Armed with spears, bows, and muskets, more than 5,000 Japanese soldiers waited on the shoreline for the American intruders. Fierce samurai in lacquered bamboo armor rested on stools, their curved swords at the ready. Banners and flags draped the beach in bold colors that contrasted sharply with the dreaded kurofune, the black ships of Commodore Matthew Perry's squadron, anchored close by. American sailors gathered their weapons and boarded small boats. Then the landing party began rowing its way toward shore across Uraga Strait, entrance to Edo Bay. The Americans were outnumbered by at least 20 to one.
The year was 1853, and Japan was still following a strict policy of isolation. More than two centuries before, a rebellion of native Christian converts proved surprisingly difficult to quell. So the alarmed shogunthe military rulerand his successors decided the risks of foreign contact far outweighed the benefits of open trade. Travel abroad was forbidden, and ships capable of reaching foreign shores were outlawed. At Nagasaki, the single port where minimal interaction with foreigners was permitted, all requests from Western powers for any kind of relations were flatly denied. Elsewhere, "barbarian" vessels that dared approach the coast were fired upon without hesitation. Trespassers were often jailed or beheaded. Accordingly, Perry's black ships were most unwelcome.
Adding insult to injury, the four American ships had entered Edo Bay, home of the shogun and his government, the Bakufu. However ominous the scene, the crew suffered nothing more than nasty looks when they stepped onto the beach. The great forces massed along the coastline had orders to avoid a fight. A government representative later met with the commodore and officially received President Millard Fillmore's proposal for establishing relations with the United States. (Ten armed samurai, however, hid under the meeting place in case of a surprise attack.)
Appalling as it was for the Bakufu, it felt it had no choice. The isolation policy was not absolute, and news of China's humiliating defeat by the British in the first Opium Wars (1839-1842) had arrived through the closely supervised trading post in Nagasaki. Worried that Japan might suffer a similar fate if barbarians were provoked, the Bakufu suspended the standing order to attack alien ships on sight and told coastal forces to advise foreign ships to leave. So when guards rowed out to intercept Perry's squadron, their angry protests and warlike posturing were as far as they were allowed to go.
The use of intimidation was ineffective for the Japanese, but Perry employed it masterfully. Warriors charged with defending the coasts were invited aboard his shipssix times the size of any in Japanto closely inspect the state-of-the-art Western armaments and strange steam engines. Perry made it quite clear he was willing to use force to accomplish his mission. When talks had barely started, he is said to have sent several white flags to the Japanese negotiator. In the accompanying note, Perry explained that refusal to meet his demands would set off a war that they had no chance of winning, and that the flags would make handy signals of surrender.
After Perry and his men steamed their way out of Edo Bay, promising to return the following spring to receive the Japanese reply, the Bakufu immediately began strengthening their defenses. They built up shore batteries and rescinded the prohibition on constructing seagoing vessels. When Perry returned seven months laternow with nine shipsthe Japanese were still hopelessly outmatched. They ultimately accepted terms beyond what Perry had ever hoped for. They would set up a coal station near Edo for refueling steamships, open two ports for limited trading, protect shipwrecked sailors, and accept an American emissary sent to conduct further affairs of state. In return, the Japanese got America's "sincere and cordial amity."
Perry's gunboat diplomacy did more than simply open Japan to foreigners. It also initiated the collapse of the shogun regime. The shogun and the Bakufu looked weak and vulnerable after they failed to expel the foreigners and then submitted to their demands. Smelling blood, defiant lords rallied to the emperor, who had been no more than a figurehead. After nearly seven centuries of rule, the shogun era came to an end 13 years after Perry left Japan in his wake.
The newly empowered emperor took the name Meiji, meaning enlightened rule, and set about modernizing Japan as rapidly as possible. One of the Meiji's first acts was to move his court from Kyoto to Edo, which he renamed Eastern Capital, or Tokyo.