Posts Tagged ‘commodore perry’

I’m returning from a day trip (really, a day and a half) with my father up to Newport, RI. Famous for its Gilded Age mansions, it’s a very popular tourist destination in general, with a beach and boardwalks, and lots of nauseatingly touristy shopping… It’s a nice town to rent bikes and go biking too, which we did; some places rent out kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and the like, which maybe we’ll have to do some other time.

Perry family house at Washington Square. Built c. 1750.

Newport is also a very historical city, though, loaded with historical buildings, some dating back as far as the 17th century, making for a very nice atmosphere and experience overall, as one is surrounded at every turn by beautiful, or at least historical and romantic, architecture. Newport is the home of the oldest continuously operating Jewish synagogue in the United States, a site my father and I visited once years ago.

We had a great time overall, enjoying walking and biking around, grabbing beers, trying some sandwich shops, etc., but you know me by now, I can’t help but to take the detours to check out minor or obscure Japan-related historical sites. Newport was the birthplace & home of Commodore Matthew Perry, quite likely the most famous American in Japanese history. Now, I’m no expert in Perry’s biography, personality, or various historical shenanigans, and I’m not sure that I’m particularly revved up to go out of my way to go read up on it in any particular detail, but, there’s a statue of him in Newport, so, as long as we’re here, we should go check it out, right?

Perry, as I’m sure you know, led the 1853-1854 missions to Japan in which, according to the American public school history textbook version of the story anyway, he employed “gunboat diplomacy” to force Tokugawa Japan to quote-unquote “open” its ports to American trade. Though I generally think Perry over-hyped in a sense, as there are plenty of other figures, and events, and periods of Japanese history that are worthy of attention, the historical significance of his actions in Japan in 1853-1854, and of their immediate consequences, cannot be denied. The last 15 years or so of Tokugawa rule (i.e. from 1853-1868 looked dramatically different from the previous 250, at least within Edo, Yokohama, Kobe, as Western people and Western influences began to flood in, and aspects of Western culture began to become increasingly popular and widespread.

I had called the Newport Japan Society ahead of time, to inquire about the statue of Commodore Perry, and if there was anything else Japan-related that I should seek out while in Newport. As it turns out, every July they host a big “Black Ships Festival” in Newport, a weekend packed full of Japan-related events and activities, as well as so-called “tall ships” (old-style sailing ships) in the harbor. Shame I missed that.

But, following their advice that the Perry Statue could be found in “Touro Square,” once we got to Newport, I made my way to Touro Street, and to the Newport Historical Society, where we asked about “the Perry statue,” and were pointed to nearby Washington Square. I feel kind of bad for Pres. Eisenhower, since a stone in the center of the square declares the park to have been named in his honor, though it is clearly identified on all the maps, and by various signs in and around the square, as Washington Square. The “Square” is really more of a triangle, and a tall, impressive bronze statue stands at one end of the long triangle, facing outwards towards the harbor. A plaque on the front says simply “Perry,” and an inscription on the back reads “We Have Met the Enemy and They Are Ours. A most impressive quote, though decidedly not the much more oft-quoted and thought-provoking “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” This quote sounds familiar, but I wasn’t aware of Commodore Perry having said it, or of Commodore Perry having been famous, in fact, for any actual battles or naval military conflicts. …

One of the houses flanking the square is the historical home of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. We poked our heads inside to find that it’s not so much a historical house that’s all cleaned-up and set up to receive visitors’ tours, but that rather it serves as office space for various non-profits, including an Oliver Hazard Perry Society, and the Tall Ships Society, or something like that. They were quite helpful, though, explaining that, yes, the statue in the Square is Oliver Hazard Perry, not Matthew C. Perry. It was the wrong Perry! Haha. I assured her that Oliver Perry was still cool, but that I was looking for the statue of Matthew Perry. “Oh, he was his cousin or something. [Turns out they’re actually brothers.] Had something to do with Japan, I think, right?” haha. Well, I laugh, because to a Japan specialist, it’s an absurdity to think Matthew Perry such an obscure or insignificant figure. But, I fully admit that I know very little about Oliver Hazard Perry, who I am sure is of incredible significance to those whose focus is on New England maritime history, or American naval history, or certain other fields like that.

