The West demands trade with Japan
On July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew
Perry of the United States Navy, commanding a squadron of two steamers
and two sailing vessels, sailed into Tôkyô harbor aboard
the frigate Susquehanna. Perry, on behalf of the U.S. government,
forced Japan to enter into trade with the United States and
demanded a treaty permitting trade and the opening of Japanese ports
to U.S. merchant ships. This was the era when all Western powers were
seeking to open new markets for their manufactured goods abroad, as
well as new countries to supply raw materials for industry. It was
clear that Commodore Perry could impose his demands by force. The Japanese
had no navy with which to defend themselves, and thus they had to agree
to the demands.
Perry's small squadron itself was not enough to force the massive
changes that then took place in Japan, but the Japanese knew that his
ships were just the beginning of Western interest in their islands.
Russia, Britain, France, and Holland all followed Perry's example and
used their fleets to force Japan to sign treaties that promised regular
relations and trade. They did not just threaten Japan — they
combination their navies on several occasions to defeat and disarm
the Japanese feudal domains that defied them.
Tokugawa Japan into which Perry Sailed
Japan at this time was ruled
by the shôgun ("great general") from the Tokugawa family.
The Tokugawa shogunate was founded about 250 years earlier, in 1603,
when Tokugawa leyasu (his surname is Tokugawa) and his allies defeated
an opposing coalition of feudal lords to establish dominance over the
many contending warlords. But while Tokugawa became dominant, receiving
the title of shôgun from the politically powerless emperor, he
did not establish a completely centralized state. Instead, he replaced
opposing feudal lords with relatives and allies, who were free to rule
within their domains under few restrictions. The Tokugawa shôguns
prevented alliances against them by forbidding marriages among the
other feudal lords' family members and by forcing them to spend every
other year under the shôgun's eye in Edo (now Tôkyô),
the shogunal capital — in a kind of organized hostage system.
It was the third shôgun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, who enforced isolation
from much of the rest of the world in the seventeenth century, believing
that influences from abroad (meaning trade, Christianity, and guns)
could shift the balance that existed between the shôgun and the
feudal lords. He was proven right two centuries later, when change
came in the form of Perry's ships.
Upon seeing Perry's fleet sailing into their harbor,
the Japanese called them the "black ships of evil mien (appearance)." Many
leaders wanted the foreigners expelled from the country, but in 1854
a treaty was signed between the United States and Japan which allowed
trade at two ports. In 1858 another treaty was signed which opened
more ports and designated cities in which foreigners could reside.
The trade brought much foreign currency into Japan disrupting the Japanese
monetary system. Because the ruling shôgun seemed unable to do
anything about the problems brought by the foreign trade, some samurai
leaders began to demand a change in leadership. The weakness of the
Tokugawa shogunate before the Western demand for trade, and the disruption
this trade brought, eventually led to the downfall of the Shogunate
and the creation of a new centralized government with the emperor as
its symbolic head.