Kanagawa Treaty initiated a new era in the Far East

fishing boat

Manifest Destiny became a dream of many Americans after the War of 1812. By 1844, the American republic was ready to embrace not only Texas, New Mexico and California in the southwest and west, but the Oregon country in the northwest as well.

By the 1850s, it was only too clear that hunters, prospectors, ranchers, farmers and railroad builders were preparing to tame the Wild West. There were some Americans in the 1850s who preferred to think external expansion rather than internal development. They called for international trade, not only in the closed markets of Europe, but the freedom to barter alongside the British, Dutch and French vendors in the Pacific Rim countries.

Trade with Japan

Following the Opium War (1840-1842) between England and China, the U.S. received some trading privileges with China. But American trade always operated at a disadvantage, and a new field of commercial exploration was needed. The “Hermit Empire” of Japan was selected.

From 1620 until the American Navy sailed into Yedo (later called Tokyo) Bay, Japan practiced a policy of rigid isolation and the exclusion of foreigners. So mistrustful were the Japanese of foreigners that shipwrecked sailors were treated with extreme cruelty.

The European missionaries and traders of the 16th and 17th centuries had proven so disruptive to the traditional-oriented Japanese, that most all contact with the outside world was broken off. Only the Dutch and Chinese were allowed to trade through one small port.

For most of two centuries, the rest of the world knew or cared little about Japan. In the 19th century, the U.S. got interested and desired to develop commercial relations, exploit Japan’s proximity to China, and satisfy curiosity about the “Hermit Empire.”

In 1835, an American envoy, Edmund Roberts, was sent to negotiate a treaty. He died en route in 1836. A decade later, Commodore James Biddle arrived in Japan, bearing similar instructions, but the Japanese refused to parley.

On the eve of the American Civil War, pressure was on the American government to open relations with Japan. The clamor was for an agreement to protect American sailors shipwrecked in Japanese waters and the demand for coaling stations to feed the growing steam-powered merchant ships. In concert with these demands was the desire for new markets in the Far East.

Matthew Perry

The polished and impeccable but otherwise ineffective 13th President of the U.S., Millard Fillmore, decided to send another expedition in an attempt to break Japan’s seclusion. The individual selected for the mission was Commodore Matthew Perry, brother of War of 1812 fame Oliver H. Perry.

He did not want to command such an expedition to Japan, but his earlier career made him the obvious choice. His naval service, diplomatic experience in the Mediterranean, his personal traits and even his physical appearance qualified him for the assignment. He was adept at the “poker face diplomacy required in negotiating with inscrutable Asians of that time period.


Perry’s expedition left Hampton Roads, Virginia, in November 1852, sailing through the Magellan Straits of South America into the Pacific waters of the Far East. Aboard the five ships were gifts that demonstrated America’s technological greatness that included a miniature steam locomotive with cars and track. The commodore’s instructions were to arrange for commercial relations and negotiate a treaty.

Eight months later, July 8, 1853, Perry sailed five steam ships, all painted black, into Yedo Bay (Tokyo). With the ships flying the Stars and Stripes and the smoke stacks propelling black smoke into the atmosphere, the Japanese, who had never seen steamships before, were greatly impressed.

The Japanese bureaucrats, representing the Shogun, demanded that Perry’s ships proceed to Nagasaki, the only port which Westerners were permitted to have contact with the Japanese government. Determined to resist any and all slights to American honor and himself, Perry refused to leave the Yedo harbor.

After nine days of talking, the Japanese officials finally promised that the Emperor would receive the treaty proposals. With that, the American fleet departed Japanese waters after informing the Emperor’s agents that they would be returning in the spring of 1854 and expected a favorable response.

While the Emperor Komei and his advisors debated what response Japan should have to the American overtures, Perry cruised to Okinawa, Formosa and China attempting to establish territorial footholds in the region that would support American trade. Coaling stations, safe harbors during bad weather, diplomatic consulates, and military outposts were required to be supportive of trade in the Pacific Rim markets.

Perry returns

In February 1845, Perry returned to Japan with an impressive squadron of nine ships. He found that the Japanese leaders had decided to treat with the “American devils” as being the least threatening of the Western powers. This decision was influenced by the fact that China was developing a Western trade and influence and that Russia had sent a naval force to the northern island of Japan in August of 1853.

Fearing the use of force, Japan became concerned that her security rested in adopting the West’s military and industrial advance. After almost two months of talking, the two countries reached an agreement March 31, 1854.

Treaty signed

The U.S. was permitted to establish a consulate at Shimoda near Yedo Bay, but there was no provision for permanent residency. American vessels were allowed to enter the country only at Shimoda and Hakodate. Japan agreed to assist shipwrecked American sailors and return them to the proper authorities.

Critics of the treaty called it a “shipwreck convention” of little importance in placing relations between the two countries on a secure basis. It did not provide for extraterritorial right for American citizens, coal stations or established markets.

It did, however, state that any future concessions which might be offered to other powers would also be extended to the U.S. The immediate and practical effects of Perry’s efforts were minimal but the long-range consequences were enormous. Japan was no longer isolated, and although few Americans at the time recognized the significance of the treaty, it initiated a new era in the Far East.

Perry’s mission set in motion a train of events of tremendous significance for the course of modern history: the Meigi Restoration, the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese Immigration crisis, the China Incident and Pearl Harbor.

That’s your history!


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.



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