The Black Ship Festival

By Col A. J. Doublet & Capt R. J. Martin Jr. - Originally Published February 1981

Commodore Matthew Perry opened the door to trade between the United States and Japan when he visited the Far East with a flotilla of four ships in 1853. To help commemorate the historic occasion, U.S. Marines and sailors are invited each year by the Japanese to participate in a three-day festival marked by pomp and ceremony.

In his day, they referred to him throughout the Navy as "Old Matt," a tough disciplinarian who was noted for his ability to get things done. He was Commodore Matthew Perry, a younger brother of Oliver Hazard Perry of the War of 1812 fame, and "Old Matt" believed that America's manifest destiny extended beyond California and out across the Pacific.

Now, in July 1853, Perry approached the home islands of Japan with a flotilla of four ships, vessels the Japanese would ultimately refer to as "Black Ships," carrying what he earnestly believed to be the gospel of the Lord to a heathen nation. He was also carrying a personal message from the President of the United States to the Emperor, demanding the opening of Japan to normal civilized trade and communication.

Presumably, religion was to serve as the lock opener to the anticipated commerce and industry of Japan. Nevertheless, this early American venture had a profound impact on U.S.-Japanese relations, and Perry's early visit to Japan is recreated each year in what the Japanese people call the "Black Ship Festival."

In a number of coastal ports in and around the Izu and Miura peninsulas of central Honshu, Japan, considerable pomp and ceremony takes place annually to commemorate the arrival of the first significant flotilla of U.S. Navy warships to visit the home island of Japan.

The "Black Ship Festival" recognizes the opening of Japanese ports to U.S. trade with the arrival of Commodore Matthew C. Perry. The welcoming ceremony and the air of festivities with which the Japanese people greet today's sailors and Marines attending the festival is a far cry from the cold and somewhat hostile reception which greeted their forebears and Commodore Perry a century and more before.

It is interesting to review the historical account of Perry's initial visit to Japan since it provides the origin for today's pomp and ceremony, and even the dress of the participants, recreated by the local people in the cities where the "Black Ship Festivals" take place.

Lookouts aboard USS Susquehanna, Perry's flagship, sighted Mount Fuji rising above the horizon early on the morning of July 8, 1853, and soon Japanese fishing boats were dropping their sails, putting out their oars, and fleeing to the distant coastline.

Anchoring a mile off the town of Uraga in outer Tokyo Bay, the Susquehanna was soon approached by a large, official-looking junk. Speaking in Dutch through an interpreter, Perry emphasized that he would see no one except the highest authority in Uraga since he carried with him a note from President Millard Fillmore.

The president's note pointed out how American steamships could travel from California to Japan in just 18 days, and if the Imperial Majesty of Japan would change ancient laws so as to allow free trade between the two countries it would be extremely beneficial to both. Also, the President wanted humane treatment for American sailors and merchantmen who washed ashore in Japan, the likely victims of shipwrecks.

It was not until July 14, 1853, six days after Perry's arrival, that local Japanese authorities could coordinate what purportedly was to be the official acceptance of President Fillmore's letter.

The Japanese emissary sent to receive Commodore Perry at Uraga was dressed in golden trousers, a wide-sleeved brocade jacket and bright lacquer clogs. Perry went ashore dressed in blues, a plume and cocked hat, accompanied by an honor guard of Marines. Two young ensigns flanked Perry and carried President Fillmore's message in a rosewood box.

An added contingent of some 300 select sailors and Marines also accompanied Commodore Perry, and as the first of these men set foot on the then sacred Japanese soil, hundreds of the watching Samurai grunted in anger.

All of the Americans had been coached as to their part in putting on a show of pomp and portraying the circumstances which were so important for the American side. Perry also relied on the cannon he had run out on the ships behind his party and all were careful not to flinch.

With a blare of silver trumpets and a clash of cymbals, the Marine band struck up "Hail, Columbia" and in close order followed their vanguard ashore.

While this initial meeting of East and West marked the beginning of U.S. and Japanese negotiations, it by no means achieved Perry's goal of obtaining a permanent trading partner. In fact, the commodore was asked to leave by the local Japanese officials since it would be necessary for them to first consider the president's proposal and they did not think it advisable for Perry to remain during their deliberations.

It was not until eight months later that Perry returned and achieved his aim of a draft treaty which opened trading ports for the Americans.

One of the first to be opened was the treaty port of Shimoda on the rugged Izu peninsula, and it was there that Commodore Perry went for the first time in the spring of 1854 with his "Black Ships."

