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Perry's Black Ships Open Japan (1853)


July 8, 1853.

Japan, an archipelago, until then isolated from East Asia, is preparing to experience one of the turning points in its long history. Four American steamers, four "black ships" as the Japanese call them, commanded by the commodore Matthew perry will end more than two centuries of isolation. The Shoguns, who until then had protected the country from foreign interference, will soon have only to give way to a regenerated Empire and an industrial power in the making ...

Sakoku: Japanese Isolation

In the mid-19th century, Japan was a state whose political structures had hardly changed since the early 17th century. While there is a monarch, the emperor with divine status, most of the executive power rests in the hands of the Bakufu (military government) headed by the Shogun.

The Tokugawa Shogunate, which is the result of the process of unification of Japan during the great feudal and clan clashes of the 15th and 16th centuries (Sengoku Jidai), has been maintained in particular by its ability to ensure civil peace within the 'archipelago. Having domesticated the warrior class (samurais) and the great feudal (Daimyos), the Shoguns installed in their capital of Edo (the future Tokyo) will preside over a cultural and commercial development prefiguring a certain modernity. However for fear of foreign influences, they also practiced a strict international isolation policy (Sakoku).

So with the exception of the Dutch counter of Deshima and episodic relations with China and Korea, Japan lived inwardly on itself, according to rather rigid Neo-Confucian precepts. This was to protect Japan from foreign merchants, but also from Christian missionaries (Christianity having been banned in 1612), seen as the vanguard of the armies of the Western powers.

Such a conservative policy of isolation could only lead to significant technical delay. Thus it is with anguish that the Japanese rulers see the West impose their will on the powerful but declining Chinese Qing Empire during the 19th century. In addition, the Western powers will try on several occasions to push the Japanese to break with their isolation. From threats from the American whalers to Russian advances on Sakhalin and the Kuriles, to British pressure, the Tokugawa Shoguns have cause for concern.

Perry, the Commodore who made the Shoguns fold

They will eventually have to give in to a US Navy officer. Commodore Matthew Perry, a pioneer in the steam navy, sailed in 1852 from Norfolk to deliver a message from President Fillmore urging the Japanese authorities to open up to international trade. His steamers (Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, Susquehanna) reached the port of Uraga (near Tokyo) on July 8, 1853. The Shogun's envoys ordered him to go to Nagasaki, the only Japanese port then open to trade with foreigners.

Perry, determined to accomplish the mission the president has given him, refuses to do so and begins a naval bombardment. The Japanese quickly realize that their outdated weaponry would be powerless against the commodore's "black ships". They therefore authorize him to disembark and present President Fillmore's requests. When he left a few days later, Perry made it clear to the shogunal authorities that by his next visit serious negotiations would have to begin.

Faced with such a deployment of power (characteristic of the gunboat policy) the Japanese government prefers to be conciliatory. So when Perry returned to Japan, with twice as many ships in March 1854, he was offered the opportunity to negotiate an important trade agreement. This will be the Kanagawa Convention (signed March 31, 1854). With this treaty, Japan opens new ports (Shimoda and Hakodate) to foreign ships and plans to send an American consul to Japan. Commodore Perry has started an irreparable process.

A new era for Japan

In barely 15 years, Japan will be forced by several other treaties to fully open up to foreign influences. The resulting economic, social and cultural changes will be the source of a major political crisis. Faced with an active minority convinced of the need to draw inspiration from the West (especially on a technical level) in order to preserve the soul of the country, the shogunal authorities prefer to give in to a certain xenophobic backwardness. Such a short-sighted policy, will be worth to them to be swept aside at the end of a civil war, which saw the triumph of the reformists rallied under the banner of the Imperial Prince (and future Emperor) Mutsuhito. Better known by his posthumous name: Meiji, he will have to preside over the overwhelming modernization of his country, which at the beginning of the 20th century became the first non-Western industrial power.


Video: 1. Introduction (January 2022).