NAHA, Okinawa — History suggests that to kick-start a conversation, nothing may be as effective as ominous black ships taking up residence off shore, some belching dragon’s-breath steam, all bristling with guns.

That’s one way to look at what happened when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry stopped here with his gunboats 150 years ago this spring, on his way north to persuade reclusive Japan to trade with the United States.

Except for an interruptive war or two, America and Okinawa have been chatting ever since — apparently to such mutual benefit that on a warm Sunday afternoon, U.S. Consul General Timothy Betts and Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga climbed into heavy ceremonial togs to mark the anniversary by talking some more.

Betts starred as Commodore Matthew Perry and Onaga portrayed the King of the Ryukyus to open the two-day “American Fest in Tomari.”

The event commemorated the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Perry’s gunboats, known as “The Black Fleet,” in Naha on their mission to open Japan to trade with the United States.

“Using Tomari port as your base, you left a great footprint on Okinawa and opened Japan to the world,” said Onaga, dressed in the robes of a Ryukyuan king and addressing Betts as if he actually were Perry.

“For the past 150 years, we have been under the rule of China, Japan, America and again Japan,” he said. “We also experienced war against each other.

“However, we have maintained friendly feelings toward each other,” he said. “We appreciate our good relationship and the mutual respect and trust between Okinawa and the United States.”

Then it was Betts’ turn to speak, as Perry.

“I am very happy to return to Naha after so many years,” said Perry, dressed as an 1850s U.S. naval officer. “A hundred and fifty years ago, the Ryukyu Kingdom served as a stopping point to build a cooperative relationship with Japan. The U.S. government highly valued the relationship with the Ryukyus, as it does today.

“We should be very proud of the close relationship between the two countries,” Betts said, noting “thousands of Okinawans have made their homes in the United States, just as thousands of Americans have chosen to make their homes in Okinawa.”

The event featured Okinawan eisa dances by Okinawan and American children, an arm wrestling competition, concerts by American and Okinawan musicians, and a tour of the nearby Tomari International Cemetery, where many foreigners are buried.

Also, an exhibition of historical documents and photos relating to Perry’s visit will be on exhibit until July 27 at the Tomarine Building at Tomari Port in Naha. It is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Perry’s “Black Fleet” landed at what is now Tomari Port in May 1853 on its journey to Edo, now Tokyo, where Perry landed on July 8. Events have been held throughout Japan to commemorate what both countries hail as one of the most important dates in U.S.-Japan relations.

In Newport, R.I., Perry’s birthplace, a four-day “Black Ship festival” was held last week.

Perry’s East India Fleet was dispatched by U.S. President Millard Fillmore to establish diplomatic relations and trade with Japan, ending the Tokugawa shogunate’s 200-year seclusion and a ban on most commerce with traders from other countries.

Perry’s fleet of two steam frigates and two sailing ships arrived in what now is Yokosuka on July 8, 1853. He came ashore on July 14 to deliver a letter from the president to a representative of the Japanese emperor, requesting protection for shipwrecked American sailors and the opening of Japanese ports for trade.

Perry returned a year later to sign the treaty.

While in Asia, Perry’s fleet visited Naha and what then was called the Kingdom of Loo Choo several times, mapping the waters and visiting Shuri Castle, where a treaty was signed that established the rights of Americans in Okinawa, a coaling station for American ships and a cemetery for foreigners, which exists to this day.

— Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

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