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From the Serial Set: Artistic Perspectives on Perry’s Expedition

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and we want to dedicate this month’s From the Serial Set post to the peoples of Asia and the Pacific Islands who enriched U.S. history and culture. Today, we’ll be sharing highlights from the narrative of Commodore Perry’s journey from the Chesapeake Bay to the Edo (Tokyo) Bay in Japan. The United States government required Perry to submit a copy of his report to Congress, and it was published as a two-part House Executive Document in the Serial Set.

Japanese scroll depicting colored illustrations of Commodore Perry's arrival at Kurihama. From left to right - Illustration of Perry's ship, illustration of weapons and machinery brought by Perry's crew, illustrations of uniform pieces with labels, and illustration of four different full-bodied American soldiers in uniform.

Perry’s first landing at Kurihama, July 8. Japan. 1853. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.13956.

Commodore Matthew C. Perry, a United States naval officer, led the diplomatic expedition to Japan in the 1850s. Prior to Perry’s trip, other countries, including the Netherlands and Russia, had unsuccessfully attempted to make contact with Japan. The mission was to deliver a “letter from the President of the United States [to] the Emperor of Japan,” with the hope of establishing friendship with the “most interesting Empire” which the United States government hoped to open to “the civilized world.” (H. Exec. Doc. 97 pt. 1 at 74, 244 (1855) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 802.) Perry’s expedition began from Chesapeake Bay on November 24, 1852. (H. Exec. Doc. 97 pt. 1 at 80 (1855) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 802.)

“Commodore Perry…knew that there must be causes for a state of things so singular as was presented in the complete voluntary isolation of a whole people; and his first object was, therefore, to obtain a correct history of the past career of Japan…He also found, in a careful examination of the repeated efforts of other nationals to break down the barrier that shut them out, what he supposed to be the secret of their failures.” (H. Exec. Doc. 97 pt. 1 at 76 (1855) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 802.)

Color illustration of Commodore Perry, done in Japanese art style. Japanese text is written above; portrait shows Perry's head and shoulders.

Kita Amerika jinbutsu: Peruri zō. Japan, ca. 1854. Retrieved from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b52813.

Among the places visited by Perry and his squadron were St. Helena, Cape Town in South Africa, Mauritius, Ceylon (in modern-day Sri Lanka), Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, and Lew Chew (the modern day Ryuku Islands in Japan).

Perry arrived at Edo (Tokyo) Bay on July 8th, 1853, to deliver the letter from President Millard Fillmore to the Japanese Emperor Kōmei, although the narrative includes early acknowledgement of the Tokuganawa shogunate as the second sovereign of the country. (H. Exec. Doc. 97 pt. 1 at 12 (1855) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 802) Throughout the mission, information on Japanese culture, history, and governance was collected and added to this narrative.

Color illustration of Japanese citizens crossing a large river. Members of the elite are carried on wooden platforms by four people each. One figure in the center is carried on the shoulders of another. The mountains and a crimson skyline are in the background.

Facsimile of color Japanese illustration entitled “Crossing the Oho-E-Ga-Wa [Province Suraga].” (H. Exec. Doc. 97 pt. 1 (1855) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 802.) Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

Also included in the report are vivid color facsimiles of original Japanese artwork. The Library’s digital collection, Fine Prints: Japanese, pre-1915, explains that Ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating/sorrowful world”) and Yokohama-e are two styles of art from similar time periods. These collections spanned both the Edo (1600-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods, with Yokohama-e specifically inspired by Perry’s arrival in Japan.

Color illustration of three individuals drawn in Japanese style. The main figure is holding a samurai sword over a candle flame on the floor in front of a standing figure and a kneeling figure.

Facsimile of a color Japanese illustration, captioned “From an Original Drawing Obtained in Simoda.” (H. Exec. Doc. 97 pt. 1 (1855) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 802.) Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

The Library’s Asian Division has more resources on artwork from the expedition. The Prints and Photographs Division also offers a digital collection with citations and descriptions. The Library also has a visual timeline of the events preceding the expedition, citing the William Speiden Journals, another collection that offers narratives and perspectives.

Color illustration depicting Japanese figures on a long wooden raft. Thatched roofs on the large raft house passengers eating, and the small raft carries two figures cooking. The sky is blue and a bird flies in front of the sun in the background.

Facsimile of color Japanese illustration, captioned “Fac-Simile of a Japanese Drawing.” (H. Exec. Doc. 97 pt. 1 (1855) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 802.) Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

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