Sunday 14 July 2019

Aliens Invade! - by Lesley Downer

Black Ship - a Japanese artist imagines
On July 14th 1853, 166 years ago today, an event occurred that completely changed Japan and the world. I’ll start by winding the clock back a few days.

First Contact
On July 8th 1853, fishermen casting their nets at the mouth of Edo Bay saw an unimaginable sight. It was a windless day and their boats were becalmed, yet surging towards them were four monster ships, bigger than any they’d ever seen. ‘As large as mountains’, said a fisherman later, moving ‘as swiftly as birds,’ and two ‘afire’ with smoke pouring out of them like a dragon’s breath. Worst of all, they were heading for the capital, Edo. They dropped anchor at the mouth of the bay and turned their cannons on the little town of Uraga there.

Panicking, the fishermen hauled their nets in and rowed for shore to send a warning to Edo.

Not Martians - Americans! 
The government officials knew exactly what this was - an alien invasion, not Martians but Americans. It was Commodore Matthew Perry and his Black Ships.
Perry stayed hidden but that didn't prevent
artists from imagining what he looked like.
Honolulu Museum of Art

For more than 200 years, since 1639, Japan had been closed to the western world, except for twenty Dutch merchants who lived on Dejima island off Nagasaki. Every year a Dutch ship came with goods to trade, enabling the Japanese to keep abreast of developments outside and to buy western technology and books. By remaining closed they’d managed to stave off colonisation. But they were well aware of the Opium War of 1839 to 1842 and of British incursions into China. They knew the wolf was at the door. In fact the King of Holland, their ally, had written to the shogun warning that an American fleet was on its way.

On the other side of the world, the Crimean War was brewing. It broke out that same month, tying up the three great colonising powers - Britain, France and Russia - and leaving the way open for the fledgling United States of America.

Whaling was the spark that ignited the flame. In 1851 Hermann Melville wrote in Moby Dick, ‘If that double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale ship alone to whom the credit will be due, for already she is on the threshold.’

In America people lit their homes with whale oil lamps. Baleen whale bones were to stiffen crinolines and industrial machinery was lubricated with whale oil. For decades whaling ships from New England had plied the rich waters around Hokkaido but could not put in even for supplies; and shipwrecked sailors who fell into Japanese hands were treated harshly and usually ended up in prison.

In November 1851 President Millard Fillmore instructed Commodore Matthew Perry to deliver a letter to the Japanese Emperor demanding that American whalers and other vessels be allowed access to one or two ports of call to take on coal and water and that castaways be treated humanely. Initially at least the Americans did not insist on a trade treaty, just these two small specific demands.

The American squadron, two steamships and two sloops with 61 guns and 967 men, entered Edo Bay at nearly 9 knots, leaving the shogunal navy scrambling in their wake and fishermen, as the journalist Bayard Taylor, looking down from his perch on the upper deck, wrote, fleeing for shore ‘like wild birds at a sudden intruder’.

Guard boats swarmed out to intercept the ships, rowed by ‘tall athletic men naked save for a cloth around the loins.’ Officials on board held up a huge sign reading, ‘Depart immediately and dare not anchor’ in French.

There were also artists on board, busily sketching. They knew there was going to be a huge demand for pictures of the Black Ships.

The intruders drove the guard boats away with pikes.

Commodore Matthew Perry (1794-1858) 
Met Museum

Perry kept out of sight in his cabin. He was determined only to speak to a man of the highest rank, equal to his own. ‘I was well aware that the more exclusive I should make myself and the more exacting I might be, the more respect these people of forms and ceremonies would be disposed to award me,’ he later wrote.

Nevertheless the Americans were never fully aware of exactly what was going on.

Eventually Nakajima Saburonosuke was allowed on board. Somehow the Americans had the impression that he was the vice governor of Uraga. In fact he was a mere police magistrate.

Bayard Taylor described his black cloak and shorter undergarment, the two swords in his waistband, his sandals and white toed tabi socks, and his red lacquered helmet shaped like an inverted basin.

With the translation going from English into Dutch, then into Japanese, and back again, using two not particularly skilful interpreters, Lieutenant Franklin Buchanan told Nakajima that the Americans had a letter they had to deliver to the Emperor. This made the Japanese chortle to themselves. The Emperor was an impoverished Pope-like figure who played no part in government affairs. The Americans added that if they were refused they would go ashore ‘with sufficient troops’ and deliver it themselves - a chilling threat indeed.

Meanwhile the second police magistrate, Kayama Eizaemon, had counted seventy cannons on the ships. The shogunate had 100 cannons dotted around Edo Bay but only 11 of comparable calibre. The Japanese were completely outgunned.

By evening panic was growing. The government declared a state of emergency. The daimyo warlords in charge of the defence of Edo Bay rushed off to rally their troops. People living near the coast fled inland, carrying all the possessions they could on their backs or in carts.