The first American Consul, Town-send Harris, arrived at Shimoda two summers later and his task was a major one since even then the Japanese were reluctant to draw close to the foreign "barbarians." This rather hesitant beginning was the stem of U.S.-Japanese relations today.

Despite the passage of time, and even the troubled war years of 1941-1945, the significance of Perry's mission and what it accomplished is still a dominant factor today in the minds of the Japanese. The people of Shimoda proudly claimed that last year's "Black Ship Festival" was the 41st year in which they have commemorated the arrival of Commodore Perry and his men.

It is a festive affair and a vast majority of the local people participate in re-creating the arrival of Perry and his crew in a pageant and a parade that ultimately works its way through the streets of the city. United States Navy and Marine Corps units have been invited to participate in the celebration each year, and most often a ship of the 7th Fleet is detailed to call at Shimoda during the festival.

The 1980 festival was hosted by Mayor Yoshio Aoki of Shimoda, who stated, "This annual festival is held not only to commemorate the historical event and to praise our forefathers' courage in those days, but also to make the relationship between two countries stronger..."

He further stated that history had repeated itself in this present age with the most recent visit of President Carter to Shimoda on a good will visit in 1979. Mayor Aoki made reference to President Carter's "Shimoda Declaration," and indicated it "will be a treasure of all citizens of Shimoda forever..." (The townspeople unveiled a monument commemorating the president's visit during the 1980 Shimoda Festival Ceremony.)

The honored guest at last year's "Black Ship Festival" was the Honorable Mike Mansfield, American Ambassador to Japan, who in his remarks emphasized the significance of Commodore Perry's mission and as a result the strong ties that ultimately grew between the two nations.

Other significant guests were the Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs; the Commander 7th Fleet; Commander U.S. Naval Forces, Japan; Commander Fleet Activities; and Commanding Officer, Marine Barracks, Yokosuka. Such representation at the festival continues a long-standing tradition.

For the Marine Corps, the tradition has been perpetuated in honor of a U.S. Marine crewman assigned to Commodore Perry's squadron, Private Robert Williams, who died of natural causes aboard the USS Mississippi. His body was ultimately interred at Shimoda, and it is near this grave site that the annual formal ceremony takes place prior to the parade which begins a day-long series of intercultural events.

Marines have participated in varying degrees in the annual Shimoda "Black Ship Festival." During the 1960's and early 1970's Marine Barracks, Yokosuka, furnished a drum and bugle corps and a color guard. However, with the reduction in size of the Barracks, the drum and bugle corps is no longer available. The Barracks now maintains a ceremonial drill team and color guard which has performed annually at Shimoda since 1978.

The Shimoda Black Ship Festival is normally the highlight of the season for the drill team and all members put forth something extra to ensure its success. Many long, hard hours are spent in preparation for the three-day affair, and as Sgt Lenn Catley (Houston, Texas) reflects, "We work hard all year for this opportunity. All of our previous performances were geared towards the big one at Shimoda."

Sgt Terry Sauber (St. Charles, Ill.) states, "We always enjoy the opportunity to show the flag: the Japanese people are warm and receptive. Sure it's hard work, but it's worth it."

The historical significance of the occasion is also cause for reflection. "This means a lot to me. Most people know that Commodore Perry was responsible for opening diplomatic relations with Japan, but they don't know enough about the geography and the people to fully identify with it. I know I didn't, but I do now," said LCpl Jon Hanson (Moorhead, Minn.).

Sgt Jon Ellison (Arvada, Colo.) summed up his general feelings after having participated frequently at Shimoda: "As my tour at Marine Barracks, Yokosuka, draws to a close, I am pround to have participated at the Shimoda Festival as a member of the Drill Team. This was my third time. It presented a fantastic opportunity to experience the culture of our host country."

In opening the door to Japan, Commodore ("Ols Matt") Perry certainly lived up to his reputation of getting things done. Not only is Japan today a major trading partner of the United States, but to paraphrase Ambassador Mansfield's words, "She has been one of the United States' staunchest supporters of key issues most prevalent on the international scene today."

The U.S owes Commodore Matthew Perry and his crew a considerable debt of gratitude. Certainly the Japanese people recognize his deeds as a part of their history, and they annually display their gratitude for what his historic, and they annually display their gratitude for what historic mission to Japan accomplished by conducting their time-honored "Black Ship Festival."