Perry Opens Japan to Western Trade

By aggressively forcing Japan to open its ports to Western trade, the United States helped transform an isolationist Asian nation into a significant world commercial power.

Summary of Event

The mission of Commodore Matthew C. Perry to Japan from 1852 to 1854 provided dramatic evidence of the increasing interest of the United States in eastern Asia. It followed a series of overtures to Japan by other Western countries and coincided with a period of significant debate within Japan’s ruling class over the question of opening the country to outside, particularly Western, influences. Perry, Matthew C.
Japan;opening of
Japan;and United States[United States]
[kw]Perry Opens Japan to Western Trade (Mar. 31, 1854)
[kw]Opens Japan to Western Trade, Perry (Mar. 31, 1854)
[kw]Japan to Western Trade, Perry Opens (Mar. 31, 1854)
[kw]Western Trade, Perry Opens Japan to (Mar. 31, 1854)
[kw]Trade, Perry Opens Japan to Western (Mar. 31, 1854)
Perry, Matthew C.
Japan;opening of
Japan;and United States[United States]
[g]Japan;Mar. 31, 1854: Perry Opens Japan to Western Trade[2980]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 31, 1854: Perry Opens Japan to Western Trade[2980]
[c]Trade and commerce;Mar. 31, 1854: Perry Opens Japan to Western Trade[2980]
Fillmore, Millard
[p]Fillmore, Millard;and Japan[Japan]
Hotta Masayoshi
Tokugawa Nariaki

From 1620 until the moment that Commodore Perry’s squadron sailed into Edo Bay (later called Tokyo Tokyo;harbor Bay), Japan had practiced a policy of rigid isolation and exclusion of foreigners. During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Japan’s experiences with Western missionaries Missionaries;in Japan[Japan] and traders had been so negative that almost all contact with the outside world was broken off. Only the Dutch, Chinese, and Koreans were allowed to trade with Japan, Japan;trade and their commercial activities were restricted to a single small port. During the nineteenth century, the desire to develop commercial relations, to exploit Japan’s proximity to China, and to satisfy curiosity about Japan caused repeated attempts to open relations with Japan.

Before Perry’s expedition, several European countries attempted to develop relations with Japan. Between 1771 and 1804, Russian Russia;and Japan[Japan]
Japan;and Russia[Russia] entrepreneurs and government representatives made four separate and unsuccessful attempts to open Japan to trade. Japan responded by redoubling its commitment to defend its northern islands against possible Russian advances, and no further interaction took place until Russia again exerted pressure in 1847. Great Britain Great Britain;and Japan[Japan]
Japan;and Great Britain[Great Britain] was rebuffed in its 1818 effort to persuade Japan to open trade. Following China’s defeat in the Opium Wars Opium Wars , Japan was even further resolved to resist foreign influence.

Perry’s mission was at least the fourth U.S. effort to open relations with Japan. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson Jackson, Andrew
[p]Jackson, Andrew;and Japan[Japan] sent an envoy, Edmund Roberts, to negotiate treaties in Asia. Roberts concluded treaties with Siam Siam (later known as Thailand) and the sultan of Muscat Muscat (later part of Oman Oman ) but died en route to Japan in 1836. In 1837, the merchant ship USS Morrison attempted to land in Japan but was repelled by cannon fire. In 1846, Commodore James Biddle Biddle, James arrived in Japan with the same goal that Edmund Roberts Roberts, Edmund had been unable to achieve, but the Japanese refused to negotiate with him.

By 1850, the U.S. government was being pressed to open Japan. There was a clamor for the negotiation of a convention to protect U.S. sailors shipwrecked in Japanese waters, and the growing use of steam-powered merchant ships created a new need for coaling stations. There also was a great desire for new markets in the Far East. In 1852, U.S. president Millard Fillmore Fillmore, Millard
[p]Fillmore, Millard;and Japan[Japan] sent another expedition in an attempt to break down Japan’s seclusion. He chose Perry as its commander and minister plenipotentiary and gave him broad powers. Perry was assigned five steam warships and four sailing vessels; his instructions were to arrange for commercial relations and to negotiate a treaty.

Perry’s expedition left Hampton Roads, Hampton Roads, Virginia Virginia, in November, 1852. To demonstrate American technological prowess, the expedition carried many gifts, including a telegraph set and a miniature steam Steamships;and Japan[Japan] locomotive with cars and tracks. Eight months later, in 1853, Perry led four ships into Edo Bay. The Japanese, who had never seen steamships before, were greatly impressed. Perry was determined to avoid the mistakes of other Western envoys. Under strict orders to use force only if absolutely necessary, he assumed a confident bearing and insisted on dealing only with the highest officials. At first, representatives of the bafuku, or military government, demanded that Perry’s ships proceed to Nagasaki, the only port at which Westerners were permitted to have contacts with the Japanese government. Perry refused to be intimidated or to leave Edo Bay until he was assured that the dispatches he carried, including a letter from the president of the United States to the emperor of Japan, would be delivered to the appropriate recipients. When the Japanese finally promised that the emperor would receive the U.S. treaty proposals, Perry steamed away, but not before he informed the emperor’s agents that he intended to return in the spring of 1854 with a larger force and with the expectation of a favorable response.

