Bronze sculpture of Commodore Perry at the Perry Museum in Kurihama, Yokosuka City. (Photo by Takahiro Takiguchi)
Bronze sculpture of Commodore Perry at the Perry Museum in Kurihama, Yokosuka City. (Photo by Takahiro Takiguchi)

Commodore Perry also visited Okinawa during negotiations with Japan

by and photos by Shoji Kudaka
Stripes Japan

You’ve probably heard of Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s arrival in Japan and the subsequent opening of the nation for trade. However, during his attempts to lead the USS Susquehanna, USS Mississippi, USS Plymouth and USS Saratoga, known as the Black Ships, to the mainland in the 1850s, the commodore also made multiple stops in Okinawa along the way.

Perry and the Black Ships made their first port call in Naha, then-Ryukyu, on May 26, 1853, during their voyage to Uraga, Kanagawa. Japan had isolated itself for more than two centuries and Perry was attempting to establish diplomacy between the country and the United States. It took Perry two visits to Uraga to achieve an official treaty with Japan. On his way to and back from Japan and China, Perry made a stop at Okinawa five times in total.

Much like his visit to Uraga, Perry’s visits to the island were also met with a bit of opposition from the local authority. According to “Perry Teitoku Nihon Ensei Nikki,” a Japanese translation of the commodore’s journal, the local regent told Perry that Shuri Castle was not gorgeous in comparison to the mainland’s buildings or those in China and insisted Perry’s visit would only shock the princess who had taken ill after a visit by a British officer the previous year.

These attempts to discourage a visit to Shuri Castle were in part due to its control by Japan and the Shimazu Clan who had strict isolationist policies that if broken, would be considered treason. It took Perry nearly two weeks after his arrival to be granted a visit to Shuri Castle, but it was the naval force backing him which deemed the visit ultimately inevitable. Perry arrived at Shuri Castle on June 6, 1853.

It was Perry’s determination that allowed him to negotiate with the kingdom, securing the island as a stopping point for American vessels. Perry obtained a place for his crew to rest, a storage area for their coal, and demanded the local markets open for business with members of his crew.

During the talks between Perry and the kingdom, the crew broke off into groups to explore the island. In six days, the crew walked 108 miles and gained geographical and cultural knowledge about the island and its people, all the while being spied on by the locals.

During his second visit to Japan, Perry and the country successfully reached an agreement and on March 31, 1854 the Convention of Kangawa (the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Peace and Amity) was signed in Yokohama. This led to the opening of Shimoda and Hakodate ports to U.S. ships, ending the country’s isolationist policy. Although the treaty was a result of persistent negotiations, Perry’s show of force by moving his vessels closer to the shore or taking a survey of waters close to Edo was thought to have pressured Japan into the agreement.

After the treaty was signed, Perry and the Black Ships headed to Shimoda in Izu Peninsula and Hakodate in Hokkaido. On his way back from Hakodate, Perry returned once more to Shimoda and then made his fifth, and final, visit to Okinawa, where the Ryukyu-U.S. Treaty of Amity was signed on July 11, 1854.

The treaty with Ryukyu included an agreement on how to handle incidents involving U.S. crews and locals. This was a measure taken in response to a few altercations during the visits Perry and his crew made to the island. One involved an Okinawan child throwing a stone towards a ship’s crew, another an attack by a local butcher who hit a sailor with a stick and, yet another, which involved a drunken crewmate who attempted to assault a local woman but was caught and subsequently drowned when he tried to escape. The agreement granted local authority for the arrest of crewmembers who broke the law but with punishment at the skippers’ discretion.

William Board, the crewmember who drowned trying to evade arrest, was buried in Tomari International Cemetery and his gravestone still remains there today.

In 1953 and 2003, Okinawa commemorated the anniversary of Commodore Perry’s first visit to Okinawa. In addition, the arrival of the Black Ships on the mainland are usually marked every May at the Shimoda Black Ship Festival.

Although Perry’s visits to Japan opened the country to trade with the world, it was his visits to Okinawa which served as a sort of hub and refueling place for the Black Ships.

Tomari International Cemetery


GPS Coordinates: N 26.226835, E 127.682631
*This article is based upon Japanese translations of “The Personal Journal of Commodore Matthew C. Perry”

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