Peace had long-endured in the “land of the gods.” And so it is not at all surprising that the isolated and feudal Japanese were both awestruck and terrified when they saw the massive black ships disgorging seething clouds of pitch-black smoke. The strange vessels were lumbering ominously and ever-closer through the white-capped waves off the shoreline.
The first eyewitnesses, fishermen plying their trade along the coast, were consumed with thoughts of otherworldly beings as they looked upon the “alien ships of fire.”
Thoughts of “giant dragons puffing smoke” swirled in their minds while they struggled frantically to pull in their fishing nets. Abandoning their boats on the shore, the frightened fishermen fled to warn their families of the coming doom.
The stories of the huge and hairy barbarians coming to destroy them grew larger and more fearsome at every telling, spreading like wildfire throughout the ancient land. Priests, almost immediately, could be found in every shrine and temple, praying for a kamikaze or “divine wind” to cast out the invaders as it had five centuries before.
On this day in the year 1281 a 3500 ship Mongol invasion fleet of Kublai Khan had been completely destroyed by a typhoon just off the coast of Japan. That was the second time in a span of just ten years that a “Divine Wind” had saved them. The priests, at first, believed it would happen again. The wind this day, however, remained eerily still.
Next, they hoped and prayed that the fierce Shogun, or “barbarian expelling generalissimo” would command the “black ships of the evil men” to leave.
That evening a large meteor streaked across the sky, its fiery tail lit up the night sky. The priest’s hope melted as they told the people of Japan that the light in the sky meant that the gods had sent the Black Dragons with their barbarian riders to punish them for their sins.
Representative Thomas B. King of Georgia, Chairman of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Naval Affairs was a tireless advocate for westward expansion. His belief in manifest destiny relented not at the western-most edge of the North American continent – it extended to the whole of the Pacific Ocean.
The pre-eminent western powers of Great Britain and France were already flexing their imperialist muscles in the vast ocean, and in his view the United States could ill-afford to be left behind.
What the enthusiastic congressman needed was some sort of political cover in order that the President might act. What he needed was “a good cause for a quarrel.” As fate would have it, he would find his cause in the deep blue waters of the North Pacific.
An American boat had been recently shipwrecked off the coast of Japan and though eventually released unharmed, the sailors recounted stories of the ill treatment they suffered at the hands of their Japanese captors.
Naval Lieutenant Matthew Maury testified to these atrocities before congressman King’s committee, making a point to assure President Millard Fillmore that “the facts of the case are of a character to excite the indignation of the people of the United States.”
The full account was encompassed in a report called “Documents Relative to the Empire of Japan” and was released by the President to the public. The American people responded precisely as Lieutenant Maury had hoped – they were outraged.
The captive Christian sailors had been told to renounce their faith and were made to walk upon and defame the crucifixion and God Himself.
Congressman King and the President now had the cover they needed to conceal their true motive – projecting American power to her rivals in the largest ocean on earth. A robust trade and a powerful navy to protect it were the chief means to accomplish this, and supply ports, dotting the vast ocean’s expanse for both American merchants and the Navy, were necessary for such a display of power.
Chi Chi Jima
Japan’s Chi Chi Jima Island was crucial to their plan as it was a perfect location for a supply depot. After quick deliberation, it was determined that an agreement had to be struck with the “land of the rising sun.” The President wrote a letter to that effect and surmised that an impressive show of force would be most the most imposing way of delivering it.
Upon the advice of his Secretary of State, the President chose the perfect commander for his diplomatic squadron. He was a decorated war veteran, tall, with a commanding presence. His name was Commodore Perry.
Months later, the confident Commander stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Powhatan moored in Edo (Tokyo) Bay. He could hear hundreds of alarm bells penetrating the fragrant sea air, ringing loudly and without interlude.
The Commodore had the President’s letter delivered to the Japanese, encased in a rosewood box with hinges of gold. The return response was simply a demand for the “barbarians” to leave.
The Americans had month’s worth of provisions and were prepared to stay at anchor just off the coast. Eventually, the Japanese sent some lower ranking officials, but Perry refused to see them, determined to wait for a high-ranking emissary to begin his negotiations.
For centuries Japanese society had been closed to outsiders and thus they were not accustomed to interacting with foreigners. The formidable Commodore overwhelmed the island people by displaying the military might of the United States Navy, and they finally relented.
The President’s calculated show of force paid off, for after weeks of patiently deciphering the strange Japanese class system and having endured the many attempts to frustrate his efforts, Commodore Perry returned home in 1855 with a favorable treaty in hand.
The great Commodore’s triumph and the opening of Japan’s closed society had far-reaching ramifications. In the ensuing decades, the Japanese, realizing how vulnerable they had been in the face of American might (as well as the other colonial powers of Europe), embarked on an aggressive path, building a brutal martial society moored around the military aspirations of its leaders.
Their leaders efforts culminated some 85 years later with the bold attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941.
The Divine Wind of August 15th 1281 failed to materialize yet again as on that same auspicious day in 1945 the Japanese emperor surrendered to the United States and her allies. A month later, triumphant American warships sail into Tokyo Bay with Commodore Perry’s 1855 Flag proudly displayed on the “Mighty Mo’s” (U.S.S. Missouri) main deck.
The winds of war between the two nations have been calm ever since.