The bafuku solicited advice from members of the Japanese ruling class on how to respond to Perry’s demands. Seven hundred proposals were submitted, with none offering an ideal solution. A group led by the lord of Mito, Tokugawa Nariaki, Tokugawa Nariaki advocated resisting Western invasion at all costs. The Rangakusha, or “masters of Dutch learning” school, whose members had learned something of the West through Japan’s limited connections to the Netherlands, Netherlands;and Japan[Japan]
Japan;and Netherlands[Netherlands] argued that Japan’s military forces would be no match for Western armies backed by modern industrial technologies. They also believed that Japan would benefit more than it would lose from more exposure to Western ideas and technologies.

Painting by Hiroshige of an American warship—probably part of Commodore Perry’s flotilla—in Tokyo Harbor.

(Library of Congress)

While Emperor Kōmei Kōmei and his advisers debated what response Japan should make to U.S. overtures, Perry returned to his exploration of the Far East. Believing that the glittering prospects for U.S. trade in the Far East required that the United States gain territorial footholds in the area, he took possession of several of the Boning Islands, established a coaling station on Okinawa Okinawa , and cast covetous eyes on Formosa. Formosa However, his superiors in Washington later repudiated these actions.

In February, 1854, Perry returned to Japan with an impressive squadron of eight warships. By that time, Japan’s leaders had decided to deal with the North Americans as the least threatening of the Western powers. Japan was ready to accept, at least in part, the proposals of the United States. Perry exploited his advantage by demanding a treaty similar to the liberal agreement that the United States had negotiated with China in 1844. However, the final terms, concluded in the Treaty of Kanagawa, Kanagawa, Treaty of (1854) signed on March 31, 1854, were less inclusive.


Under the terms of the Treaty of Kanagawa, the United States was permitted to establish a consulate at Shimoda, a small port on Honshu near Edo Bay, but there was no provision allowing U.S. citizens to take up permanent residence, and U.S. citizens and merchant vessels were allowed to enter only two small ports, Shimoda and Hakodate. Japan bound itself to assist shipwrecked U.S. sailors and return them and their belongings to the proper authorities. The agreement did not provide for the establishment of coaling facilities or for extraterritorial rights for U.S. citizens but did contain an article ensuring that the United States would be offered any future concessions that might be offered to other powers.

Townsend Harris (1804-1878), the first American consul to Japan, being carried into Shimoda. Harris’s negotiations with the Japanese government led to a commercial treaty that opened six Japanese ports to ships of the United States.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The immediate and practical effects of the treaty negotiated by Perry were minimal, and even they were not supported fully by Emperor Kōmei Kōmei and his advisers. Nevertheless, the treaty prepared the way for a broader commercial treaty that was signed by the emperor’s senior councillor, Hotta Masayoshi, Hotta Masayoshi in 1858. Meanwhile, Japan reached similar agreements with Great Britain, Netherlands;and Japan[Japan]
Japan;and Netherlands[Netherlands]
Great Britain;and Japan[Japan]
Japan;and Great Britain[Great Britain]
Japan;and Great Britain[Great Britain] France, France;and Japan[Japan]
Japan;and France[France] Russia, and the Netherlands.

Further Reading

  • Fallows, James. “When East Met West: Perry’s Mission Accomplished.” Smithsonian 25, no. 4 (July, 1994): 20-33. Discusses the event as an encounter between Commodore Perry and Masahiro Abe. Gives a history of previous missionary and other contacts in Japan.
  • Hane, Mikiso. “The Fall of the Tokugawa Bafuku.” In Modern Japan: A Historical Survey. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1992. Thorough and readable account of the political debates in Japan over how to respond to Western demands to open trade.
  • McDougall, Walter A. “Edo 1853.” In Let the Sea Make a Noise: A History of the North Pacific from Magellan to MacArthur. New York: Basic Books, 1993. Describes Perry’s expedition in the context of the overall maritime strategy of the United States.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot.“Old Bruin”: Commodore Matthew C. Perry, 1794-1858. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967. Chapters 20 through 28 of this biography detail contacts with Japan from Perry’s perspective.
  • Morton, W. Scott. “The Winds of Change: The Tokugawa Shogunate: Part II, 1716-1867.” In Japan: Its History and Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984. Puts Japan’s response to Commodore Perry in a broad social context of Japan’s struggle over relations with the Western world.
  • Preble, George Henry. The Opening of Japan: A Diary of Discovery in the Far East, 1853-1856. Edited by Boleslaw Szczesniak. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962. The diary of Rear Admiral Preble, who served on the USS Macedonian as it accompanied Perry’s expeditions to Japan, provides detailed observations of the expeditions.
  • Schroeder, John H. Matthew Calbraith Perry: Antebellum Sailor and Diplomat. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2001. An assessment of Perry’s long military career, including his efforts to modernize the U.S. Navy.
  • Wiley, Peter Booth, with Korogi Ichiro. Yankees in the Land of the Gods: Commodore Perry and the Opening of Japan. New York: Viking, 1990. Description of Commodore Perry’s encounter with the Japanese draws on both U.S. and Japanese sources. Maps and illustrations.

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Japan;opening of
Japan;and United States[United States]