During a post-World War II International Military Tribunal, Japanese General Ishiwara Kanji conjured up an interesting apology for his country’s destructive imperialism. It all started in 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Edo Bay and demanded that Japan open itself up to the world. The general said:
Tokugawa Japan believed in isolation; it didn’t want anything to do with other countries, and had its doors locked tightly. Then along came Perry from your country in his black ships to open those doors; he aimed his big guns at Japan and warned “If you don’t deal with us, look out for these; open your doors, and negotiate with other countries too.” And then when Japan did open its doors and tried dealing with other countries, it learned that all those countries were a fearfully aggressive lot. And so for its own defense it took your own country as its teacher and set about learning how to be aggressive. You might say we became your disciples. Why don’t you subpoena Perry from the other world and try him as a war criminal?
In Ishiwara’s mind, Perry was an insidious invader who used the overwhelming power of the United States Navy to bully Japan into allowing foreigners into their country. It was Perry who brought imperialism and commercialism to Japan, compelling the island nation to participate in the corrupt world of international trade, he claimed.
To a certain extent, Ishiwara was correct. The 1840s and ‘50s saw Manifest Destiny at its zenith, with the burgeoning American republic aggressively pushing its way West, conquering vast swaths of land from Mexico and native tribes. Just five years after the United States stretched itself to the Pacific Ocean, imperialists and speculators looked to Asia for more opportunities. In 1853, President Millard Fillmore commissioned Commodore Matthew Perry to hand-deliver a letter to the Japanese emperor, strongly suggesting that he open his country up to international trade. (At this time, however, the emperor was essentially powerless. The government was controlled by the military, and so it fell to them to decide how to respond to President Fillmore’s letter.)
Commodore Perry never fired a shot, but President Millard Fillmore knew that only a show of force would convince the Japanese to negotiate.
Though he and his military entourage never fired a shot, Commodore Perry’s expedition carried a clear threat of violence. It was no accident that he was chosen to go rather than an unarmed group of diplomats. President Millard Fillmore knew that only a show of force, nowadays referred to as “gunboat diplomacy,” would convince the Japanese to consider his terms.
The terms were hardly unreasonable. In his letter, President Fillmore requested that damaged American ships be protected and their crews treated with kindness; that American sailors be permitted to purchase provisions in Japan; and the big one, that Americans be allowed to buy and sell freely with Japanese citizens. The president ended his letter with the ominous reminder that Perry possessed “a powerful squadron.”
And indeed it was. Among Perry’s squadron were large, steam-powered ships bristling with heavy cannon. The hulls were painted black to make them appear even more menacing. Observing these giant “dragons” was “enough to make us lose sleep at night,” as one poet later wrote. After delivering President Fillmore’s message, Perry departed, promising to return the following year “with a much larger force” should he deem it necessary.
Isolated by Military Force, Not by Choice
While it cannot be denied that Commodore Perry’s actions were brutish, they pale in comparison to the repressive rule of the bakufu, Japan’s military government. Concerned that foreign influences would corrupt their society, the bakufu prevented any outsiders from entering their country. Many Japanese intellectuals, however, hungered for the scientific knowledge and culture introduced to Japan by Dutch merchants. Though the Dutch were confined to a small island in Nagasaki harbor, eventually their books were allowed to circulate throughout Japan, bringing about the rise of Rangaku, or Dutch Studies.
Traditional Japanese officials, including the shōgun, leader of the bakufu, became worried that “barbarian” influences were contaminating their sacred homeland and fought against the spread of Western ideas. In 1825, the shōgun issued the “edict to repel foreign vessels,” allowing the Japanese to fire on ships approaching their shores. International backlash persuaded the shōgun to rescind this order in 1842, but the country remained unequivocally closed.
Japan’s isolation was not “self-imposed” at all; rather, isolation was imposed upon it by an authoritarian government.
What did the Japanese people think of this policy? Listening to General Ishiwara’s testimony, one would think the entire nation supported its self-imposed isolation. This is plainly false.
As already noted, Japanese scholars were greatly interested in Dutch learning, and Japanese citizens traded frequently with Dutch merchants in Nagasaki. When Commodore Perry landed in Japan, he brought an abundance of American goods to show off, much to the delight of the Japanese observers. One such item was a model train, which the Americans set up on a circular track and offered rides. For the most part, it seems the Japanese people welcomed the Americans and were eager to trade with them.
The reality is that Japan’s isolation was not “self-imposed” at all; rather, isolation was imposed upon it by an authoritarian government. Arrogating to themselves the power to prevent Japanese citizens from engaging in peaceful transactions with non-Japanese, the government robbed individuals of their personal sovereignty.
Knowing war with the United States would probably end in defeat and possibly regime change, the bakufu agreed to not only the terms outlined in President Fillmore’s letter but also other, more specific stipulations. Notoriously referred to as the “unequal treaties,” Japan’s government eventually relinquished the power to set its own tariffs and granted extraterritoriality to Americans accused of committing crimes on Japanese soil.
Commodore Perry's Mixed Legacy
So, was Commodore Perry a hero or, as General Ishiwara asserted, was he a villain? On the one hand, Commodore Perry’s expedition established a dangerous precedent for diplomatic relations in Asia. Just over twenty years after America forced Japanese concessions, Japan strong-armed Korea into revoking its indefinite moratorium on international trade. In a historical episode closely mirroring Commodore Perry’s mission, Japan sent a warship commanded by Captain Inoue Yoshika into Korean waters hoping to intimidate them into signing a treaty with provisions similar to those forced upon Japan by the United States. After a short conflict, Korea capitulated and went on to sign several unequal treaties over the following decades before being officially annexed by the nascent Japanese Empire in 1910.
Blaming Perry for Japanese imperialism would be dubious. His expedition was about allowing people to conduct transactions freely.
It is therefore arguable that the actions taken by the United States and other imperialist Western powers created an environment in which trade was treated as a valuable strategic prize that had to be “captured” before other nations had the chance. The East Asian power struggles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were indicative of this dangerous geopolitical ideology.
Laying the blame for Japanese imperialism at the feet of Matthew Perry, however, would be dubious. While Western nations, including the United States, certainly played a role in further destabilizing the region, the mere destruction of trade barriers was not a contributing factor. Commodore Perry's expedition was about allowing people to conduct transactions freely. Japan’s imperial expansions, by contrast, were about subjugation, with the ultimate goal of achieving national “self-sufficiency.”
The End of Japanese Isolationism Led to Prosperity
In the end, what matters most is how Perry’s arrival affected ordinary Japanese citizens. Opening the nation to international trade was an enormous boon to the vast majority of the Japanese people. Trade introduced Japan to Western scientific knowledge, new technologies, and innovative production techniques. In just a few short decades, Japan became one of the most industrialized nations in Asia. Living standards increased exponentially. For those toiling under the feudal bakufu regime, Commodore Perry’s arrival was considered a liberation. To this day, Japanese citizens in Shimoda City honor Perry during the annual Blackship (Kurofune) Festival, an event celebrating the end of Japanese isolation.