The Perry expedition succeeded in opening Japan to trade with the USA. From Wikipedia we learn that around the same time the Russians also attempted the same thing (the Dutch already had some weak agreement with the Japanese).

I don't understand why they would consider using force in order to make the Japanese their partners (Perry had orders to use force if necessary)? Diplomacy, bribery, etc. sure, but risking a war seems not profitable. Especially, since that war would be waged against an isolated nation, i.e. there could be no guarantees as to what could be expected.

One of the reasons is stated as:

The Americans were also driven by concepts of Manifest Destiny and the desire to impose the benefits of western civilization and the Christian religion on what they perceived as “backwards” Asian nations.

Particularly in the case of the US this is an unsurprising reason, but also one specific umbrella for various hostile agendas (all throughout modern history the "benefits" of "Americans bringing democracy" are evident), so it's inconclusive.

Another reason:

The growing commerce between America and China, the presence of American whalers in waters offshore Japan, and the increasing monopolization of potential coaling stations by the British and French in Asia...

Again it is unclear to me how a potential conflict would help there, since it would disrupt trade, endanger the whalers and only worsen the position of the USA against the British and French.

The question is phrased for "nations" rather than USA intentionally, as I'm interested in other (general) motivations as well. The USA are only a prominent example, since they succeeded in forcing an agreement.

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    You may wish to read up on coaling stations and the shift from wind power to coal power for Naval activity. Or you may wish to read up on the concept of mercantilism and the balance of trade. I suggest that you revise the "unsurprising reason" section; I'm not sure if this is history or political commentary on events well after the opening of Japan. The whole question reads like an "I think X amiright..." question.
    – MCW
    Aug 24, 2016 at 14:06
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    China was also forced to open their borders. Why would Japan be an exception?
    – Rathony
    Aug 24, 2016 at 14:10
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    Another factor was the treatment of stranded or shipwrecked sailors - without international relations, their treatment was bad, and their repatriation was difficult to impossible. Aug 24, 2016 at 14:24
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    <tongue in cheek> Because Isolationism is an offense to the TransNational Progressive Agenda! We must take action to end isolationism, introversion and individualism! </tongue in cheek>
    – MCW
    Aug 24, 2016 at 16:54
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    The 'spreading democracy' stuff you mention didn't really start until after WWII. Late 19th century/early 20th century U.S. foreign policy was more just straight-up European-style imperialism, indeed usually directly competing with European empires for colonies. Far from starting in the U.S., the U.S. itself is a direct result of European imperialism dating back centuries before this.
    – reirab
    Aug 24, 2016 at 18:47

3 Answers 3


Middle and end of the 19th century could be characterized as follows.

  • Expansionism vs International Isolation

Strong European countries such as Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Russia and other countries were expanding rapidly in the uncharted territories such as Africa, India, China, the Philippines, and Japan because they need to increase their trade and plunder natural resources from weak nations. The US was a late comer to this ever-intensifying competition and East Asian countries (China, the Philippines and Japan) were the only territories left for the US to compete with other European nations. China, through two Opium Wars, was weakened significantly and had to accept Western countries' power and influence, which led to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty.

  • The belated expansionism of the US and China's opening its borders

After the Independence War, the US was not capable of invading or colonizing other countries due to the lack of leadership and resources (it was not as powerful as other European nations). Throughout the middle of the 19th century especially after slavery abolition (note that the slave trading and cheap labor provided by slaves were two of the biggest contributors to the U.S. economy), the U.S. had to find another way to increase its trade. After China's borders were forced to open, it was a golden opportunity for the U.S. that it could never miss.

  • Japanese isolation policy

Even though other countries in East Asia were either opened or colonized by European nations (except for a few including Korea), Japan was one of the few countries (including Korea) that have never been opened by European countries. Japan was strategically very important to the US as it was the geographically closest to the US and it still remained closed without much influence by Western countries.

The US had to force Japan to open up its border so that it could take a strategic position and use Japan's land and resources to improve its trade and economy.

From Japan's perspective, Japan watched what happened in China and it could not risk weakening itself as China did through the wars. Japan needed Western technology and weaponry to defend itself. That's why Japan had to take the offer made by the US.


