The End of Isolation

Illustration from “Rambles in Japan” by H B Tristram, 1895.

Windows into Japan 1In 1853 a fleet of American ships commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japanese waters.  Up to this point Japan had managed to maintain an isolationist policy, keeping themselves separate from the Western world.  However, Perry had come to secure a trade deal and wasn’t about to take no for an answer.  Japan was in no position to defend against this superior military force, and the shogunate was forced to bring an end to their isolation.  His failure to oppose the Americans soon led to civil unrest, and the end of the Edo period.  Travelling with Perry was seasoned travel writer Bayard Taylor, whose African adventures we previous covered in a series of articles.  The following is his account of the fleet’s arrival, from his book A Visit to India, China and Japan in the Year 1853.

We kept directly up the Bay, and in half an hour after doubling Cape Sagami saw before us a bold promontory making out from the western coast, at the entrance of the Upper Bay. Within it was the Bight of Uraga, and we could plainly see the town of the same name at the head of it. The Plymouth and Saratoga were cast off, and we advanced slowly, sounding as we went, until we had advanced more than a mile beyond the point reached by the Columbus and the Morrison. We were about a mile and a half from the promontory, when two discharges of cannon were heard from a battery at its extremity, and immediately afterwards a light ball of smoke in the air showed that a shell had been thrown up. An order was immediately given to let go the anchor, but as the lead still stowed 25 fathoms, the steamer’s head was put in toward the shore, and in a few minutes the anchor was dropped.

Another shell was fired after we came to anchor, and four or five boats filled with Japanese approached us. The rowers, who were all tall, athletic men, naked save a cloth around the loins, shouted lustily as they sculled with all their strength toward us. The boats were of unpainted wood, very sharp in the bows, carrying their greatest breadth of beam well aft, and were propelled with great rapidity. The resemblance of their model to that of the yacht America, struck every body on board. In the stern of each was a small flag, with three horizontal stripes, the central one black and the other white. In each were several persons, who, by their dress and the two swords stuck in their belts, appeared to be men of authority.

The first boat came alongside, and one of the two-sworded individuals made signs for the gangway to be let down. This was refused, but Mr. Wells Williams, the Interpreter, and Mr. Portman, the Commodore’s clerk (who was a native of Holland), went to the ship’s side to state that nobody would be received on board, except the first in rank at Uraga. The conversation was carried on principally in Dutch, which the interpreter spoke very well. He asked at once if we were not Americans, and by his manner of asking showed that our coming had been anticipated. He was told that the Commander of the squadron was an officer of very high rank in the United States, and could only communicate with the first in rank on shore. After a long parley, the Vice-Governor of Uraga, who was in the boat, was allowed to come on board with the Interpreter and confer with Lieut. Contee, the Flag Lieutenant. The Japanese official, a fiery little fellow, was much exasperated at being kept in waiting, but soon moderated his tone. He was told that we came as friends, upon a peaceable mission; that we should not go to Nangasaki, as he proposed, and that it was insulting to our President and his special minister to propose it. He was told, moreover, that the Japanese must not communicate with any other vessel than the flag-ship, and that no boats must approach us during the night. An attempt to surround us with a cordon of boats, as in the case of the Columbus and Vincennes, would lead to very serious consequences. They had with them an official notice, written in French, Dutch and English, and intended as a general warning to all foreign vessels, directing them to go no further, to remain out at sea, and send word ashore, why they came and what they wanted. This Lieut. Contee declined to see or acknowledge in any way. The same notice was taken to the Plymouth by another boat, which was at once ordered off.

Commodore Perry had evidently made up his mind from the first not to submit to the surveillance of boats. The dignified and decided stand he took produced an immediate impression upon the Japanese. They were convinced that he was in earnest, and that all the tricks and delays with which they are in the habit of wheedling foreign visitors would be used in vain. Several boats having followed the first one, and begun to collect round us, the Vice-Governor was told that if they did not return at once, they would be fired into. One of them went to the Mississippi; and after being repulsed from the gangway, pulled forward to the bows, where some of the crew tried to climb on board. A company of boarders was immediately called away, and the bristling array of pikes and cutlasses over the vessel’s side caused the Japanese to retreat in great haste. Thenceforth, all the Japanese boats gave us a wide berth, and during the whole of our stay, none approached us except those containing the officials who were concerned in the negotiations.

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About Roger Pocock

Author of Co-writer on Editor of
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Books, History, Japan, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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