It is difficult to imagine how the townspeople of Edo felt when the black-hulled steam frigate USS Susquehanna arrived in their harbor in 1853. Edo was the Japanese capital and one of the largest cities in the world at the time. Contact with the outside world had been forbidden for 250 years. The ship was five times larger than any ship the Japanese had known, and steam technology was completely new. That show of force convinced the de facto national powers of the shogunate to accept a letter proposing a treaty. When Perry returned seven months later with a quarter of the U.S. Navy—eight ships—he left with a treaty. And so Japan was opened for trade with the West.
But not quite. The U.S. had sent Perry on this mission not to gain access to Japanese trade, but for two other reasons, George Wilson, Professor Emeritus of History and East Asian Languages and Cultures emphasized in a brief lecture at the IU Art Museum. The U.S. was more concerned with protecting its trade in tea from China and in whale oil from the North Atlantic. Perry’s treaty secured two open ports, one in the South that allowed ships bound for China to refuel, and one in the North, whose main function was to provide a way of repatriating American sailors whose whaling ships had floundered. Perry’s treaty was the first unequal diplomatic treaty, Professor Wilson explained. Japan did not get the same rights in the U.S. that they granted the U.S. in Japan. It also opened a door for a U.S. consul in Japan. Consul Townsend Harris arrived in 1856 and with persistent pressure won the first treaty securing trade between the two nations.
The impact of this nineteenth-century version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind has been disputed ever since. Perry and Harris laid the groundwork for the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and ultimately for Japan to play a role as a world power. At the time, the Japanese wrote of the “Black Ships of Evil Men.” “Black ships” is still used by the Japanese to describe technological threats from the West. Although Japanese law forbade depicting current events, Perry’s visits saw artists lined up at the waterfront preparing images for broadsides and street sales around the country. Professor Wilson’s lecture marked the opening of an exhibition of several of those images which combine the delicate Japanese artistry of line and color with billowing black smoke and fearful military monsters. With the help of these drawings, we can imagine how the townspeople of Edo felt—the terror and panic, and the fascination–that the arrival of the Western military produced.