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The Black Ships

The history of Japan is one that is, in many ways, as unique as the country of Japan and its culture. One of the very interesting factors that many people may not realize is that the country of Japan was actually in a state of self-imposed isolation for over two hundred years and was only opened to the outside world in the mid 19th century. A military dictatorship known as the Tokugawa Shogunate is currently perceived to be primarily the government responsible for the seclusion which is now known as “Sakoku”. The Japanese empress had also reportedly expressed some concern about foreign religious and political influences near the beginning of Japan’s period of modern self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world.

The government of Japan had actually even used force in order to resist attempts to establish ports of trade with foreign countries. Finally, in 1853 it is historically recorded that a fleet of armed American steam ships arrived in Tokyo bay, known then as Edo during the Edo period, and requested that the Shogunate sign a treaty establishing trade with the US. The Shogun’s representatives suggested that the American commander and his ships should travel south to Nagasaki to negotiate at a small island trade outpost where limited foreign trade with a few countries was already happening and acceptable. The American commander, known as William Perry, warned the Shogunate that the ships would open fire on buildings around the bay if the Shogunate did not comply, and then proceeded to do so. The weaponry of these now legendary “Black Ships” was far more modern than the Shogunate was prepared to handle and obviously showed how vulnerable the technological isolation had made the country. The Shogunate was then informed that the commander and ships would return the next year to complete the treaty agreement and the ships departed.

The next year, 1854, the American commander returned with even more ships and the Shogunate had completed a very satisfactory treaty agreeing to open trade with the US. The American commander, not completely understanding the governmental structure of Japan at the time, assumed that the treaty was with the imperial Japanese government. The Shogunate was essentially the actual acting government, regardless of the Emperor’s seat still being based in Kyoto, so it was little issue at that time.

Trade with other countries also opened and the modern city of Yokohama is, in many ways, the result of the wealth and international relations resulting from this treaty. The signing of this treaty also proved to be very financially and technologically beneficial for the country of Japan and likely quite financially beneficial for many of the foreign traders. It also led to a modernization of Japan’s military which eventually and unfortunately led to the imperial Japanese government making some rather unwise decisions in the era of WWII.

Today the Black Ships Festival in Japan rather ironically celebrates the arrival of these American ships and the opening of international relations. There is even a town whose tourism is largely related to relics of the arrival and of the American commander. It is an interesting example of classical Samurai culture and mentality. Respect is given to polite, but bold iron fists which refuse to accept “No” for an answer to a reasonable request. This seems to be, in all too many occasions, the Samurai way.