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10 Diplomatic Facts about the Perry Expedition and the Convention of Kanagawa

The Perry Expedition was the first successful attempt to establish trade and diplomatic relations between the United States and Japan, held by Commodore Matthew Perry in the years 1853-54. Previously, the Japanese ruling party, the Tokugawa shogunate led a policy of isolation of the country, allowing only trade with the Dutch and China on a very small area. The Perry Expedition was a diplomatic attempt to change this policy and establish long-term benefits for both countries. It was followed by signing the Convention of Kanagawa, which was the official treaty legitimizing opening of the Japanese borders. Here are some useful facts about both these events.

commodore perry

1. The Perry Expedition was not the first one of its kind.

As commerce grew between America and China, the American government was searching for new points of expansion and thought the powerful Japan would make a good trading partner. Also, in accordance with the American Manifest Destiny, they wanted to exchange technological advances with the people of Japan, and in some cases also thought that the Asian culture needed a push to fully grow as a world country. This is why the US government first sent Commander James Biddle on a similar mission in 1846 to Edo Bay and Captain James Glynn in 1849. Biddle remained unsuccessful, but Glynn paved the way for Perry’s mission.

2. Commodore Perry was not the first choice.

May 1851 saw American Secretary of State Daniel Webster giving authority to Commodore John H. Aulick to lead the diplomatic mission to open Japanese borders. Aulick was not a random individual, as he was a distinguished commander of the East India Squadron. The mission included returning seventeen shipwrecked Japanese, who were stranded on US territorial waters, on the shores of San Francisco. This was an excuse to start trading negotiations. But Aulick had fallen out with a Brazilian diplomat at the time and was discarded. Perry replaced him as an officer with proven diplomatic capability.

perry fleet

3. The expedition included a total of 8 ships.

These were four steam warships: Mississippi, Susquehanna, Powhatan, and Allegheny, two battleships, Vermont and Macedonian, and two sailing sloops Plymouth and Saratoga. Perry’s mission was set to rely on the concept of „gunboat diplomacy”, which referred to the act of negotiation via imposing or implying a military threat, while also displaying military splendor and prowess, e.g. by making gun salutes not aimed at anything. Commodore Perry was in charge of the black, paddle-wheeled Mississippi.

4. The Perry Expedition departed from Virginia.

The expedition led by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, left the shores of Virginia on 24 November 1852. The next stops en route were the ports at Madeira, St Helena, Cape Town and Mauritius. Next, Perry’s ensemble sailed to Ceylon, Singapore, Macao and Hongkong. In Hongkong, Perry’s flagship, Mississippi, met with two other vessels, Plymouth and Saratoga and all of the fleet sailed towards Shanghai. Perry was also joined by a famous sinologist Samuel Wells Williams, who provided translations to Chinese, and Anton L.C. Portman, who interpreted into Dutch. The party ultimately reached the Edo Bay on 8 July 1853.

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5. The Expedition formally began with a gun salute.

Upon reaching the shores of the Edo Bay, Perry’s Mississippi fired 73 blank shots. The official explanation for this was the celebration of the American Independence Day, occurring four days earlier. But, the Japanese could not help perceiving it also as an implied military threat, especially due to the fact that the American ships were equipped with powerful shell guns, which could do much damage when fired directly at an aim. The Mississippi and its fellow companions, upon this suspicion were immediately surrounded with Japanese guard boats.

6. The Japanese government was in a weak position at the time.

This was due to the sudden illness of illness of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi, who was incapable of making any vital decisions at the time. He later died and was replaced by his son, Tokugawa Iesada, who also suffered poor health and also lacked in diplomatic experience. In such circumstances, senior Elder Abe Masahiro became the decisive person. He decided that Japan should accept the letter from the American President, Millard Fillmore, and allow Perry’s fleet to sail on towards Kurihama, or Yokosuka at present.

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7. After Perry’s fleet departed, the Japanese built more fortifications.

Although on the surface it seemed that some kind of a breakthrough in the American-Japanese diplomatic and trade relations was achieved, the Japanese were very anxious about their sovereignty and decided to go ahead slowly. Just in case of a probable military conflict they decided to construct new military fortifications, the biggest and most sturdy one being the Odaiba battery at the entrance of Tokyo, which we can still see today. However, at the same time, the Japanese were also willing to let the American trade into a few, designated harbors.

8. The Perry Expedition was joined by the British and the French.

Perry soon learned that the US attempts at establishing trade relations did not remain unnoticed by other European countries. Soon after his fleet departure, also Russia made some attempts at opening Japan borders. But, Britain and France were the ones to officially declare willingness to join Perry in his subsequent journey to ensure that the Americans would not get any exclusive privileges. On 13 February 1854, Perry returned to Japan with over 1600 men, and a fleet now comprising Lexington, Macedonian, Powhatan, Vandalia, Southampton and Supply as well.

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9.Perry wanted the Edo harbor, but the Japanese were reluctant.

When Perry returned, the Tokugawa shogunate was already open to negotiation, having accepted nearly all of President Fillmore’s terms and conditions. However, Perry wanted the port of Edo to become a center for the American trade. The Japanese were not so eager about it and suggested many other locations. But, in the end, both sides reached a compromise and the Convention of Kanagawa was signed in Yokohama in a specially dedicated celebratory hall.

10. The Convention of Kanagawa included 12 articles.

The proper document opening Japan to American trade was called the Treaty of Peace and Amity and was made up of 12 articles. They mentioned first and foremost the assurance of mutual peace between the two countries, but also talked about opening the Shimoda and Hakodate ports to trade and about Japan’s obligation to provide assistance to American shipwrecked sailors. Japan was also to become the sole supplier for US navy and a US consulate was to be opened at Shimoda, thus creating the position of the American consul. The treaty was ratified by Emperor Kōmei himself.

treaty perry

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