Whatever Washington would have the world think, many people will only ever believe that the recent U.S. invasion of Iraq was for oil. However, U.S. power diplomacy of the Bush administration’s “neoconservative” type is neither a new phenomenon, nor one confined to the Muslim Middle East.

On the third day of June 150 years ago (in July on the current calendar), Americans came to Japan for oil and to expand their sphere of influence around the Pacific. Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry’s “Black Ships” that appeared belching smoke from their funnels off Uraga at the mouth of Edo Bay presented such “shock and awe” to Japanese that the country was forced to end its closed-door policy that had lasted more than two centuries. Within little more than a decade, fundamental “regime change” was to follow.

To the Unites States in those days, oil meant whales. After good whaling grounds were discovered off Japan’s coasts in the early 1800s, American whalers flocked to the western Pacific and started to monopolize the waters. By the mid-1840s, hundreds were sailing to the Far East annually, primarily hunting huge, oil-rich sperm whales.

As a result, one of Perry’s missions from U.S. President Millard Fillmore was to acquire the right from the isolationist Tokugawa Shogunate — by force or negotiation — to establish coaling stations in ports along the Japanese coast. In addition, the United States hoped to emulate its rival, Britain, by expanding its trade with China and opening Japanese ports as stepping stones for its merchant ships and liners.

With these aims uppermost, Perry’s squadron set sail from Norfolk, Va., on Nov. 24, 1852. Crossing the North and South Atlantic, it rounded the Cape of Good Hope and crossed the Indian Ocean, stopping at Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

From there, before heading to Japan, Perry had one other item of business to take care of. So, on May 26, 1853, his fleet entered the port of Naha in the Ryukyus, where he threatened to land 200 troops and occupy Shuri Castle if the Okinawan government denied his demand to open ports to U.S. vessels for coaling and trade.

Perry had thoroughly studied Japan and its relations with China, the Netherlands and the Ryukyu Kingdom. In his view, because the Ryukyu Kingdom was effectively an oppressed protectorate of the Satsuma domain (in Kyushu’s present-day Kagoshima Prefecture) “liberating the islanders from this regime and occupying the region would be the most appropriate and morally correct course of action. As far as I’m concerned, it would greatly improve the lives of the islanders. Without doubt, the Ryukyuans would welcome America.”

He wasn’t wrong. Without Perry even having to demonstrate any military might, and without any Satsuma resistance, the Ryukyu government surrendered unconditionally.

However, he was not assuming things would go as smoothly at his final destination. So, for the following two weeks in Okinawa, his men were drilled relentlessly in preparation for a military option if Japanese forces attacked. Then, after leaving Okinawa on June 9, Perry’s fleet headed for the Ogasawara Islands to secure possible sites for port construction on Chichijima Island in case his proposal to the shogunate was rebuffed.

Finally, in the late afternoon of June 3 in the sixth year of Kaei (July 8, 1853 on today’s calendar), the four Black Ships — the steamers Susquehanna and Mississippi, and the sloops Saratoga and Plymouth — anchored off the town of Uraga (now part of Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture) as thousands of Japanese on shore gazed at the “smoldering” vessels in amazement.

To the eyes of both the townspeople and shogunal officials, Perry’s ships appeared awesomely massive, as the isolationist shogunate banned the construction of any vessel over 1,000 goku (about 100 tons) or with more than one mast. Here, they were confronted with one of the world’s largest vessels in the menacing shape of the 2,450-ton Susquehanna, while even the smallest of the fleet, the Saratoga, had a displacement of 882 tons.

Fishermen in Shimoda in the southern Izu Peninsula who had seen the fleet heading north had reported to authorities earlier that they were perplexed as to how the ships were able to sail into a northerly wind after furling their sails. Sure enough, Japan’s awe was not just at the ships’ size, but at their power, as steamers were unknown.

