Matthew C. Perry commanded the U.S. Navy expedition that forced Japan to abandon its policy of isolation, triggering the eventual overthrow of the Shogunate's and the Meiji Restoration. Perry arrived in Edo Bay in 1853 to deliver a letter from President Fillmore, and returned the next year to receive Japan's answer. By demonstrating the overwhelming superiority of Western technology, he forced the Japanese delegates to agree to his demands.

In the English Wikipedia article for Commodore Perry, it is mentioned that, when the Japanese tried to turn him away during the first visit, Perry ordered his ships to attack the habour with highly destructive guns. That article cites as a source Arthur Walworth's book, the Black Ships Off Japan: The Story of Commodore Perry's Expedition.

Perry ordered some buildings in the harbor shelled. (Walworth,Arthur; Black Ships Off Japan p. 21) Perry's ships were equipped with new Paixhans shell guns, cannons capable of wreaking great explosive destruction with every shell.

- Matthew_C._Perry - Threat of force and negotiation

In contrast, the Japanese article says the cannons fired blanks and did not result in any deaths. This seems to match what the Naval History and Heritage Command says, hich seems to suggest (based on the wording of "implied") that the guns weren't actually used on the Japanese.

During this period, the Commodore remained out of sight in his cabin, stating that he would consult personally only with direct representatives of the Emperor. The Japanese procrastinated and equivocated. The Commodore stood firm, supported by the implied threat of the squadron's guns. He refused to move his ships to Nagasaki. He rejected gifts and compromises. He forbade indiscriminate visiting by natives. He herded their guard boats away from the anchorage. Always alert to the possibility of treachery, he exercised his crew at battle stations daily.

- A brief Summary of the Perry Expedition to Japan, 1853

The two versions seem to be contradictory. Moreover, although the English wiki mentioned no deaths, it followed the sentence by saying Perry's ships were equipped with devastating gun, which seems like they would have easily killed people had they fired.

So my question is, is it definitively known whether Perry attacked the harbour to forcibly open Japan?


2 Answers 2


None of the contemporary accounts I have read, such as that of Francis L. Hawks (1861), which is more or less the official account of the missions, make any mention of an attack of any kind. In the Hawks narrative the embassy is presented as entirely peaceful.

Also, the text of the letter which Millard Fillmore gave to Perry for delivery to the Emperor specifically says that he had ordered Perry not to do anything "which would disturb the peace of Japan".

There is a book written by an eye witness, John Smith Sewall. "The Logbook of the Captain's Clerk" published in 1905. Sewall was the clerk to the Captain of one of the escorts of the expedition. Nowhere in this book does he mention any shots or "blanks" fired and he represents the embassy as peaceful except for three shells fired by the Japanese which exploded harmlessly behind them when they first arrived. These shots by the Japanese are also mentioned in the Hawks narrative.

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    Does what you read corroborate what the Japanese Wiki says about firing blank shells, or do they present a different account? Also, in the Japanese perspective at least Perry's ships committed an act of war by sailing into Edo Harbour - do you have a source that Fillmore quote? Google turns up this very page.
    – Semaphore
    Sep 6, 2014 at 8:03
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    The Japanese wiki's version of events is stated in the question as well as the comment you are supposedly replying to - namely, that Perry fired blanks. Also, no one else said anything about "exchanging gunfire" - the question is whether Perry fired blanks or actually attacked. Or, as you seem to be saying, he didn't fire at all; which is a valid answer, but not very well substantiated right now.
    – Semaphore
    Sep 6, 2014 at 19:48
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    Also, it is quite misleading to put your own paraphrasing of some source text in between quotation marks as though it's an actual quote. I don't think it is productive to pursue this angle however since whatever Fillmore's diplomatic letter says doesn't really determine what Perry actually did later.
    – Semaphore
    Sep 6, 2014 at 19:51
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    @Semaphore What do you mean "many books" say this? What books? The only citation you give is a wiki page. What books have you ACTUALLY READ that say the black ships fired their guns? I have now cited two books, one compiled from the journals of Perry himself, the other by an eye-witness to the journey, neither of which mention any guns being fired. Sep 6, 2014 at 21:07
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    Miyamato Musashi, dusty from a long morning's walk, is said to have been enjoying lunchtime soup in a roadside inn when two ronin eyed his katana and made movements suggesting a robbery. Determined to both enjoy his soup undisturbed, and to preserve the peace and harmony of the inn, Musashi calmly dispossessed two nearby flies of their wings with his wakazashi. Being observant, the two ronin quietly continued by Musashi's table out of the inn and don the road. ... Sep 8, 2014 at 2:21

Not being a native speaker of English, my interpretation might not be correct, but this is a quote from "Narrative of the expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan";

"The Japanese officials took especial interest, on the occasion of their frequent visits to the ships in the inspection of the armament, and were often gratified with the exercise of the guns, the filling of the shells, and other matters of military discipline and practice. Though, in their later history a pacific people, the Japanese, as we have already said, are fond of military display, and seemed particularly desirous of scrutinizing all the warlike appointments which made their visitors so formidable; as if they felt the necessity, in the new relations which were opening with foreigners, of studying and adopting the best means of attack and defence, should either ever become necessary by any future collision with the great powers of the west. With proper training, no people would make better soldiers. Every opportunity was afforded them, without restriction, of satisfying their curiosity, which was naturally directed towards those points in which they were conscious of their greatest weakness; and this liberality of the Americans, in the free exposition of their power, deeply impressed the Japanese with a conviction of the pacific intentions of their visitors, who desired to show that they looked to a friendly intercourse, and not to a violent invasion, for those mutual benefits which were to accrue from more intimate relations between the United States and Japan."

The bold is mine. Could this not be interpreted, by Japanese speakers, as the guns being fired for demonstration? This from their visit in Hakodate, similar demonstrations most likely occurred in Edo bay, but I don't have the time or resources to llok for that right now. The above quote is from page 470 and forward in volume one.

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