Opening New Vistas

The Perry Expedition to Japan

In 1853, President Millard Fillmore sent Commodore Matthew C. Perry on an expedition to Japan. For nearly two hundred years, Japan had had a policy of isolation. The United States, a young nation driven by Manifest Destiny and expanding westward rapidly, sought new frontiers beyond its Pacific coast. Perry's mission was to persuade Japan to end its policy of isolation and open its doors to trade and diplomatic relations with the U.S. Perry was instructed to use force if necessary to coerce the Japanese into an agreement.

German-born William Heine was the official artist of the Perry expedition to Japan. Only in his mid-twenties at the time, he was adventurous and sought to make a name for himself. Over the course of the trip, he sketched and painted numerous illustrations — making the expedition the most widely illustrated American event before the Civil War. Perry and Heine continued the tradition of the illustrated travel account established by explorer-artist pairs like Thomas Hariot and John White (see "Exploring the New World" section in exhibition) and Maximilian of Wied and Karl Bodmer (see "Expanding Westward"). Perry and Heine delivered what the public expected of the expedition — a narrative accompanied by many, detailed illustrations.

"Passing the Rubicon." Heine, Wilhelm. The Japan Expedition under Commodore Perry. New York: E. Brown, Jr., 1855-1856.

Commodore Matthew C. Perry entered Edo (modern Tokyo) Bay on July 8, 1853, with four ships, nearly one thousand men, and sixty-six guns. Perry's ships were met by a Japanese delegation that asked Perry to remain in the bay while they reported Perry's request for a treaty to the ruling shogun in Edo. While the squadron dropped anchor, Lieutenant Silas Bent led several boats on a survey of the bay.

In the scene pictured here, Bent's cutter, the Mississippi, has just passed Point Rubicon and is heading further into the bay. As the cutter comes face to face with a Japanese patrol boat, some of Bent's crew have dropped their oars and are wielding their muskets in order to intimidate the Japanese crew. In his account of the expedition, With Perry to Japan, Heine writes that this show of force successfully cleared the way for the survey boats.

"First Landing of Americans in Japan." Heine, Wilhelm. The Japan Expedition under Commodore Perry. New York: E. Brown, Jr., 1855-1856.

On July 14, 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry went ashore at Gore-hama to request a treaty opening Japan to diplomatic relations and trade with the United States. This first landing of Perry's men in Japan, pictured here, was accompanied by great pomp and ceremony. The naval band played "Hail, Columbia" as Perry presented a letter from President Millard Fillmore to a representative of the ruling shogun. The Japanese were reluctant to sign any kind of treaty and Perry agreed to give them time to consider it. He left Japan promising to return for an answer in a year accompanied by more men and ships.

"Landing of Commodore Perry, Officers & Men of the Squadron." Heine, Wilhelm. The Japan Expedition under Commodore Perry. New York: E. Brown, Jr., 1855-1856.

Despite his promise to come back in July 1854, Commodore Matthew C. Perry returned to Japan in February, having spent the intervening months in China. He demanded an answer from the Japanese regarding a treaty with the United States. Accompanying Perry were roughly twice the number of men, ships, and guns as the first visit. He made it clear to the Japanese that if they did not agree to sign the treaty, the U.S. had more than enough military strength to force their compliance.

Perry came ashore on March 8 to meet with representatives of the ruling shogun. He was accompanied by six hundred men and an armed naval band. The Japanese signed the Treaty of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854. They agreed to open their ports to trade with the U.S., to provide hospitality for shipwrecked sailors, and to establish an American consulate at Simoda. This was the first such agreement by Japan with a Western nation.

"Exercise of Troops in Temple Grounds, Simoda, Japan." Heine, Wilhelm. The Japan Expedition under Commodore Perry. New York: E. Brown, Jr., 1855-1856.

The Treaty of Kanagawa established Simoda as the city where the American consulate in Japan would be located. Commodore Matthew C. Perry visited Simoda in June 1854 and went ashore with four cannons and about three hundred men. To impress the Japanese, they staged demonstrations of artillery fire and infantry exercises on the grounds of the main temple — the scene pictured here. With the successful completion of his mission, Perry and his squadron sailed out of Japan on June 27, 1854, to return to the United States.

After Perry's return to the U.S., Heine produced several books and prints commemorating the trip. He published this group of six elephant folios in 1855-56 — the finest illustrations of the expedition. His illustrations also appeared in Perry's official narrative of the expedition and popular newspapers and magazines, although his artwork often suffered when it was reproduced for these publications. American readers were fascinated with the exotic culture documented in these prints. By capturing Japanese landscapes, architecture, and cultural artifacts, Heine's illustrations helped quicken the West's interest in Oriental art, chinoiserie, and lacquer-ware that flourished after Perry's expedition.

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