circa 1853: A dinner in honour of the Japanese Commissioner on board the USSF Powhatan, during the expedition led by Matthew Perry, that compelled the Japanese to enter into relations with the US. [Image Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

United States and Japan Commemorate 160 Years of Diplomatic Relations


On March 31, 2014, the US-Japan relationship reached a new milestone: the 160th anniversary of diplomatic relations. It was on that day in 1854, in what is now the city of Yokohama, that the Treaty of Peace and Amity was signed between the two countries; opening two ports to American traders and establishing an American consulate in Japan. The pact was concluded one year after the infamous arrival of Commodore Mathew Perry’s “Black Ships” in Tokyo Bay on an official mission from the then-President Millard Fillmore to open Japan to trade and interaction with the West, which had been prohibited by the Tokugawa shogunate for centuries prior.

Perry’s initial visit had been a shock to Japanese society and the samurai government; punctuated by the image of power projected by the then state-of-the-art Navy steamships and the commodore’s promise to return in greater numbers the following year for Japan’s response to the formal request. His return trip however, which resulted in the signing of the first treaty between the two countries, was marked with less tension. Officials from both sides celebrated the agreement by sharing aspects of their culture through exhibitions and banquets.

One of these events was recreated in Yokohama on March 29th to commemorate the 160th anniversary of relations in the form of a revival concert of the “music played on the ‘Black Ships.’” Among the festivities of Perry’s second visit to Japan in 1854 was a minstrel show featuring the popular music and comedy of the time. For the commemoration concert, Japanese musicians donned period clothing, took up fiddles and banjos, and performed a historically-accurate program that included such classic American tunes as “Oh Susanna” and “Camptown Races.”

In addition to this local celebration of US-Japan ties, the US Department of State issued an official statement commemorating the anniversary, stating that in the 160 years since the signing of the treaty “our nations have enjoyed a remarkable journey together.” It praised the importance of the US-Japan alliance to regional peace and security and the contributions the multifaceted partnership has made in areas ranging from scientific and technical innovation to the promotion of global democracy and development. “We look forward to even deeper friendship between future generations of U.S. and Japanese citizens,” it concluded.

Throughout the Japan Matters for America/America Matters for Japan initiative there are numerous concrete examples of the extent of the strength and breadth of the US-Japan relationship. It is through these myriad of linkages, from economic to cultural and from the highest levels of government to local expressions of friendship, that US-Japan relations still stand after 160 years. In this way we anticipate the partnership to continue well into the future.