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The Mission of Commodore Perry to Japan, 1854

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Title (object)

    • The Mission of Commodore Perry to Japan, 1854
  • Description

    Painting, handscroll. Pictorial record of US Commodore Matthew Perry's second visit to Japan in 1854. Ink, colour, gold and silver pigment on paper. Double paulownia wood storage box, with handwritten document detailing the contents of the scroll (‘explanation of the picture scroll’, emaki setsumeisho 絵巻説明書).

    The sequence of scenes depicted in the scroll is as follows:
    1. Scenes of the massed formations of the troops of the Kokura fief of Lord Ogasawara and Matsushiro fief of Lord Sanada, who were charged with protecting Edo bay and providing security for Perry’s visit.
    2. The cordoned security area and treaty house prepared on the shore at Yokohama, ready to receive the Americans.
    3. Nine detailed sketches of the US ships, with small Japanese boats approaching to board the USS Powhatan.
    4. The Americans landing at Yokohama in 27 barges.
    5. The funeral procession for crewmember Robert Williams who had recently died and a picture of his gravestone.
    6. A lively banquet scene in which the five Japanese negotiators (with their backs to the viewer) entertain Perry and his officers to dinner. The five Japanese are (from the right):
    Hayashi Fukusai 林復斎, the chief Shogunal negotiator and head of the Confucian Academy (daigaku no kami)
    Ido Satohiro 井戸覚弘, Edo City Magistrate (Edo machi bugyō)
    Izawa Masayoshi 伊沢政義, Uraga Magistrate
    Udono Kyūō, 鵜殿鳩翁, Inspector General (ōmetsuke)
    Matsuzaki Ryūrō 松崎柳浪, a direct retainer (hatamoto) of the Shogun
    7. Formations and drills by the US marines, accompanied by a military band.
    8. A minstrel show performed for the Japanese onboard the Powhatan by a troupe of blacked-up sailors called the ‘Ethiopians’.
    9. A detailed rendition of the brass and other musical instruments used by the military band.
    10. Gifts of British coins, buttons and umbrellas, apparently given to the artist Hibata.
    11. The quarter-size steam engine, carriage and track that was the main official gift from the Americans.
    12. Encounters between US officers and two of the Sumo wrestlers, Ko-Yanagi and Kagami-Iwa, who performed bouts to entertain the Americans.
    13. Front and back views of various officers and crew members posing in their different attire. Stokers are included, two of them maybe African-Americans?
    14. An official US artist, perhaps William Heine?
    15. The Chinese interpreter Luo Sen.
    16. Head and shoulder portraits in roundels of the six of the main members of the US delegation:
    Commodore Matthew C. Perry (1794-1858)
    Commander Henry A. Adams (1800-1869)
    Samuel Wells Williams (1812-1884), translator
    Anton Portman (dates unknown), Dutch translator
    Oliver Hazard Perry II (dates unknown), son of Commodore Perry who worked as his secretary
    Captain Joel Abbott (1793-1855)


  • Producer name

  • Culture/period

  • Date

    • 1854-1858 (preface, dated 'sixth month 1858')
  • Production place

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 28.9 centimetres
    • Length: 1525 centimetres
  • Curator's comments

    In July 1853, US Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Edo Bay with four warships to deliver a letter from President Fillmore requesting the establishment of trade relations with Tokugawa Japan. This was calculated to end more than two centuries, since the late 1630s, of Japan's self-imposed restrictions on contact with the West. In March 1854, Perry returned with a larger fleet of nine ships and on 31 March the Treaty of Kanagawa was signed between the US mission and the Shogunal representatives, which guaranteed good treatment for castaways and the opening of two ports, Shimoda and Hakodate, for provisions and refuge. This laid the groundwork for the further treaties with the US, Britain, France, Holland and Russia, leading to the opening of the treaty ports of Kanagawa (Yokohama), Nagasaki and Hakodate to foreign trade from 1859. Japan’s policy of restricted international commerce was now officially ended and, under a dynamic new regime following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the country embarked on a course of rapid modernisation, .

    Pulitzer-prize winning US historian John Dower has described the Perry missions of 1853 and 1854 as ‘a moment when the world stood on the cusp of phenomenal change’ (see reference below). The present handscroll appears to be one of the most complete and finely executed pictorial records from the Japanese side of Perry’s second, more substantial visit of 1854. Though unsigned, the compositions relate closely to sketches known to have been made from life at the time by Hibata Ōsuke( 樋畑翁輔, 1813-1870; a pupil of Utagawa Kuniyoshi), who, together with Takagawa Bunsen 高川文筌(1818 - ?; a pupil of Tani Bunchō) was one of two artist-retainers of the Sanada 真田 lord, who were permitted to witness these politically extremely sensitive negotiations and record them. This was done with the knowledge and approval of Hayashi Fukusai (林復斎, 1800-1859), the chief negotiator for the Shogunate and co-signatory to the treaty. The painters obtained positions as personal assistants to the Uraga magistrate, Izaka Masayoshi伊沢政義 (? – 1864), another of the five main Japanese negotiators.

