Friday, October 7, 2022

The Art of Gunboat Diplomacy

Depiction of four American soldiers and their uniformsIn 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Japanese waters with an impressive display of force. Four gunboats and a crew of soldiers demanded that Japan end its centuries-long isolation and open its borders to trade with the United States. It was a show of imperialist-minded moxie that rattled Japan.

Depiction of American soldiers marching in formation
But there was also a fascination with these "Black Ships" and the odd manners, uniforms, and customs of the foreign power docked just off the coast, and a desire to spread the news of the wondrous visitation attracted Japanese artists. They created a series of "Black Ship Scrolls," long hand painted scrolls that depicted Commodore Perry's uninvited visit to Japan.

We are fortunate to have one of these scrolls. It is an impressive sight--to us perhaps more impressive than Perry's gunships. The scroll is forty-six feet long on fine Japanese paper. The most stunning panel shows the ships at mooring, but the drawings of the soldiers and their uniforms show the exoticism of these foreign visitors. It is an intriguing artifact of a critical moment in Japanese and American history, where the United States flaunted its naval power to gain the concessions it wanted and Japan unwillingly began to open itself to the world.

To see all forty-six feet, ask for Codex MS 003505.