Daily Archives: 2 May 2007

The Tang Chinese Predecessors of Matthew C. Perry, 664

Once upon a time, residents of a fishing village in Japan watched with trepidation as a fleet of foreign warships appeared in the offing beyond their own little harbor. The main concern was their lives. What knew what strange creatures might be on board or what nefarious plans had brought them to Japan?…

The year was 1853 and the place was Uraga, situated near the tip of the Miura Peninsula at the mouth of Edo (now Tokyo) Bay.The foreign vessels were under the command of Matthew Calbraith Perry, an American naval officer charged by President Millard Fillmore to induce Japan to establish trade and diplomatic relations with the United States. (Not incidentally, Fillmore wanted Japan to open its ports to American whaling vessels, whaling being one of the great American industries of the era.)…

What few people realize is that Perry’s arrival was not the first time that such a scenario had played out upon Japanese soil. The events of 1853 were a close replay of an equally momentous occasion some twelve hundred years earlier. The year was 664, and the location was Tsushima, a mountainous isle (actually, two isles separated by a narrow strait) about 50 kilometers south of the Korean port of Pusan and 150 kilometers west of Hakata on the Kyushu mainland.

On that earlier occasion, the visitors had been Chinese, not American. Their large junks, bearing flags of the Tang empire, had first been sighted on an early summer’s day in the fourth month of the Japanese lunar calendar. The ships were slowly approaching Tsushima across the Korea Strait from the general direction of Paekche, a kingdom on the west side of the Korean Peninsula. They seemed to be making directly for the village—or more precisely, for the small harbor below, where the villagers’ fishing ships lay at anchor. Those watching the approach were worried—and with good reason….

Only the previous year—663 by the Western calendar …—a vast fleet had come from Hakata on its way to “rescue Paekche,” so they said. Woe be to them! Not long afterward, some of the tattered remnants of Yamato’s once-proud navy limped back to Tsushima. Few of the war veterans tarried long; they seemed afraid of who might follow in their wake. The same was true of the many refugees from Paekche—some of them members of the royal family—who accompanied the Japanese survivors. Before long, almost all the new arrivals had departed for the Kyushu mainland, or for Yamato.

SOURCE: Gateway to Japan: Hakata in War and Peace, 500–1300, by Bruce L. Batten (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2006), pp. 11-14

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