Off Uraga, some 1,500 U.S. troops aboard the ships were ordered to battle stations, ready for action with cannon loaded and weapons to hand. The domains responsible for the defense of Edo Bay — Hikone (Shiga Prefecture), Aizu (Fukushima Prefecture), Oshi and Kawagoe (both Saitama Prefecture) — immediately rushed contingents of samurai to the scene. Shogunate officials at Uraga, however, reacted relatively calmly at first. Dozens of small boats, carrying among others Nakajima Saburosuke, deputy chief of the Uraga Magistrate, and Hori Tatsunosuke, a Dutch translator, approached the Black Ships to ask their nationality and the purpose of their arrival — in Dutch.

Perry’s side demanded that top shogunate authorities receive a letter from the U.S. president — a demand the officials refused, instead telling the foreigners to go to Nagasaki. The Americans then threatened the Japanese officials they would force their way into Edo with their military might and deliver the letter to the shogun themselves if their request to land was refused.

After a short consultation, a compromise was reached, with the Americans saying they would wait just three days for the shogunate’s decision.

In fact there was a good reason why the Ugara authorities didn’t panic as the townspeople did. A year before, the shogunate had been told that Americans were coming by Dutch sources in Nagasaki’s Dejima, a man-made island where Dutch merchants were the only Westerners allowed to trade with Japan. The information was treated as top secret and was disclosed only to powerful daimyo like Shimazu Nariakira of Satsuma — although the shogunate did not map out any countermeasures.

On hearing the news of the Americans’ arrival, Chief Senior Councilor Abe Masahiro — based at Edo Castle 50 km away — was pressured by other shogunal officials who were split over whether or not to receive the U.S. letter. Since the Tokugawa Shogunate completely closed the country to the world in 1641, it had never accepted such diplomatic papers, except from Korea and the Ryukyus.

The post of chief senior councilor (roju shuza) was like that of today’s prime minister, assisted by several other senior councilors (roju), while the post of shogun was little more than symbolic by that time in the Edo Period (1603-1867). Abe had been promoted to his top position in 1845, at the unprecedentedly young age of 25. Now still only 33, Abe had to make the grave decision of whether to abandon the centuries-old sakoku (closed country) principle of the House of Tokugawa and make official contact with the West.

Abe decided to consult with Tokugawa Nariaki, the retired daimyo of Mito (Ibaraki Prefecture) — one of the three branches of the House of Tokugawa besides Kishu (Wakayama Prefecture) and Owari (Aichi Prefecture) — who was viewed as the leading antiforeigner hardliner. With the permission of the 12th shogun, Tokugawa Ieyoshi, Abe visited the Mito domain’s Edo residence in Komagome. Although he had already resolved to receive the letter, Abe thought it wise to talk with the high-ranking xenophobe before making his decision public. Unexpectedly, he found Nariaki to be cool and realistic, claiming that it was too late to act tough as Japan’s coastal defenses were far from sufficient.

Afterward, upon receiving Abe’s decision, the Uraga Magistrate notified the American delegation that a landing had been approved on Kurihama Beach, just south of Uraga, on July 14.

That day, Perry went ashore at 9 a.m., accompanied by some 300 heavily armed officers, sailors and marines, and a military band. More than 5,000 samurai had been mobilized to guard the area. At the makeshift pavilion for the ceremony, Perry handed Fillmore’s letter and his own letters to Uraga’s two magistrates, Toda Izunokami and Ido Tsushimanokami. Ido returned a letter of receipt to Perry. The event was conducted without a word.

One of Perry’s letters said he would return to Edo Bay the following spring to receive the shogunate’s answer to Fillmore’s letter, dated Nov. 13, 1852, which urged Japan to sign a bilateral trade pact, to help its shipwrecked sailors, and to provide coaling stations and open ports for U.S. vessels.

His first task completed, Perry and his fleet departed Japan three days later.