Why would some nations want to force Japan to end their isolation?

Because they needed Japan as a trading base and gateway to China, India and other countries such as the Philippines. Japan was one of the few countries that have not been technically colonized in East Asia. Its strategic importance was too great to be overlooked by any country, especially the U.S.

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    "slave trading was one of the biggest industries in the U.S." - probably false, given The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807.
    – sds
    Aug 24, 2016 at 20:57
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    @sds Do you mean there were no alcohols during the prohibition period and there are no drugs on the streets now because of the anti-drug laws? People bought and sold slaves and it contributed enormously to the US economy until slavery abolition.
    – Rathony
    Aug 25, 2016 at 5:50
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    Do you have sources for any large scale slave smuggling into the US after 1807? - National slave trade was not inhibited by this law, but importing them was outlawed. So comparing it to prohibition and anti-drug laws is misleading! Aug 25, 2016 at 8:24
  • @AlexanderKosubek Why do people think about slave importing when I talk about slave trading? There were breeding houses for slaves and they traded those slaves born in the U.S. in the 19th century. During the prohibition period, importing alcohols was outlawed. Where did those alcohols come from? Part of them was made in the US and majority of them were illegally smuggled from other countries. Why is comparing slave trading to them misleading?.
    – Rathony
    Aug 25, 2016 at 8:26
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    During the prohibition, production, sale and transport of alcohol were illegal. This is significantly different to slave trade, where only the import was illegal from 1808! - Why would strictly national slave trade have any effect on international trade? Just stopping the "production" and "consumtion" of slaves internally should have no effect on external trade, so why would this single industry have to be replaced by foreign trade? Aug 25, 2016 at 8:32

The importance of Japan grew in relation to the China trade. The importance of the latter grew after China lost the Opium War in 1840-42, and was forced to open a number of treaty ports to European countries.

Two countries in particular had an interest in Japan: America, and Russia. That's because Japan represented a "way station" to China for those two countries. For example, the distance between San Francisco (newly founded in the 1840s) and Tokyo is 5100 miles; from there to Beijing is 1300 miles. Similarly, Japan stood astride communication lines between Vladivostok and the Chinese coast.

A hostile Japan could deny either country, particularly Russia, access to the Chinese coast; a friendly Japan could guarantee access.

  • The USA had no National Interest at stake relative to Japan and Admiral Perry. Later...much later...Secretary of State Hay created the Open Door policy for fear that US goods would be displaced by European ones unfairly...40 years after the British Opium War. Japan have had a tremendously beneficial trading relationship ever since...with the prominent exception of the events leading up to and including World War 2...the latest example being Pokemon Go actually... Aug 24, 2016 at 23:43
  • @user14394: Some people, including Commodore Perry, are far-sighted enough to see, and act for "later...much later."
    – Tom Au
    Aug 25, 2016 at 0:01

If you google your question, you'll find multiple answers, the best of which begins with the following:

There were several reasons why the United States became interested in revitalizing contact between Japan and the West in the mid-19th century. First, the combination of the opening of Chinese ports to regular trade and the annexation of California, creating an American port on the Pacific, ensured that there would be a steady stream of maritime traffic between North America and Asia. . . . US Department of State

(aside: If you want to know why the USA implements a given foreign policy, the US State Department is probably a good source).

The source goes on to list additional reasons:

  1. Need for coaling stations
  2. rumor that Japan had massive coal deposits
  3. American whaling industry sought safe harbors, and shipwreck cooperation
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    Europeans knew their History....the greatest military threat came from the East (the Mongols in particular.) Once we had mapped the entire World the only People we knew nothing about were the Japanese...so "kick in the door and see if there's a problem." Which is exactly what the USA did. Aug 24, 2016 at 17:46
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    I'm sorry, but I don't consider the state department to be an objective historical source. Although I don't imply that facts are not represented or made up, I consider the SD source a political commentary on those facts rather than historical analysis. Compared with the other answers, although much shorter, the linked article is a fairly one-dimensional account, more focused on Perry's mission and Harris' treaty than a deep analysis on the background that led to them. Aug 25, 2016 at 7:49

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