Perry & the Trip to Japan, 1852-4
In the mid-nineteenth century Japan was a mysterious nation of great interest to the United States. It had closed its ports to Westerners in the seventeenth century and maintained a policy of strict seclusion ever since. Sailors shipwrecked off Japan were imprisoned, and trade was limited to an annual visit by a Dutch ship to Nagasaki. The lack of trading links between Japan and the West was causing problems for American whalers and merchant ships in the South China Seas, but more importantly, America was aware of the rich rewards trade with Japan would bring. In 1845 a decision of the American Congress made the establishment of trade with Japan a priority, but initial attempts proved unsuccessful and suggested that a show of force would be necessary.
Commodore Perry was a prominent and successful naval figure with an interest in the Far East, and in 1852 he was chosen to lead a mission to Japan to secure a trading treaty. He set sail from Norfolk Virginia in the steamship Mississippi on November 24th 1852, and was joined by several more warships on his journey to Japan. His fleet sailed to Madeira, St. Helena, Cape Town, Mauritius, Colombo, Singapore, Canton and Shanghai before arriving off the coast of Japan in 1853. On July 8th, Perry, now flying his flag in the USS Susquehanna, anchored his fleet of four warships in Yedo Bay, near modern-day Tokyo.
Perry had undertaken substantial research before the trip, and was prepared for the disciplined and hierarchical society he encountered in Japan. (A contemporary report of his first meeting with Japanese envoys, compiled from Perry's own notes, is online here.) Armed with translators and sophisticated gifts, including a telegraph machine, he agreed to talk to only high-ranking dignitaries, and threatened military force if his wishes were not respected. Perry was able to deliver a letter outlining his desire for a trade treaty. Stating that he would return for an answer the following year, his fleet left Japan and set sail for China.
On his return in February 1854 with twice as many ships, Perry found that the Japanese had prepared a treaty agreeing to establish trade with America, and the agreement was confirmed by the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa on March 31 1854. (The contemporary reports of the Secretary of the Navy to Congress detailing the mission and its outcomes, as well as Perry's other duties, are online here.)
Perry returned to New York in January 1855 to a rapturous reception. He was presented with a unique gold medal by the merchants of Boston, and Congress granted him a reward of $20,000. Perry used part of the reward to publish a three-volume report of the expedition from the meticulous journal he had kept during the voyage, the Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan. He died soon after in 1858, and is widely remembered for his bold role in bringing Japan into commerce with the West.