The kind woman at the Oliver Hazard Perry House explained that though Washington Square borders Touro Street, Matthew Perry’s statue is in Touro Park, a separate place, a few blocks away. I thanked her and headed off to go find it. In truth, my dad and I actually decided to head down the other way, and check out the shops, and meander around some other parts of town, but, in any case, we did in the end make it back to Touro Park. My dad thought it completely absurd that I should be so dedicated to finding this statue. This is not a normal thing that normal people do when they’re on vacation, he said. But, I’m not exactly a normal person, now, am I?

And, then, there it was. Obviously still just a statue, nothing so amazing or anything that it would take more than a few minutes, at most, to take a look at, take a few photos, and call it done. But, still, to say that I’ve been there, and to have the photos to share with you in a post such as this, I enjoyed taking the time to make the effort to find it. It’s a pretty nice statue, too, better, I think, than Oliver Hazard Perry’s statue, in that Matthew C. Perry’s statue includes a wrap-around series of relief scenes depicting his various accomplishments in Japan, Mexico, and Africa, and not only the figural statue itself. It was erected in 1868, shortly after Perry’s death, by Perry’s daughter, Caroline, and her husband August Belmont. Perry was buried at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, in Manhattan’s East Village; some sources indicate that his grave was later re-moved to Newport – I’d mistakenly expected to find Perry’s grave at the site of the statue, but it turns out both he and his brother Oliver Hazard are buried at Newport’s Island Cemetery, which we did not visit on this trip. My dad would have thought me even crazier than normal, and likely would have refused to take the time to do this.

But, I got to see the status. And so it was that my adventure of “The Wrong Perry,” or of “The Two Perrys,” ended. I’m sorry to have not found any Matthew C. Perry Historical House, or further sites or anything to visit, but I’m glad to have found the statue. Maybe one year I’ll manage to catch the Black Ships Festival.


Read Full Post »

Oops. I forgot that I had this draft sitting here. About a month ago (yikes! it’s been too long since I’ve posted), I attended the exhibition opening for “Obama no Obama,” an exhibit at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, curated by Prof. Christine Yano, and highlighting “Obama merchandise,” or 『オバマ・グッズ』 from the Japanese city of Obama.

I have no pictures from the event, since we were not allowed to take pictures in the gallery, but I’m sure if you just Google, you’ll be able to find plenty of examples of the “I <3 Obama" goods being produced/sold in Obama City, from T-shirts and lanyards to “Yes We Can (of coffee)” to manju stamped with “I <3 Obama" on them, to lots of even weirder crazier stuff.

Obama was once a castle town, the center of a small han in Wakasa province, a major medieval seaport, and even today a major center for the production of lacquered chopsticks. It seems like a town with some serious historical value and other tourist interest that was in sore need of something to drum up business, and then, poof, there it was! Barack Obama catapulted onto the world stage in 2004, and began campaigning for president a few years later, and Obama City saw its opportunity!

I am sure that Dr. Yano has all kinds of complex, intensely insightful things she could say about this phenomenon, from an anthropological standpoint, but she also seems to just really enjoy the wackiness of it all.

For the opening, the mayor of Obama City was here, along with several members of the “We Love Obama Society”, and a hula troupe which formed in Obama City in celebration of their tenuous and wacky connection to Barack Obama, and through him to Hawaii. Their sensei (or kumu hula) was super nice – I ended up talking to her briefly. She’s from Tokyo, but just had a sort of energy about her that made me wonder if she was from here; she’s got a very good spirit.

Here’s a video of one of the Obama Girls’ hula performances. You can find two more on my YouTube account.

On a perhaps slightly related note (insofar as it relates to US-Japan relations), I’ve found that a nice catalog of the Smithsonian holdings of gifts received by Commodore Perry in Japan and Ryukyu is freely available online. The book, entitled “Artifacts of Diplomacy: Smithsonian collections from Commodore Matthew Perry’s Japan Expedition (1853-1854),” can be found at: http://www.sil.si.edu/smithsoniancontributions/Anthropology/pdf_lo/SCtA-0037.pdf.

