To Japan, the arrival of Commodore Perry and his Black Ships in 1853 was almost as shocking as if Martians had landed. One of the few who were not fazed was the far-sighted daimyo Shimazu Nariakira. One of the most brilliant and powerful men of his day, he’d built a whole factory complex in Satsuma, far from the eagle eye of the shogunate, with blast furnaces, a glass factory and his own fledgling steam ships. He was the first person in the country to acquire a daguerreotype camera.
In this talk, Lesley Downer started by setting the scene on the cusp of Perry’s arrival and will tell the story of the Black Ships from both Japanese and American viewpoints – what each side saw and what each made of the other. Among much else, she described the sudden and suspicious death of the shogun right after Perry’s first visit and how Perry’s men blacked up and performed a black and white minstrel show to the bemusement of the Japanese on their second visit. She also talked about Townsend Harris, the first American consul, and how he and his trusty secretary, Hendrick Heusken, the first two westerners in Japan (other than the Dutch), travelled to Edo to have an audience with the shogun. That shogun too died mysteriously…
Her talk was illustrated with contemporary documents and pictures including woodblock prints of Perry and Harris as seen through Japanese eyes, and American drawings of the Japanese.
About the contributors
Lesley Downer is a novelist who first went to Japan more than thirty years ago, and her life has revolved around Japan ever since. She is the author of many books on Japan, including Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World, Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha who Seduced the West and a quartet of novels, The Shogun Quartet. Her new novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is a prequel, chronologically the first in the quartet. It was published in hardback last November and in paperback this July.