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pe of modern Japan more than the “opening” of the country by American naval commander Matthew Perry in 1853-4. Of those three epochal events, Perry’s mission was the first, and led in large part to the subsequent two.

Commodore Perry’s mission, though military in nature, was driven by Western commercial expansion in the Far East, as American and European interests sought to open heretofore closed markets to their goods.

Japan had, for more than two and a half centuries, been isolated from the outside world – except from China and Netherland; Tokugawa Shogunate used to dislike the expansion of Christianity into Japan; Netherland sought to have a good relationship with Japan for only business. This policy of isolation was known as sakoku. Governed by the Tokugawa Shoguns, structured as a rigid four-tier class system led by the samurai, Japan was still medieval at a time when Europe and the United States had developed into international industrial powers, militarily and commercially. Colonialism had swept the non-European world, and British, Dutch, French, Russian, German and American power was felt around the globe.

Everywhere, that is, except in Japan. Since 1797, more than two dozen ships, including a few warships, had approached Japan, only to be turned away by the archipelago’s defenders, the samurai of the shogunate. Nevertheless, the Western Powers were operating freely in the waters around Japan, whaling, fishing and trading with other countries, gaining power in China, Indochina, Indonesia and, of course, in Britain’s largest colony, India.

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The Japanese were well aware of this closing circle of commercial and military activity, and the country’s elite debated for decades about allowing outsiders to even set foot on the islands, let alone do business. There was one exception, the tiny island of Dejima, in Nagasaki Bay. This mere two acres of land had been established by the Portuguese and had for more than 200 years been the sole place where foreigners, now mainly the Dutch, had been allowed any access to Japan. But it was the exception that proved the rule, and was meant to constrain trade rather than encourage it. Its name translated, tellingly, as “exit island.”

So when Commodore Perry and his four gunboats steamed into Edo (now Tokyo) Bay on July 8, 1853, it was a moment of reckoning the Japanese had long known was coming. Perry’s landing, a week later, came with cannons blazing in a “salute” that was a clear show of force. The threat of military action was made explicit in the written “proposal” given to the Japanese.

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Unfortunately for the Japanese, nearly three centuries of isolation, and a military that was still essentially medieval, made them no match for the Americans. When Perry arrived at what is present-day Yokosuka, the Shogun himself was in poor health and would die just days after the Americans temporarily departed. His sickly young son inherited power, and the decision was put into the hands of the Shogunal council, which was riven with factions, each taking a different position.

Meanwhile, the competition between the great European powers – especially Russia, Britain and France – was fierce, and all were concerned that the Americans not get exclusive access to Japan.

When Perry returned for his answer on February 13, 1854, he brought with him an even larger force of 10 ships, manned by 1,600 sailors, many of whom had just recently served in the Mexican-American War. The Japanese response was a foregone conclusion, and on March 31, the Convention of Kanagawa was signed and the Americans were soon surveying the harbors of Hakodate and Shimoda, where they had been given access to the country. Shimoda, located a considerable distance from Edo (Tokyo) was also to be the site of the first American Consulate in Japan. Hakodate was even further away, on the very southern edge of the far northern island of Hokkaido. The Japanese were determined to keep the foreigner interlopers as far away as possible.

But however much they might try to quarantine this assault to their treasured isolation, the Japanese could not avoid what was to be a momentous shift in the country’s sense of itself and its role in the world. Thus began a cascade of changes that ended the rule of the shoguns, brought the restoration of the Imperial family, spurred rapid industrialization and modernization and turned, in only a couple of decades, an isolated, xenophobic and largely agrarian country into a cultural, industrial and military power that would, in a matter of decades, bring enormous changes to the entire world.

The “opening” of Japan brought the 268-year-old shogunate, already brittle, near collapse, and within barely a decade of Perry’s arrival, it was no more. The chaos that followed led to the restoration of the Imperial family to lead of the country; that new emperor, Meiji, would institute a host of changes that are discussed elsewhere on japanology.org.

By DAVID WATTS BARTON