Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Eye of the Beholder

Commodore Matthew C. Perry, the U.S. naval officer who "opened" Japan to trade with America and Europe, is portrayed in our children's history books as the idealized diplomat and ambassador we see in this heroic bust at Shimoda. He arrived unexpectedly and unannounced in Tokyo Bay under a blazing July sun in 1853, and reassured his shy and apprehensive hosts by setting up and running a miniature-guage railroad. Then he won their hearts by accepting a breeding pair of their prized Japanese Chin dogs, miniature fuzzy treasures only aristocrats were permitted to own. And of course the Japanese, who until Perry's visit fearfully insulated themselves from the rest of the world, accepted his proposed treaty. Who could turn down an offer from such a dashing, courteous and accommodating seaman, who coincidentally happened to be the younger brother of the famed Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry, hero of the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812?

The cheerful, chirpy tone of the official American version of Commodore Perry's visit is absent from the Japanese version of these events, however, and the differences between the two are dramatically and graphically summarized if we contrast a Japanese portrait of Perry with the idealized American likenesses of the great man. The Japanese version snarls at us from the pages of a contemporary account of these events, showing the cruel and angry face of a long-nosed, hairy anthropoid, more demon than human. The accompanying text tells how Perry's ominous fleet of black steamships suddenly appeared in Tokyo harbor one day, belching black smoke, which caused the Japanese to believe the vessels were on fire.

Representatives of the Shogun met with Perry and politely requested that he steam on to the southern port of Nagasaki, which was already open to very limited trade with Portuguese vessels. But the American refused to leave, and threatened to bombard the city unless his demands were met. His overawed hosts capitulated, and ended the affair by signing the treaty Perry thrust upon them, although they slyly managed to convince him that he had dealt successfully with the emperor himself, rather than the country's de facto ruler, the shogun.

These two versions of the man and his legacy are subjective, of course, and the impersonal, completely objective eye of the camera provides a third point of view of the Commodore, and one which goes beyond the part he played in history, since it penetrates his tissues and reveals personal details the merely historical record cannot divine. An 1852 photograph of Perry shows the sagging flesh, morose, hangdog expression, and bleary gaze of one afflicted with the alcohol illness, from which Commodore Perry suffered bitterly. It darkened his experience of the world, infusing it with pain and nightmares.

Upon leaving Japan, Perry sailed to Formosa, and the report of his voyage suggested to President Fillmore that America should take possession of that island, since it has coal resources and is easily defensible. The world belonged to white Protestant men in those days; everybody else just lived in it. Much of the trouble that afflicts the globe today stems from the fact that a few important men in critical places cling to the belief that nothing has changed. They might benefit by trying to see the world from someone else's point of view.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Eye-opening commentary, Dave.