18 Art: Commodore Perry

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Why did the United States want to open Japan?

The biggest reason that the United States sent Matthew Perry to Japan was to use it as a “coaling base” or a base where steamships, which used coal, could restock their coal supply. Japan was a perfect location for this because it was at almost the same latitude as San Francisco. The United States Navy already used Hawaii as a port for coaling, but they needed another port for steamships in the east.

Another big reason the United States wanted to open Japan was to make sure shipwrecked sailors in Japan got good treatment. A whaling ship called the Lagoda was shipwrecked in Japan many years before and many of the sailors had been treated very badly. Also, some Japanese sailors that had been shipwrecked wanted to return to Japan but hadn’t been allowed passage.

The final reason was for trade. The trading had brought in a lot of revenue for the Americans and they wanted to trade more with other countries to increase revenues.

Japan before Commodore Perry arrived

Japan chose to isolate itself in the 1600’s when the Tokugawa Shogunate took control. A Shogun is a military leader in Japan. The Tokugawa Shogunate was a family who controlled Japan for about 200 years. Tokugawa took control after defeating all the opposing feudal lords. After Tokugawa got control of the power, the powerless emperor gave him the title of Shogun. Tokugawa promptly replaced all the feudal lords with friends and allies. Each lord had to spend one year in the capital every two years so the Shogun could keep an eye on them.

No Europeans were allowed into Japan except the Dutch who were allowed to land a ship every year. The Dutch had enough political pull to make sure that no foreign nations except themselves were allowed to trade at all with Japan.

Planning the Expedition to Japan

Matthew Perry got the position to lead the expedition in 1851 after Commodore Aulick was relieved of the command of the Japan fleet.  Commodore Perry would not let any diplomats go along on the expedition for he feared that they would ruin the expedition.  Commodore Aulick (his predecessor) demanded that the Japan fleet have at least three first class steamships and a sloop of war. Aulick wanted the steamers for two reasons. The first was that he thought a ship without sails would scare the Japanese and the second reason was for their speed. He also asked that the ships be equipped with heavy caliber guns, explosive shells, rockets, etc. to scare the Japanese or destroy them if necessary.

Perry wanted a larger fleet of ships for the expedition. He made the Secretary of the Navy, William Graham, promise to increase the size of the fleet if he was to take command, or to switch Perry to the command of the Mediterranean fleet. The fleet’s size was expanded to include the steamers Mississippi, Susquehanna, Powhatan, and the Allegheny. The Plymouth and Saratoga were the two sloops on the expedition. The final ship promised to Commodore Perry was the ship of the line Vermont.

The First Visit to Japan

Commodore Matthew Perry’s first visited Japan on July 8th, 1853. He went to the Japanese capital, Edo (now Tokyo), and made demands. He demanded that ports be opened to Americans, that prisoners be treated well and given back, etc. The Japanese rejected his demands and Perry withdrew from Japan knowing he would return.  More at Ben Griffiths

EHA Supplies:

  • Paper
  • Pencils
  • Colored pencils
  • Markers


  1. Read and discuss the above passage regarding Commodore Perry.
  2. Japanese officials did not want Perry to enter Edo Bay.  They wanted him to go back to the United States and leave Japan alone. 
  3. Japanese newspapers published highly distorted pictures of Perry.  Why do you think they distorted his face?  What would the people have thought?  Remember, there was no television and it was extremely rare to have ever seen a non-Japanese person at this time.  Would that have wished to welcome Perry?
  4. Do you think the pictures encouraged dialogue between the Japanese and Americans?  How are words used like pictures now?  When we exaggerate something about another person or paint them in a negative light, what does that do to the person and to the others hearing our words?  
  5. Pair up the students.  Please do this yourself so no one feels left out or not wanted.
  6. Draw a picture of another student in the room as beautifully as possible.  Include items around their face that highlight their wonderfulness.  You might include flowers to represent their beauty, or a sports item if they play.  Ask the person what they would like for you to include.  After class give your picture to the student and explain all of the good things you think of him or her.

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Posted in: art

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