Black Ships

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For the 2008 novel of this title, see Jo Graham.
Not to be confused with The Black Ships (band).
Japanese 1854 print describing Commodore Matthew Perry's "Black Ships".

The Black Ships (in Japanese, 黒船, kurofune, Edo Period term) was the name given to Western vessels arriving in Japan in the 16th and 19th centuries.

In 1543 Portuguese initiated the first contacts, establishing a trade route linking Goa to Nagasaki. The large carracks engaged in this trade had the hull painted black with pitch, and the term came to represent all western vessels. In 1639, after suppressing a rebellion blamed on the Christian influence, the ruling Tokugawa shogunate retreated into an isolationist policy, the Sakoku. During this “locked state,” contact with Japan by Westerners was restricted to Dejima island at Nagasaki.

In 1844, William II of the Netherlands urged Japan to open, but was rejected. On July 8, 1853, the U.S. Navy steamed four warships into the bay at Edo and under threat of attack demanded that Japan open to trade with the West. Their arrival marked the 'reopening' of the country to political dialogue after more than two hundred years of self-imposed isolation. Trade with Western nations would not come until the Treaty of Amity and Commerce more than five years later.

In particular, Kurofune refers to Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and Susquehanna of the Perry Expedition for the opening of Japan, 1852-1854, that arrived on July 14, 1853 at Uraga Harbor (part of present-day Yokosuka) in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan under the command of United States Commodore Matthew Perry.[1] Black refers to the black color of the older sailing vessels, and the black smoke from the coal-fired steam engines of the American ships. In this sense, the Kurofune became a symbol of the ending of isolation.

Brooklyn Museum - Commodore Matthew Perry's "Black Ship"

First kurofune ships: nau do trato[edit]

Portuguese black carrack in Nagasaki, in the early 17th century.

In 1543 Portuguese traders arrived in Japan initiating the first contacts with the West. Soon they established a trade route linking their headquarters in Goa, via Malacca to Nagasaki. Large carracks engaged in the flourishing "Nanban trade", introducing modern inventions from the European traders, such as refined sugar, optics, and firearms; it was the firearms, arquebuses, which became a major innovation of the Sengoku period — a time of intense internal warfare — when the matchlocks were replicated. Later, they engaged in triangular trade, exchanging silver from Japan with silk from China via Macau.[2]

Carracks of 1200 to 1600 tons,[3] named nau do trato ("treaty ship") or nau da China by the Portuguese,[4] engaged in this trade had the hull painted black with pitch, and the term[5] came to apply for all western vessels. The name was inscribed in the Nippo Jisho, the first western Japanese dictionary compiled in 1603.

In 1549 Spanish missionary Francis Xavier started a Jesuit mission in Japan. Christianity spread, mingled with the new trade, making 300,000 converts among peasants and some daimyō (warlords). In 1637 the Shimabara Rebellion blamed on the Christian influence was suppressed. Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries faced progressively tighter restrictions, and were confined to the island of Dejima before being expelled in 1639.

The Tokugawa shogunate retreated back into a policy of isolationism identified as Sakoku (鎖国?, "locked country"), forbidding contact with most outside countries. Only a limited-scale trade and diplomatic relations with China, Korea, the Ryukyu Islands, and the Netherlands was maintained.[6] The Sakoku policy remained in effect until 1853 with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and the opening of Japan.

Gunboat diplomacy[edit]

Commodore Perry's superior military force was a factor in negotiating a treaty allowing American trade with Japan, thus effectively ending the Sakoku (鎖国?) period of more than 200 years in which trading with Japan had been permitted to the Dutch and Chinese exclusively.

The following year, at the Convention of Kanagawa, Perry returned with eight ships and was presented by the shogun's officials with the "Treaty of Peace and Amity", establishing formal diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States. Within five years, Japan had signed similar treaties with other western countries. The Harris Treaty was signed with the United States on July 29, 1858.

The surprise and confusion these ships inspired are described in this famous kyōka (a humorous poem in 31-syllable waka form):

Commodore Perry's fleet for his second visit to Japan in 1854.
泰平の Taihei no
眠りを覚ます Nemuri o samasu
上喜撰 Jōkisen
たった四杯で Tatta shihai de
夜も眠れず Yoru mo nemurezu

This poem is a complex set of puns (in Japanese, kakekotoba or "pivot words"). Taihei (泰平) means "tranquil"; Jōkisen (上喜撰) is the name of a costly brand of green tea containing large amounts of caffeine; and shihai (四杯) means "four cups", so a literal translation of the poem is:

Awoken from sleep
of a peaceful quiet world
by Jokisen tea;
with only four cups of it
one can't sleep even at night.

There is an alternate translation, based on the pivot words. Taihei can refer to the "Pacific Ocean" (太平); jōkisen also means "steam-powered ships" (蒸気船); and shihai also means "four vessels". The poem, therefore, has a hidden meaning:

The steam-powered ships
break the halcyon slumber
of the Pacific;
a mere four boats are enough
to make us lose sleep at night.

'Black Ships' (Kurofune) is also the title of the first Japanese Opera, composed by Kosaku Yamada, "based on the story of Tojin Okichi, a geisha caught up in the turmoil that swept Japan in the waning years of the Tokugawa shogunate" [7] and premiered in 1940.[8]

In popular culture[edit]

A TV miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain entitled Shōgun (1980) was based on a novel of the same name by James Clavell, described the fictional experiences of an English sea pilot named John Blackthorne, shipwrecked in Japan around 1600. Blackthorne makes frequent mention of wanting to attack the Black Ship, with his own ship, the Erasmus.

Another film concerning Perry's arrival in Japan was The Bushido Blade (1981) starring Richard Boone as Commodore Perry.

In the Capcom made arcade action RPG beat 'em up hybrid video game Warzard, the character Kenji, has his quest begin when flying technologically advanced black ships proceed to invade and decimate his home country of Zipang, and is sent on a mission to discover and annihilate the origins of the invaders of his nation.

The Japanese anime series Hetalia: World Series dedicated two episodes from its fourth season on the topic of the Black Ships.

In the Creative Assembly computer game Shogun II Total War, a Portuguese sailing vessel called the Black Ship is able to be captured and is the single most powerful naval unit in the game.

The Black Ships play an important part of the Japanese miniseries Yae no Sakura, about the life of Niijima Yae.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Perry Ceremony Today; Japanese and U. S. Officials to Mark 100th Anniversary". New York Times. July 8, 1953. 
  2. ^ Charles Ralph Boxer (1951). The Christian Century in Japan: 1549-1650. University of California Press. p. 91. GGKEY:BPN6N93KBJ7. Retrieved 23 July 23, 2013.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  3. ^ Subrahmanyam, Sanjay (1993). The Portuguese empire in Asia, 1500-1700: a political and economic history. University of Michigan: Longman. p. 138. ISBN 0-582-05069-3. 
  4. ^ Rodrigues, Helena. "Nau do trato". Cham. Cham. Retrieved 5 June 2011. 
  5. ^ M. D. D. Newitt (1 January 2005). A History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion: 1400 - 1668. New York: Routledge. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-415-23980-6. Retrieved July 23, 2013. 
  6. ^ Ronald P. Toby, State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan: Asia in the Development of the Tokugawa Bakufu, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, (1984) 1991.
  7. ^ "'Black Ships' opera". New National Theatre Tokyo. 
  8. ^ "Simon Holledge's interview with Hiroshi Oga citing the premiere of the 'Black Ships' opera". 


External links[edit]