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 threatened to attack if Japan did not begin 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. 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.
First kurofune ships: nau do trato
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.
Carracks of 1200 to 1600 tons, named nau do trato ("treaty ship") or nau da China by the Portuguese, engaged in this trade had the hull painted black with pitch, and the term 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. The Sakoku policy remained in effect until 1853 with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and the opening of Japan.
Commodore Perry's superior military force was the principal 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, Koreans, Chinese, and Ainu exclusively.
The sight of the four ships entering Edo Bay, roaring black smoke into the air and capable of moving under their own power, deeply frightened the Japanese. Perry ignored the requests arriving from the shore that he should move to Nagasaki—the official port for trade with the outside—and threatened in turn to take his ships directly to Edo, and burn the city to the ground if he was not allowed to land. It was eventually agreed upon that he should land nearby at Kurihama, whereupon he delivered his letter and left.
The following year, at the Convention of Kanagawa, Perry returned with a fleet of eight of the fearsome Black Ships, to demonstrate the power of the United States navy, and to lend weight to his announcement that he would not leave again, until he had a treaty. In the interim following his previous visit, the Tokugawa shogunate had learned about the staggering destruction of the Chinese fleet by a handful of British warships in 1841 during the First Opium War, and about China's subsequent loss of Hong Kong to British sovereignty. The shogunate realized that—if they wished for their country to avoid a similar fate—they would need to make peace with the west.
After a roughly a month of negotiations, the Shogun's officials presented Perry with the Treaty of Peace and Amity. Perry refused certain conditions of the treaty but agreed to defer their resolution to a later time, and finally establishing formal diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States. The eight ships departed, leaving behind a consul at Shimoda to negotiate a more permanent agreement. The Harris Treaty was signed with the United States on July 29, 1858, and within five years of the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Amity, Japan had moved to sign treaties with other western countries.
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 alternative 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.
Kurofune ("The Black Ships") 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", which premiered in 1940.
In popular culture
A TV miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain entitled Shōgun (1980), 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.
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.
The Japanese anime series Dream Festival features a duo idol unit (Yuto Kuroishi and Keigo Kazama) named Kurofune. Likely Yuto Kuroishi and Keigo Kazama produced this name by taking the Kuro (黒) meaning "black" from "Kuroishi" and combining it with Fune (船) which contains the Kanji radical Kaza or Fu (風) from Kazama. So their unit name is their names combined.
- Treaty of Shimoda
- French Military Mission to Japan (1867-1868)
- Gunboat diplomacy
- Dutch missions to Edo
- Manifest destiny
- Unequal Treaties
- United States Korean Expedition of 1871
- Pacific Overtures
- Madama Butterfly, a representation of the roughly the same times in a European perspective
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- "Simon Holledge's interview with Hiroshi Oga citing the premiere of the 'Black Ships' opera". Archived from the original on 2010-05-31.
- "How David Mitchell Brings Historical Fiction To Life", NPR, Weekend Edition Saturday, August 21, 2010
- Arnold, Bruce Makoto (2005). Diplomacy Far Removed: A Reinterpretation of the U.S. Decision to Open Diplomatic Relations with Japan (Thesis). University of Arizona. 
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