Perhaps most exciting and interesting for me is the lists, towards the very end of the catalog, of gifts given and received on specific dates by Commodore Perry and his entourage. I see no mention of the Gokoku-ji bronze temple bell, fashioned in 1456, and taken by Perry and hung at the Annapolis US Naval Academy where, I have heard, it was rung every time Navy beat Army in football, until the bell was returned in the 1980s or so; nor do I see any mention of Okinawan coral limestone brought back by Perry to be inserted into the Washington Monument, then under construction. (The stone was in the end inserted, at the 220th landing. Hopefully, it’s visible and marked today; I’ll have to take a look the next time I am in DC.) But, even so, to see the lists of exactly how many fans, bolts of silk, pouches of tobacco, etc. the Commodore and his people received on each visit to Ryukyu, and what sorts of gifts they gave to the Ryukyuan royalty and officials in return, is really quite interesting.

Meanwhile, as just sort of a side note, the Korean Uigwe texts which I mentioned about a year ago that Japan was talking about returning, are now in the process of actually being returned. I think this is a great thing for Korea, and hopefully this will actually foster some goodwill, rather than being viewed by Koreans as just getting back what the “evil” Japan “stole” from them.

Putting aside whether or not the books should be returned – I think it’s a great effort of goodwill that they are being returned – I maintain my view that their “theft” was not “illegal” as the Korean YonHap News Agency would have it. Korea was a part of Japan at that time just as much as Okinawa is today; if moving these books to Tokyo during peacetime constituted “looting” or “theft”, then so does moving objects of Okinawan importance to Tokyo, or moving objects of Hawaiian importance to Washington, or moving Welsh or Scottish objects to London. Call it immoral or inappropriate if you like, or culturally insensitive, but it’s not illegal.

Another “Quick Links” coming up soon!

Read Full Post »

I came across a reference in my 50-year-old Okinawan history book to a sacred Buddhist temple bell, cast in 1465 by the order of the king. It was inscribed, “May the sound of this bell shatter illusory dreams, perfect the souls of mankind, and enable the King and his subjects to live so virtuously that barbarians will find no occasion to invade the Kingdom.” Truly, a national treasure, a very sacred and important object, both culturally/religiously, and historically. Unfortunately, inscriptions on bells do little to stave off invasion, and Okinawa suffered just that, and subordinate status to several nations over the course of its history. A very similar bell, forged in the same year, and with similar importance and sacredness, was stolen by the invaders, and set up at their military academy, essentially a war trophy. But who were these barbarians, who would invade and destroy so much culture, so much history, killing thousands of civilians, and stealing national treasures as war trophies? It wasn’t the Mongols. Nor the Chinese. Nor the Japanese. No, it was the Americans.

I thought we were the good guys. I thought we didn’t do this kind of thing. I thought that’s what separated “us” from “them”. Maybe I read too many comic books. Maybe there are no good guys in this world. Such flagrant disrespect for the history and culture of another people… you can blame it on the racism, the values, the attitudes of a past age (i.e. 1940s America is not the America of today) but in light of the vast destruction of irreplaceable priceless world heritage in Iraq in the last five years or so, I would say nothing’s changed. War trophies!? Are you serious? Who are we, the Romans? The Mongols? Are we keeping heads or ears or noses as well, to count which warrior was the most valiant in claiming the most heads of our enemies?

This bell was thankfully returned to Okinawa in 1991, 46 years after it was stolen. The inscribed bell described above, and in my history book, was brought back to the US by Commodore Perry a century prior, whether as a gift or as a war trophy I do not know, but displayed at the Naval Academy at Annapolis, removed entirely from its Buddhist, royal, and Okinawan contexts, and rung at the most unsacred and plebian of occasions – the victory of the Navy over the Army in football games. This one was returned in 1987; I visited this temple when I was in Okinawa, not knowing the story of the bell…

Read Full Post »