Commodore Perry and Japan (1853-1854)

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.

Japan's Response

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.

Primary Source Documents

Following are the texts of three letters from the United States to Japan asking that Japan open its doors to trade. Although all three letters are addressed to the emperor, it was the shôgun, the ruler of Japan, who received the letters.

Discussion Questions & Writing Exercises


  1. Why did the United States government send Commodore Perry to Japan?
  2. What was Japan like when Perry arrived?
  3. What other countries made treaties with Japan at this time?
  4. What were some of the terms of the treaties?
  5. What were some of the problems caused by the foreign trade resulting from the treaties?

Writing Exercises

  1. Imagine that you are the Shôgun and write a reply to President Fillmore.
  2. Pretend you are a newspaper reporter for a New York paper at the time of Perry's arrival in Japan. Write an article describing his arrival and the Japanese reaction. Use excerpts from the letters of President Fillmore and Commodore Perry.
  3. Pretend you are a reporter for a Japanese newspaper in 1853. Write an article on Perry's arrival for your paper. Use excerpts from the letters of President Fillmore and Commodore Perry.

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