Last year was the 150th anniversary of the first appearance of U.S. Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry’s “Black Ships” in Edo (now Tokyo) Bay. Their mission, by order of President Millard Fillmore, was to demand — under threat of force if necessary — that Japan, closed to the world for more than two centuries, should conclude a trade pact with the United States and provide coaling stations and ports for U.S. vessels.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Perry’s return to hear the shogun’s answer — an answer that took concrete form with the March 31 signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa — Japan’s first international treaty and a document regarded as a catalyst for the regime change that came with the Meiji Restoration of 1868.
This weekend, the place to be on the archipelago is Shimoda, a small city near the tip of the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture, where the annual Black Ships Festival is held. The festival starts Friday and continues through Sunday.
Why Shimoda? Because the Treaty of Kanagawa designated just two ports to open to U.S. vessels — Hakodate in Hokkaido, and Shimoda.
Weeks later, Perry’s seven-ship fleet entered Shimoda harbor. As the shogunate limited Japanese vessels to a maximum displacement of around 100 tons, these enormous metal steamships — Perry’s flagship, the Powhattan, was 2,415 tons — appeared as menacing, three-masted hulks to the townsfolk, belching smoke from their funnels and bearing cannons that boasted formidable firepower.
On April 21, Perry and a few men stepped ashore, the first foreigners to set foot in Shimoda. They were received by a Japanese delegation at Ryosenji Temple.
The next day, dozens of American sailors came ashore and walked around town. It was on the streets of Shimoda that the first nondiplomatic contact between citizens of the two countries occurred. Despite stern warnings from shogunate officials to stay indoors, residents spilled out of their homes to meet the visitors, offering them tea or tobacco and touching their uniforms and swords.
The Shimoda Treaty was signed on June 20, 1854, its 13 articles supplementing the Kanagawa Treaty. The new treaty allowed Americans free movement within a 28-km radius of Shimoda, established a procedure for trade in basic supplies, and designated Ryosenji and Gyokusenji as a resting place for American officials, with the latter temple also providing a last resting place for deceased foreigners.
Neither of the 1854 treaties established formal trade relations between the two nations. However, in 1856, Townsend Harris, the first American consul in Japan, took up lodging at Gyokusenji and pressed the shogunate to open the country to commercial exchange. Eventually, he succeeded, and the Harris Treaty was signed in 1858.
This weekend’s activities begin at 3 p.m. Friday at Gyokusenji, with a memorial service for the sailors whose weathered tombs are in its grounds. In this, a U.S. Navy contingent raises the American flag and a naval band performs. However, the temple is well worth a visit anytime. A modest exhibition hall, constructed 50 years ago for the centennial, displays daily items used by Harris, as well as a life-size tableau showing Okichi, Harris’ female attendant, serving the consul a glass of milk — a beverage he is credited with introducing to Japan.
From then on, Shimoda comes alive. Warships from the U.S. 7th Fleet based at Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, are in port, and sailors in navy whites wander the festive streets. Signs on shop doors read “Welcome U.S. Navy”; Japanese and American flags festoon the streets; Black Ship Festival banners flap in the breeze; vendors hawk festival refreshments and amusements. Turn a corner and you’re likely to find a woman standing in front of her little eatery grilling kai (shellfish) in their shells. Seafood comes no fresher.
On Friday night, weather permitting, the celebration literally fills the air with a dazzling fireworks display over Shimoda Harbor.
On Saturday morning, the festival formally opens at Shimoda Park, from where there is a wonderful view of the harbor formed by an arc of precipitous mountains that seem to rise right out of the ocean.
The Perry and Harris memorial, a large tablet on a hillside in the park, was erected in 1953 on the occasion of the centenary of Perry’s arrival in Japan. Apparently identifying with the commodore’s mission, Gen. Douglas MacArthur selected a quotation from Perry’s writings — “I come as a peacemaker” — as an inscription to accompany the bas-relief portraits of the commodore and consul.
On this day, the Stars and Stripes and the Hinomaru fly from flagpoles flanking the memorial, with American sailors at attention beneath each as diplomatic and naval dignitaries from both countries lay wreaths and make speeches. Last year, the speakers included U.S. Ambassador Howard Baker. This year, the U.S. delegation will be headed by Deputy Chief of Mission Michael Michalak.
After the ceremony, a parade leads from the park, winds through the streets of Shimoda and ends in front of Ryosenji, the temple where Perry conducted the negotiations for the Shimoda Treaty. It’s a colorful procession: dignitaries waving to the crowds as they are driven by; military bands and marching U.S. and Japanese sailors; and girl scouts and boy scouts in lines, each holding miniature flags of the two nations. There’s also a group of Americans from the embassy who dress in 19th-century naval attire. They are accompanied by Japanese dressed in traditional kamishimo and sporting chonmage topknots.
After the parade, those in costume perform a short play about the Shimoda Treaty on a stage in front of Ryosenji’s main hall. At this time, perhaps the most curious — nay, almost bizarre — sight of the weekend is “Perry” himself, who is played by a Japanese man from the Chamber of Commerce wearing an orange wig and speaking his lines in heavily accented English. The play climaxes with a re-enactment of the signing of the treaty — followed by an international banzai.
Finally, on Sunday, after another parade, the Shimoda Treaty re-enactment is repeated in front of the civic auditorium.
It’s a special weekend in a beautiful place filled with history and international goodwill, as Americans and Japanese share the streets for this unique festival celebrating the two nations’ friendship.