Sunday, July 31, 2022

Black Ships, Green Trees, and Sapphire Trains: An Afternoon in Izukyu Shimoda

 -- Susan, every other Sunday

162 years, 2 months, and 5 days ago (give or take an hour or two), Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy arrived in Japan with a fleet of nine warships to sign the Treaty of Kanagawa, which officially ended Japan's 265-year period of isolation and opened trade with the west.

A black ship model on display outside Izukyu Shimoda station

That trip to Japan was Perry's second. The first occurred about a year before, when he sailed into Edo harbor with four other warships, and requested that the country end the sakoku period and open its ports to trade. 

That visit didn't go too well for either side.

Despite its weakened state and ailing shogun, the Tokugawa Shogunate refused to grant Perry's demands. Perry left a few weeks later (doubtless in high dudgeon), threatening to return in a year to force the opening of Japan, by war if necessary.

Perry returned in 1864 with twice as many "black ships" (黒船 -kurofune)--so named by the Japanese for the color of the hulls and the way the ships' tall stacks belched smoke into the air.

A black ship, immortalized on the manhole covers in Izukyu Shimoda

After some hemming and hawing, the failing Tokugawa Shogunate agreed to a treaty, which was signed a few weeks later at Ryosenji (了仙寺) a Buddhist temple on the southern tip of the Izu Peninsula, near the port of Izukyu Shimoda. 

The entrance to Ryosenji

The temple was founded in 1635, and prior to Perry's visit was used as a guesthouse for important government visitors to the area. 

The site where Japan reopened to the world

On May 25, 1854, the courtyard in front of the worship hall played host to Commodore Perry and Daigaku Hayashi, the plenipotentiary representative of the Tokugawa Shogunate, who signed the Shimoda Treaty--a 13-article supplement to the Treaty of Kanagawa that opened the Japanese ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to U.S. trading ships.

The temple sits at the end of one of Shimoda's quiet, canal-lined streets, past houses that look as if they might have witnessed Perry's march through the street that now bears his name. 

An old shop along the canal in Shimoda

Although the decision to reopen was not entirely voluntary, Japan has embraced the history of the black ships, and the treaty that not only gave the west access to Japanese ports, but gave Japan access to the technology, food, and culture of the west as well.

Another home on Perry Road

Today, the town of Shimoda has embraced its connection to the Black Ships and their commander. The streets, the shops, and even the manhole covers proudly proclaim the area's connection to Perry's fleet. You can buy "black ship soft serve" (yes, it's really black) or grab a meal at the Black Ship cafe. 

Each May, the town holds a "Kurofune Matsuri" that celebrates Perry's historic arrival with floats, parades, and festival foods. 

Viewed through Western eyes, this may seem odd. Why would a town celebrate the arrival of a fleet, and a commander, that forced open its ports against the country's will?

The best answer I can offer is: "because Japan."

Cross-cultural communication brings both challenges and benefits. By the 1850s, many Japanese people understood that their country could benefit from trade with the outside world; the shogunate was weak, and the commitment to isolation was not nearly as strong as it had been 200 years before, when the policy began. Were warships their chosen path to change? Almost certainly not. But once the events were over, the people here had a new choice to make: how to frame the narrative in the years to come. 

It's possible to disagree about the "best" way to handle events like these. It's possible to ask "why" and "how" and a million other questions, and each of those questions has its place.

But it's also possible to take a train from Tokyo, and ride three hours south down a rainy coast on a train called the Saphir Odoriko

The view en route to Izukyu Shimoda

... walk along the canal to the harbor

Izukyu Shimoda
... past a local shrine

Inari Shrine, Izukyu Shimoda

... and stand on the very spot where an ancient country opened its gates to the modern world

Ryosenji courtyard

And feel the weight of the history, with all its complexities, and understand that it's not your place to judge the people who went before--who made the choices they made, for good or ill, which now form part of the twisted, tangled web of the history we weave. 

And then, when the moment passes, you walk back to town and eat Black Ship ice cream.

Because Japan.


1 comment:

  1. Not only have you written a beautiful blog, Susan, but there's a truth in the way the Japanese have handled Perry and his intimidation from which we can all learn today.