14. Commodore Perry’s Expedition to Japan: Lesley Downer (1853)

"The most momentous event in Japanese history"

Commodore Matthew Perry’s expedition to Japan in 1853 changed the course of the island’s history. Long into the nineteenth century Japan had been regarded by the growing group of Western nations as a hermit kingdom, known for its stubborn resistance to outsiders. Prior to Perry’s Expedition, it was connected to the Euro-centric world of trade and commerce only by a single Dutch outpost near Nagasaki that was visited by a single ship each year.

Throughout this period of isolation, Japan’s rich and intricate society had developed under the rule of the shoguns. But interference from outside powers was increasingly feared and anticipated. The crucial moment came in July 1853 when the United States government despatched Commodore Perry on a speculative mission to forge relations.

Perry’s arrival in Edo Bay

In this episode of Travels Through Time, the writer and historian Lesley Downer takes us back to the moment that Perry’s fleet of ships sails into Edo Bay – modern-day Tokyo. She describes the meaningful coming together of two contrasting worlds: the confusion, the power play and the consequences, in three vivid scenes. The Japanese, as the American’s find out, know more much about the world than they anticipated.

Scene One: Friday July 8/Edo Bay. Commodore Perry’s four ‘Black Ships’ steam right up to the little town of Uraga, at the entrance to Edo Bay, threatening the capital, Edo (now Tokyo).

Scene Two: Monday July 12th/Edo Bay. Kayama Eizaemon, Police Magistrate of Uraga, is taken on a tour of the flagship to celebrate having negotiated Perry’s delivery of his letter and is shown a globe. The Americans assume he doesn’t know the earth is round. He nonchalantly points out New York and Washington DC.

Scene Three: Wednesday July 14th/ Edo Bay. Perry goes on shore to deliver his letter, accompanied by stewards and a squadron of guards playing ‘Hail Columbia.’

This period of history is chronicled in Lesley Downer’s Shogun Quartet of novels.

Presenter: Peter Moore

Guest: Lesley Downer

Producer: Maria Nolan