The Man Who Opened Japan: Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry

"Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, USN" Matthew Brady, 1856.

"Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, USN" Matthew Brady, 1856.

    Today, Japan is a major player on the global stage, with a modern economy and a taste for American popular culture, so it’s hard to imagine Japan as a reclusive nation. But in the early 19th century, Japan was so shut off from outside influence that it wouldn’t even grant an American ambassador an audience with its rulers. How did this sheltered nation become the truly global force it is today? One of the people responsible for this change was US navy officer, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry. Commodore Perry is credited today as being the man who “opened” Japan to outside influence, playing a crucial role in the development of American trade and diplomacy in Asia.

Two Brothers

Matthew Perry was born in South Kingston, Rhode Island in 1794. The younger brother of famous commander Oliver Hazard Perry, Perry joined the navy at an early age. Perry became a midshipman in 1809, and fought alongside his brother at the Battle of Lake Erie in 1812, the conflict that lead to his brother’s famous line “We have met the enemy and they are ours”. (for more on Oliver Hazard Perry, check out this biography by naval historian Lincoln Payne). After the War of 1812, Matthew Perry worked for the Navy, advocating for steam powered ships and fighting in the Mexican War. It was during this time that Matthew Perry was promoted to the rank of Commodore, in recognition of his work in the New York Naval Yard. 

Commodore Perry’s Expedition to Japan

In 1852, at the urging of President Millard Fillmore, Matthew Perry was given an important job: “open”  reclusive Japan up to negotiating trade terms and diplomatic relations with the US, a task that American ambassadors had failed at in the past. After years of working in the Navy, Commodore Perry knew how to use naval power to his advantage. He brought a powerful fleet to Japan with him, and when denied an audience with Japanese officials, threatened to use his ships to personally deliver the message President Fillmore had given him. Perry then presented the Japanese with a white flag, telling them they could agree to negotiate or be destroyed. After witnessing the power of the Commodore’s fleet, the Japanese agreed to receive the message of President Fillmore. Commodore Perry returned two years later to sign a Japanese treaty, that to the surprise of Perry, accepted all of President Fillmores demands. Perry then returned to the United States a hero. 

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