same as the Americans. The Japanese also delayed negotiations with Russian Admiral Yevfimy Putyatin so much that finally news of the Crimean War reached the Russians and they turned their attention in avoiding the French and the British than forcing Japan to concede to their demands. Putyatin’s visit, however, prompted Commodore Perry to return earlier than expected.

Instead of March or April of 1854, Perry returned to Japan to Edo Bay on February 13, 1854. This time he anchored closer to Edo, in an area called the “American Anchorage,” and with a larger squadron composing of USS Macedonian, Vandalia, Lexington, Southampton, The Supply, Saratoga, and the steam warships Mississippi, Susquehanna, and the flagship Powhatan. The sight of the larger American naval task force and its location closer to Edo sent chills to the bones of Japanese officials.
Perry's Squadron During Second Visit to Japan
Once again, they received the same treatment from Perry during his first visit – stubbornness and intimidation. Perry needed to tighten his grip on the Japanese if he wanted to achieve his. He refused to leave his present location and return to Uraga. Even if the Japanese blackmailed him that they would not be resupplied unless they went to Uraga, Perry remained steadfast and responded that he would get his supplies nearby one way or the other. He maintained that he wanted to negotiate the treaty on the coast of the “American Anchorage” and not in Uraga as the Japanese kept on insisting. Ultimately, after days of difficult talks, both side compromised into a meeting and negotiation in the nearby village of Kanagawa, which later became known as Yokohama – the premier port city of Japan to the world.

Off course, the negotiations also went difficult. Perry insisted and the Japanese delayed and reasoned. It took a great will and careful decision for Perry during his talks with the Japanese. He wanted to intimidate them and show America’s strength but not so much as to cause everything deteriorating into war. After all, he wanted the Treaty to be achieve with no casualties or America appearing as an aggressor.

On March 8, 1854, both sides met in the so-called “Treaty House” in Kanagawa. The Japanese wanted the negotiations to be postponed but assured Perry they agreed in resupplying American ships in Nagasaki. Perry insisted the negotiations to proceed and asked the Japanese for another port because Nagasaki laid off American shipping lanes.

Other issues remained contested by the 2 sides such as issues on trade and welfare of cast away sailors. Perry insisted the Japanese to open their country for trade immediately, but his counterpart expressed Japan’s concerns over immediate opening and requested trade to be conducted experimentally in Nagasaki for 5 years and it would begin a year after the agreement’s signing. Since Perry rejected Nagasaki as a treaty port, he suggested Kagoshima and Uraga, however, the Japanese offered Shimoda and Hakodate. Lastly, Perry wanted to secure the proper and humane treatment of American mariners as opposed to the previous atrocious treatment, but the Japanese agreed to better treatment but maintained limited movement and placing the mariners under tight security. Talks between the 2 sides then remained difficult for following weeks.

Even though the negotiations met obstacles, both sides took break from tensions. On March 13, the Americans unloaded the gifts of the United States to the people of Japan. It included new modern astronomical and navigational instruments, charts, and, the most impressive of all, a miniature train on which some Japanese official rode. The Japanese then reciprocated the act on March 24 by handing over lacquer wares, fans, and other exotic goods as well as a dogs for Commodore Perry.

The 2 sides also treated each other over dinner. Before which, both tried to impress the other with different spectacles. The Americans treated the Japanese to a military drill, while the latter displayed to the former a good match of Sumo wrestling that dumfounded the westerners.

Eventually, both continued their strenuous talks. But after days of tough negotiations, a deal was made and on March 31, 1854, Japan and United States signed the Treaty of Friendship and Trade or the Treaty of Kanagawa. Under the agreement, the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate opened to American ships for supply and trade. It also safeguard better treatment of cast away sailors. It also secured the deployment of an American consul in the port of Shimoda. The Treaty, in effect, abolished the Sakoku.

After the signing of the Treaty, Perry then left Edo Bay and on the following months visited the ports designated to open under the Kanagawa Convention. On April, he visited Shimoda and on May, he arrived in Hakodate.

He then returned to Shimoda on June 17, 1854 to sign a supplement to the Convention of Kanagawa with his Japanese counterparts to lay down the rules and regulation of the trade between the America and Japan as well as the policies within the Treaty Ports. For Perry, singing of the Treaty of Kanagawa fell short in opening the whole of Japan for trade and for good. Nonetheless, he saw it as a foundation for later agreements.

On June 28, 1854, Perry left Japan and the expedition ended its mission.


For America, the agreement allowed them to expand their influence in the East. Unluckily for them, however, the Civil War disrupted their venture to Japan. Great Britain and other Europeans once again took the lead as the major power over Japan.

On the other hand, Japan’s core shook. The Japanese saw the treaty as an act of humiliation where their nation had to agree due to necessity and to prevent war. They blamed Japan’s weakness for such events. Other than a sense of shame, a sense of division also fell over the country as Japanese society questioned their future, whether to open their doors or to resist with arms. Faction between those who favored opening the country fought the growing Jo-I movement or Expel the Barbarians. The Jo-I movement gained momentum as Japan continued to suffer from foreign powers seeking the same as the Americans. Eventually the division and foreign incursion resulted to the weakening of the Tokugawa Shogunate and ultimately its downfall.

The dawn of the Meiji Era in 1868 earned lessons from Perry’s gunboat diplomacy. Fukoku Kyohei – Strong Economy, Strong Army – the slogan that defined the era as Japan developed to prevent another humiliation as Perry inflicted to their country’s sovereignty and independence.


Perry succeeded in his gunboat diplomacy and forced the Japanese to abandon their isolationism at gun point. Through use of fear of war and intimidation with only few warships, he brought the Japanese to heel and got many of what he wished to achieve. His actions in Edo Bay led to turning point in Japanese policy and history, which created so much impact, that it changed Japan forever.

See also:
Fukoku Kyohei


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