Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry


Commodore Perry visited Japan in 1853 and again in 1854 with the intention of opening official relations between Japan and the United States.  Perry spent approximately three weeks in the port of Shimoda in the southern part of the Izu peninsula in April and May 1854.  Shimoda, of course, was one of the two ports initially chosen by the Japanese authorities (Hakodate in Hokkaido was the other) to receive foreigners.

Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858)

Perry’s account of his expedition to Japan, including his time in Shimoda, was published as Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the Chinas Sea and Japan.  The text was actually written by Francis L. Hawks.  (However Hawks’ text is based on the extensive notes made by Perry.)  As a result, Perry is often referred to in the third person as, for example, “the commodore”.  This shouldn’t detract from the fact that the opinions expressed in the text are almost certainly Perry’s own.  The particular edition I have used here was published in 1856 by the Congress of the United States.  All subsequent quotations are from this edition.

The Title Page from Narrative of the Expedition

On the whole Perry’s initial impressions of Shimoda were favorable.  He claimed that he couldn’t have imagined a more “desirable port” (p.401).  The town itself whilst not possessing any imposing buildings did have an “air of sheltered repose, and an appearance of secluded rusticity” which Perry considered “quite attractive”. (p.402)  Perry was also impressed with the countryside around Shimoda.  It was, he claimed, “extremely picturesque” as the following passage reveals, “Undulating hills, covered with trees and verdure, rise from the water’s edge and extend back into the lofty mountains, rock ribbed and bare.” (p.402)

Valley above Simoda – An illustration from the account of Perry’s mission

Perry was less impressed by the commercial aspect of Shimoda.  He described the town as a “poverty stricken” place in which little commercial activity was evident.  At this point we should remember that Perry came from an America which at this period was becoming an industrial nation and beginning to challenge European industrial supremacy.  Thus it is not surprising that Shimoda appeared sedate and commercially deficient in comparison.

In spite of the lack of economic activity Perry suggested Shimoda showed an “advanced state of civilization” as regards the “cleanliness and healthfulness of the place”.  He was particularly impressed with the sewer system (p.403).  Compared to the huge filthy cities of North America, the clean and well ordered Shimoda certainly must have had a certain kind of appeal.

One thing that Perry was not impressed with were the Japanese inns.  They were, according to Perry, “by no means very magnificent in appearance or complete in appointment.” (p.405).  Japanese inns, Perry claimed, had a “naked, cold look” due to a lack of furniture, pictures and mirrors.  Japanese inns simply couldn’t compare with the “snugness of an English inn or the luxurious completeness of an American Hotel” (p. 405).  Again this could well be seen as an example of American expectations not being met by the realities in Japan.  For Perry, the elegant understatement of Japanese inns could not compare favorably to their American counterparts.  However, Perry was impressed by the accommodation allocated to him in Shimoda.  He was given temporary use of the temple “Rio shen zhi (sic)” (Ryosenji) and his brief description of it suggests he was more than satisfied.  He appreciated the temple’s “picturesque aspect… beds of flowers, tanks containing gold fish, and various plants and trees.” (p. 409)

American sailors and the residents of Shimoda at Ryosen-ji by Wilhelm Heine who was a member of Perry’s crew

The people of Shimoda also came in for a great deal of praise in Perry’s text.  They had, according to Perry, a “characteristic courtesy and reserved but pleasing manners…” (p.405)  However immediately after praising the Japanese, Perry criticizes the Japanese custom of nude mixed bathing.  The Japanese of the inferior classes are, concludes Perry, “notwithstanding their superiority to most oriental nations, a lewd people.” (p.405)

During his time in Shimoda, Perry found time to explore the surrounding rural area.  The countryside was, according to Perry, “beautifully varied with hill and dale.” (p.411) Perry was amazed by the terraced rice farming methods undertaken in the village of Hongo to the north of Shimoda.  The culture of the land Perry claimed was carried on to the extent that it “could hardly be believed” (p.412)  Every hill was “but a succession of terraces… from the base to the summit, and green with the growth of rice, barley, wheat, and other grain.” (p.412)

Perry spent a relatively short time in Shimoda so his opinions can only be but superficial.  However we can conclude that for the most part Perry’s experiences in Shimoda were positive.  He got on well with the locals, he appreciated the hospitality shown by the officials, and perhaps most apparent of all, he enjoyed the beautiful scenery.


Hawks , L., Francis, 1856. Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, Performed in the Years 1852, 1853 and 1854, Under the Command of Commodore M. C. Perry, United States Navy, By Order of the Government of the United States. Washington: A. O. P. Nicholson by order of the Congress of the United States    

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