    The visits of Perry generated an explosion of popular works: colour woodblock prints, unsigned black and white ‘rumour prints’ (kawaraban), and a number of painted handscrolls that are generally quite crude and exaggerate wildly the facial features and appearance of the foreign visitors (for example, the ‘Black Ships’ handscroll in the Honolulu Academy of Arts). The present scroll is one of only a handful of much higher quality works that relate to Hibata and Takagawa’s sketches. (Hibata’s son wrote in 1930, ‘All pictures in circulation throughout the country [Japan] are, with rare exceptions, derived from the present work’ – and yet very few have come to light in the subsequent eighty or so years.)

    Although unsigned and lacking the inscriptions found on other versions, this scroll does have a fine calligraphic preface by the prominent poet in Chinese, Ōnuma Chinzan (1818-1891). This describes the events and significance of Perry’s second visit, stressing the dignity and effectiveness of the Japanese government’s response. Chinzan’s preface is dated sixth month, 1858. The 19th day of the sixth month was precisely the day when the much-enhanced ‘US-Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce’ was signed between US Consul Townsend Harris and shogunal authorities, inaugurating foreign trade. It may be that the current painting was produced at this time to review the momentous visit of Perry in 1854 that had led to this important commercial treaty of 1858.

    The accompanying handwritten document gives a detailed list of the contents of the scroll which is accurate and consistent with information given elsewhere. Three possibilities suggest themselves for why the scroll itself lacks any text: 1) It was politically sensitive to include this; 2) the events were already well known to the recipient of the scroll; 3) the scroll is unfinished (perhaps unlikely, given the high level of technical finesse of the paintings).

    Assembling the evidence, it is proposed that this is a very high quality and ‘tidied up’ version of a subject done a number of times (with variation). It is clearly based on the sketches made by Hibata Ōsuke from life and was perhaps even painted by him. It was done sometime between 1854 and late summer 1858 (the date of the preface) on the orders of some high-ranking personage who knew the events well.

    In addition to its extraordinary documentary value in depicting in detail momentous historical events, the scroll is of high artistic quality and fascinating for the view it gives of the cultural encounter from the Japanese side. In comparison to the serious, official US account of Perry’s mission, published by Congress in 1856, there is considerable interest in the Japanese painting in the human and occasionally comic aspects of this great encounter between cultures.

    (T. Clark, Feb. 2013)
    Of key importance to understanding the present scroll is an essay ‘A Picture Scroll of Commodore Perry’s Arrival in Yokohama in 1854, A Posthumous Work by Ohsuke Hibata’, Tokyo, Yoshida Ichirō, 1930 by Hibata Sekko, the son of the artist Hibata Ōsuke, in which he reproduces surviving sketches made by his father on which he says most later paintings of the events were based. There is also a vital ‘eye-witness account’ written account by Takagawa Bunsen, the other artist present. Many of the 14 pages of Hibata’s sketches reproduced are very close, though not completely identical, to scenes painted in the present scroll. Conversely, even though there is not complete overlap, the present scroll is the most complete and highly finished painting based on the sketches yet to have come to light. The essay is reproduced in full at:

    The most detailed English-language account of Perry’s visits and the pictorial works to which they gave rise is the online resource created by historian John Dower at MIT. This brings together all of the major works known from the Japanese and US sides of the encounter.

    'Narrative of the expedition of an American squadron to the China seas and Japan: performed in the years 1852, 1853, and 1854, under the command of Commodore M.C. Perry, United States Navy' (published by order of Congress in 1856) contains many colour lithographic illustrations of the same events depicted from the US side.

    Other important art-works relating to the Perry visit of 1854 are as follows. All are used at least in part in the MIT online resource:

    - An eight-fold screen pasted with 10 paintings and sections of handscroll paintings, some of which are similar to the present scroll (although the quality is not as high and there are written titles and inscriptions on some paintings), in the collection of the Shiryō Hensanjo, University of Tokyo. This is used extensively in the MIT online resource.

    - ‘An Artist’s Sketchbook’, 1854 of spontaneous working sketches with some colour, apparently made from life, showing details of US uniforms, etc, also in the Shiryō Hensanjo, University of Tokyo (could these sketches also be by Hibata and Takagawa?).

    - Four paintings individually signed or sealed by Takagawa Bunsen, based on similar compositions to parts of the present scroll – notably the banquet scene – which are in the Sanada Hōmotsukan, Nagano, the museum of the family collection of the one of the two feudal lords charged with the security of Perry’s visit

    - Four sections of handscroll of Perry’s visit in the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia with related compositions.

    - ‘Japanese Sketches from on board the Powhatan’ in the Peabody Museum Essex.

    (T. Clark, Feb. 2013)


  • Location

    Not on display

  • Exhibition history

    2013 Apr – Oct , BM Japanese Galleries, 'Japan from Prehistory to the Present'

  • Subjects

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Acquisition notes

    Credit Line: Purchase funded by the Brooke Sewell Bequest, JTI Japanese Acquisition Fund, Friends of the British Museum, Noriko Myojin, Shigeru Myojin, Dounia Nadar, Sherif Nadar, Adeela Qureshi, Richard de Unger and Mitsubishi Corporation.

  • Department


  • Registration number


  • Additional IDs

    • Jap.Ptg.Add.1309


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