On July 8, 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry led his four ships into the harbor at Tokyo Bay, seeking to re-establish for the first time in over 200 years regular trade and discourse between Japan and the western world. Although he is often credited with opening Japan to the western world, Perry was not the first westerner to visit the islands. Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch traders engaged in regular trade with Japan in the 16th and 17th centuries. Persistent attempts by the Europeans to convert the Japanese to Catholicism and their tendency to engage in unfair trading practices led Japan to expel most foreigners in 1639. For the two centuries that followed, Japan limited trade access to Dutch and Chinese ships with special charters.
Why did the United States want to trade with Japan?
There were several reasons why the United States became interested in revitalizing contact between Japan and the West in the mid-19th century. First, the combination of the opening of Chinese ports to regular trade and the annexation of California, creating an American port on the Pacific, ensured that there would be a steady stream of maritime traffic between North America and Asia. Then, as American traders in the Pacific replaced sailing ships with steam ships, they needed to secure coaling stations, where they could stop to take on provisions and fuel while making the long trip from the United States to China.