Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry--the title and name have a nice, historic ring, but how many Americans can still specify the man's contribution to our past? During his lifetime and for decades after his death in 1858, Perry's fame and accomplishments were certainly unquestioned and secure. Generations of schoolchildren were required to learn that Perry was personally responsible for what was long called America's chief diplomatic triumph of the 19th Century, the "opening" of Japan.
A superb casting director picked him for the role. The Perrys were a famed naval family (brother Oliver had been the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812). After 32 years in the service, Matthew--who had commanded the American fleet that bombarded Vera Cruz during the Mexican War--was "the epitome of the crusty old salt," a much-decorated, gruff, testy, strict disciplinarian who nonetheless was loved by his men. Connected to big money through his son-in-law, New York banker August Belmont, Perry also knew his way around the halls of Congress and the White House. Then as now, leaders of major diplomatic missions were not chosen on skill alone.
Students who solemnly learned that the world changed, somehow for the better, after Perry's squadron of "Black Ships" steamed into Uraga Bay in July 1853, never were taught that history is a study in irony. Once, the brute fact of Perry's major accomplishment seemed to speak for itself. Today one may be tempted to see his triumph as more problematic. No Perry, no Pearl Harbor, no Hiroshima, no Toyotas, no trade deficit.
One of the great virtues of Peter B. Wiley's book is that it firmly dispels any such ahistorical yearnings. By placing Perry's expedition in the detailed context of growing, mid-19th Century Western involvement in East Asia, the work clearly shows how and why the opening of Japan was imminent in the 1850s. British, French, and Russian ships were nosing through Japanese waters. Captains from each nation were landing repeatedly to make demands that the Japanese end their 250-year-old policy of isolation and begin to trade like other "civilized" nations.
Why such "reasonable" requests were continually refused is the other side of the story. A second virtue of Wiley's book is that it devotes a good deal of space to what most Western historians always have ignored: the cultural and political background of Japanese isolation and the intricate political infighting that shaped both Japanese strategy (delay, delay, more delay) for dealing with American demands and her eventual treaty with the United States.
The leaders of the shogun's government might be isolated, but they were neither uninformed nor unintelligent. All too well they knew about Western imperialism and armaments, as symbolized in the victory of the British over the Chinese in the recent Opium War. A minority among them were beginning to realize that the sacred soil of their "Land of the Gods" would sooner or later be violated by the hairy barbarians. And a few officials thought it a positively good idea to get in on the trade, arms, learning, and technology of a civilization that was clearly more advanced--if not as virtuous--as their own.
For Americans, virtue lay on the side of "progress." The impulse to "open" Japan grew out of that 19th-Century combination of greed, religious doctrine, patriotic fervor, democracy and territorial ambition that we once liked to call Manifest Destiny. Despite the mission's national aims--the desire to ensure better treatment for shipwrecked sailors, the need for coaling stations, the hope for lucrative trade--Congress was stingy with funding, and the commodore had to content himself with a fleet only half the size of what he had been promised--two steamers and two sailing vessels for the first encounter.
If the Perry expedition is well-known to historians, "Yankees in the Land of the Gods" makes it accessible to a wider audience. As told here, it has many of the characteristics of a good yarn, one of those no-longer-fashionable tales of adventure--Western men on the high seas going to exotic places and dealing with native peoples, free of the restrictive social bonds of family and women.
Specificity of detail is the author's strength. We see this voyage not just from the viewpoint of a stiff commander (literally, for Perry suffered from arthritis) but also through the eyes of such members of the expedition as Samuel Williams, the missionary-turned-interpreter who found the blasphemous and often untruthful Perry and his officers to be odd instruments of Divine Will. We have glimpses too of common sailors as they tramp across the landscapes of Okinawa and the Bonin Islands on exploration parties, encounter the odd customs of natives and learn sadly in Shimoda that the prostitutes refuse to sleep with foreigners.