Commodore Perry & the legacy of American imperialism
Most Japanese know who Commodore Perry is. He’s the man who came with the black ships and opened Japan to the West. According to one survey, 90% of all Japanese school children can identify him.
In America, Commodore Perry is less remembered – and the way he is, differs from that of most historians who write about the legacy of his arrival in Japan.
According to the U.S. naval museum, Perry was a hero who persuaded the Japanese to open their ports in order to able trade and friendship with the West. After the signing of the treaty, the Japanese invited the Americans to a feast. The Americans admired the courtesy and politeness of their hosts, and thought very highly of the rich Japanese culture. Commodore Perry broke down barriers that separated Japan from the rest of the world. Today the Japanese celebrate his expedition with annual black ship festivals.
Historians, however, recount the legacy of the arrival of the black ships quite differently.
It was a moment in history when the Japanese realized how miserably behind the rest of the world they were. While their samurai were bashing away at each other with swords, foreign powers had developed boats and weapons that they were no match for whatsoever. To survive, Japan needed to learn from the West.
So in an ultimate act of “shoganai,” Japan signed the unequal treaty. At the same time it resolved to build a modern military that would be the envy of the rest of the world. The result was the birth of the imperial oligarchy and the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate – and with it, the civil war that lead to the abolishment of the samurai and rise of the Japanese Imperial Army.
Ironically, in some Japanese textbooks, the Meiji Restoration is portrayed as a type of bloodless coup, but that is far from the truth.
The Boshin War was one of Japan’s bloodiest. In consequence, it would lead to a period of rapid reform and modernization known as the Meiji Restoration, which in turn led to the birth of constitutional democracy and the end of feudalism, which was actually a good deal for most Japanese (except the 10% who had previously benefited from the system, such as the many samurai who faced impoverishment as a result.)
For its neighbors, however, it led to a disastrous period in which Japan was convinced that to survive, it, too, had to mimic the West’s colonial behavior.
The legacy of Perry’s “deed” would further build up to World War II when Japanese colonial interests would go head to head with those of rival colonial interests.
In American schools, the term “American imperialism” is not so commonly used in textbooks, but it was under President James Polk that America attempted to create the American Empire. In its wake, Texas and California were annexed from Mexico.
Under the doctrine of manifest destiny, three arguments were used to justify the expansion of American territories: The Virtue of The American People, The Mission to Spread American Institutions and Destiny under God to do so.
During this era in the 1830s, the U.S. also passed the Indian Removal Act, which was enforced mostly through treaties that were either unfair, or quickly broken.
America occupied other lands, too—the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Wake Islands and Hawaii as well.
Today, the legacy of “manifest destiny” is argued to live on via the doctrine of “American Exceptionalism” which is often used to justify American military actions that fall outside the norms of the international community.
The question arises: when are such actions justified? How is the line between state-sponsored piracy in the name of nation and God distinguished between national security within international norms of rule of law?
And here is where we have a lesson to be learned.
Perry’s intervention led to the birth of modern Japan, which today is one of the most affluent and prosperous countries on Earth. There’s no doubt that most Japanese are aware of that, and have a sense of stoic gratitude.
On the other hand, in the wake, Japan was briefly turned in to an awakened beast. It led to a brutal civil war, interventions that included genocide in other Asian countries, upon America with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and upon itself with the firebombings of Tokyo and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some 3 million Japanese died in WWII alone, a half a million Americans – 10-20 million Chinese and about 400,000 Koreans.
And all for what?
Here is where a rather odd irony arises ... what some older readers will recognize as Paul Harvey’s “The rest of the story.”
At the time of Perry’s expedition, the United States held a global monopoly on the international whaling industry—her ships swarmed around Japan’s territorial waters. Whalers wanted the country to open its ports because they needed places to refit their ships with coal and procure wood, water and revisions. In addition, shipwrecked sailors who had to dock in Japan faced the penalty of death or imprisonment. Japan, however, refused to open its ports.
It was, in part, under these circumstances that America resorted to gunboat diplomacy.
Today, many of Japan’s disputes with its neighbors as well as the international community can be traced back to the arrival of Commodore Perry, and it was to a great extent for a cause that most people around the world see as reprehensible today: whaling.
It is here that we learn the ultimate lesson from the consequences of Commodore Perry’s actions: military interventions can have unintended effects which last hundreds of years into the future. In the case of America’s military interventions in other countries today, the question must be asked, what will be the unintended consequences for better and for worse down the line and are they really worth the price?