Though not as crucial as this American incursion, the shogunate had faced unwanted port calls from foreigners before, especially since the early 19th century. Tsarist Russia sent a delegation led by Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov in 1803 on the pretext of returning four Japanese castaways. The delegation arrived in Nagasaki the following year to propose a trade pact, but was perfunctorily spurned by the shogunate.

In 1808, during the Napoleonic Wars, the British battleship Phaeton had entered Nagasaki port to seize Dutch vessels anchored at Dejima and take over Dutch offices there as the Netherlands had fallen under French control. Indeed, as Britain had by then seized the Dutch East Indies, the 13 sq. km of Dejima was the only place in the world over which the Dutch flag then flew. The Phaeton’s assault failed, due to staunch resistance from both the Dutch and Nagasaki Magistrate officials. Britain, however, did not back off so easily, and kept sending missions to Nagasaki, the Ryukyus, Uraga and Hitachi (Ibaraki Prefecture) between 1813 and 1824.

In light of these incidents, in 1825 the Tokugawa Shogunate ordered every domain in the country to fire on any foreign vessels that were spotted. That order replaced a previous one providing for coaling and provisioning facilities to be given to alien ships — before they were ordered away.

However, the shogunate’s hardline stance gave it serious pause for thought when Ching-Dynasty China was half-colonized by Britain in the First Opium War, which broke out in 1840 as a result of Peking’s ban on British exports of the Indian-grown narcotic. In 1842, the same year the war ended, the shogunate scrapped the tough order and reinstated the former rule.

At the same time, it started strengthening security around Edo by building batteries along the bay and mobilizing security personnel from several domains. Still, by 1846 there were only 28 cannons deployed along the bay, mainly around Shinagawa, along with about 5,900 guards. Such defenses, both Abe and some other senior officials realized, were totally insufficient to deter Western warships. Just then, the Black Ships arrived.

Immediately after Perry left, Abe summoned an unprecedented special-inquiry commission to hear a wide range of opinions on how Japan should respond to the U.S. demand. In view of what had happened in China, few doubted that anything less than the country’s fate was at stake. More than 700 opinions were submitted from almost all strata of society, including from daimyo, magistrates, academics — and even a Yoshiwara brothel owner. These opinions were categorized into three types: The shogunal tradition should be maintained; Japan should accept U.S. demands at a minimum level; and the country should build up its defense capability, funded through opening up to foreign trade.

Meanwhile, Edo Castle was in a state of confusion following the death of Shogun Ieyoshi and a report from Nagasaki that a squadron of four Russian battleships had entered the port, making demands similar to Perry’s. By September 1853, Abe had resolved to lift the ban on building, owning or operating large, ocean-going vessels to pave the way for Japan to open its doors to the world.

Earlier than scheduled, Perry returned to Japan via Okinawa after wintering along the China coast. His fleet had grown to seven, with the 2,415-ton Powhattan now his flagship. The squadron appeared off the Izu Peninsula on Feb. 8, 1854, and proceeded up Edo Bay, passing right by Uraga to finally drop anchor off Haneda. Surprised by the move, the shogunate provided the village of Yokohama near the post-town of Kanagawa as the venue for negotiations — by which time two more warships had joined the fleet.

Unlike the first U.S. visit, this time the shogunate was better prepared — reluctant but ready to accept Perry’s demands at the minimum level, with Emperor Komei’s approval. After several rounds of talks, the 12-provision Treaty of Kanagawa was signed March 31. It became the first international treaty in the history of Japan.

The treaty included provisions that Japan would rescue castaways, provide coal and necessary provisions to American ships that docked in Nagasaki, allow a consulate to be established in Shimoda and, in five years, open ports at Shimoda (Shizuoka Prefecture) and Hakodate (Hokkaido). Japan, however, refused to sign an agreement on opening itself for trade, which would have to wait until the 1858 Ansei Commercial Treaty.

Later the same year, though, the shogunate had to sign similar treaties with Russia and Britain — so accelerating its modernization and the imminent collapse of the Tokugawa regime.

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