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A wooden ship with sails and a steam-powered paddle wheel.
A Japanese artist's rendering of the Powhatan, one of the steamships used in the Perry Expedition, from the illustrated scroll "Kinkai kikan," 1854, Japanese Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

Now Online: Pacific Encounters in Nineteenth-Century Japan

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(The following post is by Cameron Penwell, Japanese Reference Specialist, Asian Division.)

On March 31, 1854, the signing of the US-Japan Treaty of Peace and Amity marked the beginning of official relations between the United States and Japan. In connection with the 170th anniversary of this historical event, the Library of Congress has launched a new digital collection, Pacific Encounters in Nineteenth-Century Japan, which features rare materials from the Library that document early Japanese interactions with the United States and European countries like Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Russia. At present, the collection contains 25 titles in 80 volumes, with more to be added in the future.

The Perry Expedition of 1853-54 figures prominently in many of these materials. In December 1852, the expedition, led by Commodore Matthew C. Perry (1794-1858), set out for East Asia with orders from President Millard Fillmore to establish diplomatic and trade relations with the nation of Japan. After crossing the Atlantic and Indian oceans, the expedition arrived at Uraga, near the entrance of Edo (Tokyo) Bay, in July 1853. In a show of force, Perry’s ships fired blank shots from their cannons and sailed up and down the coast, ignoring demands from Japanese guard ships to stay put.

A man in a dark uniform with gold colored epaulettes.
A portrait of Commodore Matthew C. Perry from “Kinkai kikan,” 1854, Japanese Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

The dark-colored US fleet, including several steam-powered ships, struck an imposing presence. Japanese observers came to refer to these as kurofune, or “black ships,” and many spectators took down notes and made sketches of this curious sight they spotted off the coast. One such observer was Ōtsuki Bankei 大槻磐溪 (1801-1878), who, with the help of additional artists, produced an illustrated scroll titled Kinkai kikan 金海奇觀 (Strange view off the coast of Kanagawa). An earlier blog post explores this scroll in greater detail. The new digital collection features another scroll titled “Perī raikō kankei monjokan” ペリ- 來航關係文書卷 (Scroll documenting Perry’s arrival in Japan), while an additional scroll, “Kaei kiji emakimono” 嘉永記事繪卷物 (An illustrated scroll account from the Kaei era), is slated for digitization following completion of preservation work.

After a stay of around 10 days, Perry presented his list of demands and promised to return several months later for an official response. The expedition then sailed down the Chinese coast and made several stops before returning to Japan in February of 1854. After much back-and-forth, and a bit of gunboat diplomacy from Commodore Perry, an agreement was reached, and the US-Japan Treaty of Peace and Amity was signed on March 31, 1854. A copy of this document, held by the National Diet Library, Japan, is available through the World Digital Library, a digital collection hosted at the Library of Congress.

A black steamship with an American flag at the back.
A Japanese artist’s depiction of a steamship from the Perry Expedition’s fleet contained in the illustrated scroll “Perī raikō kankei monjokan,” 1853, Japanese Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

Readers looking for contemporary accounts of the Perry Expedition in English can consult “Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan,” an 1857 work officially compiled from the notes and journals of Commodore Perry. Perhaps of even greater historical interest are the William Speiden Journals, found in the Library’s Manuscript Division. This collection, also digitized, features journals kept by William Speiden, Jr. (1835-1920), who served as purser’s clerk aboard the U.S. steam frigate Mississippi during the Perry Expedition. The journals are richly illustrated and contain drawings by Speiden and other shipmates.

While materials related to the Perry Expedition are particularly relevant for those interested in the history of US-Japan relations, Pacific Encounters in Nineteenth-Century Japan also contains items related to Japanese interactions with other countries, as well as those that took place earlier in the nineteenth century. One fine example is the classic work “Kankai ibun” 環海異聞 (Strange reports from overseas), written by Ōtsuki Gentaku 大槻玄澤 (1757-1827), father of the Ōtsuki Bankei mentioned above, and Shimura Hiroyuki 志村弘強 (1769-1845). The authors wrote the book based on interviews with Japanese sailors who returned to Japan in 1804 after an 11-year ordeal that saw them shipwrecked in the Aleutian Islands in 1793, rescued by a Russian ship, and taken back to St. Petersburg.

A map of the world, each continent is a different color
A colorful illustrated map of the world found in “Kankai ibun,” 環海異聞 c. 1807, Japanese Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

In addition, the collection assembles several accounts from Japanese who were among the earliest to ever visit the United States, including multiple works related to Nakahama “John” Manjirō (1827-1898), such as “Amerika hyōryūki” 米利加漂流記 (Account of a shipwreck in America). The collection also features a unique account of the first Japanese diplomatic mission to the visit the United States in 1860 titled “Meriken kōkai nikki ryakuzu” 米利堅航海日記略圖 (Illustrated diary of a journey to America). A richly illustrated travelogue, this book was previously featured in a post on this blog titled “Who Were the First Japanese to Visit Washington?” With digitization complete, it can now be studied and enjoyed in high-resolution detail.

On left, a hotel room with window, door, and dresser. On right, a view from the sea of a building on a hill, with a bridge extending from it toward the left side of the page.
A guest room in the Willard Hotel in Washington, where the delegates stayed (left), and a view of the Capitol and the Washington Monument (right), from “Meriken kōkai nikki ryakuzu,” c. 1860, Japanese Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

These are just a few brief highlights, but we hope interested general readers and specialists alike will explore Pacific Encounters in Nineteenth-Century Japan, which is the latest effort by the Asian Division to make the materials in the Japanese Rare Book Collection more accessible to worldwide audiences. The division’s other Japanese digital offerings include the Japanese Rare Book Digital Collection, the Japanese Censorship Collection, and the Ainu and Ezochi Rare Collection. For any questions, please contact Japanese collection reference staff via Ask a Librarian.

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Comments (2)

  1. It is great to see Commodore M. C. Perry get the exposure to modern readers he so rightly deserves. Thanks, Matthew C. Perry

  2. Fascinating information about the first official contacts between the U.S. and Japan in 1853-54, with excellent links to other sources of contemporary accounts.
    When read in tandem with other personal, non-official documents (like Nagahama Manjiro’s memoirs and “Amerika hyōryūki” 米利加漂流記 (Account of a shipwreck in America), the narrative grows deeper and richer!

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