Reliving the shock and awe of Perry's 'Black Ships'
By MANAMI NISHIDA | The Japan News/Yomiuri | Published: December 26, 2017
The calm waters of the Kurihama coast near the Perry Memorial Hall in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, offer little clue that the area was once the scene of a turbulent episode in Japanese history.
It was on this coastline that U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry (1794-1858), commander in chief of the United States' East India Squadron, first made landfall in Japan in 1853. His arrival spelled the end of the closed-door policy that Japan had maintained for about 200 years.
On July 8 of that year, in the closing years of the Edo period (1603-1867), four warships under Perry's command appeared on the seas off Uraga on the Miura Peninsula. Perry's squadron had sailed toward Japan to deliver an official diplomatic letter from U.S. President Millard Fillmore demanding the country abandon its isolationist policy.
While officials of the Tokugawa shogunate government were reluctant to open up, they knew just by looking at the warships - dubbed "Black Ships" - that the United States wielded massive military strength. The shogunate decided to receive the diplomatic letter just west of Uraga on the Kurihama coast. Six days after arriving off Uraga, Perry finally touched down on the Kurihama coast and delivered the letter to the shogunate.
The diplomatic missive demanded the shogunate government accept friendly ties and trade with the United States, and supply coal, water and food to U.S. ships. The incident convinced feudal lords that it was possible to have a say in shogunate policies and triggered the subsequent political upheavals. Perry's landing on the Kurihama coast heralded the start of a new era in Japan.
On the first floor of the memorial hall, a wide diorama depicts the scene of the Black Ships' arrival. Among the historical items exhibited on the second floor, copies of kawaraban, the equivalent of today's newspapers, attract visitors' attention with their detailed depictions of the Black Ships and the party led by Perry.
The huge steam-powered ships that stalked the seas at high speeds and troops marching in perfect unison captivated and surprised Japanese of the time. News about them quickly spread through kawaraban papers.
Emakimono picture scrolls describing the appearance of Perry and his crew are also on display. They reveal how Japanese people of the time viewed Perry's party.
In addition, some of the materials on display offer fascinating insight into Perry's character. For example, although Perry was an imposing figure with a height exceeding 6 feet 2 inches and the nickname "old bruin," he loved his family members deeply.
In a letter Perry wrote to his daughter Isabella during a voyage, he asked her to write back as soon as possible. The letter is proof of how deeply he loved his children.
Isao Takahata, 69, a staff member at the memorial hall, said, "Perry observed Japan very carefully and possessed keen insight, even writing a book, 'Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan,' after he returned to the United States. His appeal is based on more than just his stubborn dedication to his own views."
The Perry Memorial Hall was opened by the Yokosuka city government in 1987 in Perry Park to commemorate the historical events involving Perry's visit and Japan's opening to the world. Visitors to the park are able to take in sweeping views of the sea and a monument commemorating Perry's landing. On the surface of the monument is an inscription in Japanese that reads "Monument to the Landing of U.S. Navy Commodore Perry." The original characters were famously written by Hirobumi Ito, Japan's first prime minister.