Kayama Eizaemon
Thereafter Kayama Eizaemon, the second police magistrate, took over as chief go between. His elaborate silk garments embroidered with gold and silver peacock feathers presented a colourful spectacle and the Americans were impressed with his gentlemanly deportment. Kayama tried using delaying tactics but the Americans issued an ultimatum, giving him three days to come up with an answer before they went ashore themselves.

The problem was that Perry insisted that only men of the highest rank should receive the letter, but no high ranking man wanted to touch it.

Finally the government found a way round it. The small town of Uraga had two governors - Toda Izu and Ido Iwami. In short order they were declared princes of Izu and daimyo of Sagami, making them of high enough rank to deal with Perry and receive the letter. Toda, now ‘prince of Izu’, was most amused at his sudden promotion, like being promoted overnight from Mayor of Margate to Earl of Essex.
Delivery of the President's letter.
Lithograph, J Sinclair, Philadelphia,
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Americans were satisfied and they set the date and the place for the delivery of the letter.

Kayama explores the ship

To celebrate, the Americans took Kayama and the interpreters on a tour of the ship. The Japanese marvelled at the size and complexity of ship’s engines and its fearsome Paixhans gun, saw their first photographs and tasted whisky and brandy. The Americans assumed the Japanese didn’t know the world was round and showed them a globe, expecting them to be bemused. Kayama coolly pointed out New York and Washington and asked about railroad tunnels, the Panama railway which was under construction at the time and if ship’s engines were akin to those used in railroad engines. The Americans were, they wrote, surprised by the Japanese officials’ grasp of the ‘general principles of science and of the facts of the geography of the world.’

July 14th - delivering the letter
Perry, afraid of treachery, insisted on meeting at Kurihama where they could bring the American ships close enough to shore to bring the beach within range of their guns.

The Americans were kept awake by the banging as carpenters worked through the night to build the reception halls.

The next morning they saw the results of their labours. There were two pavilions decorated with flags and banners and fifty Japanese guard boats, each decorated with a red flag. More than 5000 samurai gathered and there were women peeking from behind screens, and local villagers too had gathered around. The Japanese officials wore brocaded silk overgarments trimmed with yellow velvet and embroidered with gold thread. It was all so splendid that ‘it made me think that had come to be a spectator at some joust or tourney,’ wrote a young American clerk called J W Spalding.

Pomp and circumstance
At 10 o’clock 250 Americans left the ships to a thunderous gun roll of 13 guns. And finally Perry appeared. He stepped into a white barge and went ashore to a roll of drums, flanked by two huge black stewards, ‘two of the best looking fellows of their colour that the squadron could furnish’. Behind hum came two cabin boys carrying rosewood boxes wrapped in scarlet cloth holding the letters. While the band played ‘Hail Columbia’ the procession followed Kayama and the interpreters up the hill to the reception hall.

The Japanese had even managed to procure an armchair for Perry.
Perry and his armchair
Library of Congress, public domain

Toda was there to receive the letters - one from President Fillmore pledging friendship and requesting the opening of relations, the other Perry’s instructions to open negotiations on a treaty of amity between the two nations. Perry said he would return next April or May with more ships, ‘as these are only a portion of the squadron.’ It was a straightforward threat.

The Americans collected shells and stones from the beach as souvenirs and compared swords with the Japanese soldiers. And finally they marched back to their ships to the strains of ‘Hail Columbia’ and ‘Yankee Doodle’.

Opening the door
Perry had opened the door. He returned the following year with not four but nine ships and forced the Japanese to sign a treaty opening the ports. But that was just the beginning. Other nations rapidly arrived demanding similar concessions - and more and more concessions followed.

What the newcomers didn’t realise was that their arrival had cast Japan into upheaval. The result was a breakdown of order in Japan and the overthrow of the shogunate. In 1868, a mere fifteen years after Perry arrived, the teenage Emperor Meiji became the figurehead of a new government and modern Japan was born. Perry’s initial incursion had entirely changed the course of history.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale of love and death in nineteenth century Japan, begins at the moment when Black Ships are sighted off the coast and is out now in paperback. For more see

All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Marie Therese Barrett said...

Hi, Lesley, Mike and I have read your article with great interest and we loved it. I in particular, who thought I knew a fair amount about the events, was delighted to find many telling details that explained the American interest for Japan (whale-bones for crinolines for instance!) the pomp and circumstances surrounding the events (the reception rooms created in haste but decorated with care). Thank you, Lesley, for sharing your knowledge with suggestive images and humorous comments!

Marie Therese and Mike Barrett

Lesley Downer said...

Thank you, Marie Therese and Mike! Glad you found my post and that you approve of it - knowledgeable as you are!