On March 31, 1854, representatives of Japan and the United States signed a historic treaty. Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry of the United States Navy had negotiated for several months with Japanese officials to accomplish the goal of opening the doors of trade with Japan.
For two hundred years, Japanese ports had been closed except to a few Dutch and Chinese traders. The United States hoped Japan would agree to open certain ports so American vessels could begin to trade with the empire of Japan. Furthermore, America needed to replenish coal and other supplies for the commercial whaling fleet and Japanese ports would serve this need admirably.
On July 8, 1853, four black ships led by USS Powhatan and under the command of Commodore Perry, anchored at Edo (Tokyo) Bay. This was the first experience of the Japanese with steamships, which they thought were "giant dragons puffing smoke." They were shocked by the number and size of the guns aboard the ships.
Matthew Perry had already enjoyed a long and distinguished naval career and he knew that the mission to Japan would be his most significant accomplishment. He brought a letter from the President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, to the Emperor of Japan. Waiting on his armed ships, Perry refused to see any of the lesser dignitaries sent by the Japanese, insisting on dealing only with the highest emissaries of the Emperor.
The Japanese government realized that their country could not defend itself against a technologically advanced foreign power, and could not retain its isolation policy without risking war. On March 31, 1854, after weeks of long and tiresome talks, Perry gained the goal he had been pursuing, a treaty with Japan allowing American trade.