10_010_gospel_180.jpg 06_065_blackship_180.jpg Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Consulate General of Jap
Exhibition  •  July 17-27, 2003  •  Newport 
Colony House  •  Ne


Black Ships and Samurai:  1853-1854

On July 8, 1853, residents of Uraga on the outskirts of Edo, the sprawling capital of feudal Japan, beheld an astonishing sight. Four foreign warships had entered their harbor under a cloud of black smoke, not a sail visible among them. They were, startled observers quickly learned, two coal-burning steamships towing two sloops under the command of a dour and imperious American. Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry had arrived to force the long-secluded country to open its doors to the outside world.

Perry departed after establishing preliminary relations with the feudal government.  He returned the next year for a longer visit that culminated in a treaty opening two ports to foreign vessels.  Japan’s long epoch of isolation, dating back to the 1630s, was shattered forever.  There was no turning back after 1854.

This initial encounter between the United States and Japan was eye-opening for all concerned, involving a dramatic confrontation between peoples of different racial, cultural, and historical backgrounds.  We can literally see this encounter of “East” and “West” unfold through the splendid, yet little known, artwork produced by each side at the time.



This exhibition introduces three aspects of Commodore Perry’s mission to Japan in 1853-1854:  the Black Ships, Encounters, and Portraits.

Reproductions drawn from numerous sources in Japan and United States are juxtaposed here for the first time to illuminate the many dimensions of this momentous encounter.  

Visitors can also see an intimate, often humorous first-hand illustration, the “Black Ship Scroll,” unfold on screen much as it might have been viewed by Japanese those many years ago.


This exhibit is based on the “Visualizing Cultures” website developed by MIT professors John W. Dower and Shigeru Miyagawa.  The website is part of the OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative that aims to make MIT course materials freely available on the web.   http://ocw.mit.edu/    The exhibition and website were designed by Ellen Sebring and Scott Shunk.

Reproductions and original artworks have been generously provided by:

Ryosenji Treasure Museum; Tokyo University Historiographical Institute; Honolulu Academy of Arts; Newport Naval Historical Center; Preservation Society of Newport County; Nagasaki Prefecture; Yokohama Archives of History; Yokohama Museum of Art; Shimura Toyoshirou; Chicago Historical Society; Peabody Essex Museum; Bishop Museum; Library of Congress; and the White House Collection.

Digital screen courtesy Toshiba America Consumer Products, Inc.



Consulate General of Japan in Boston   http: //www.boston.us.emb-japan.go.jp/blackships-E.htm