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The Black Ships (in Japanese, 黒船, kurofune) was the name given to Western vessels arriving in Japan between the 15th and 19th centuries. In particular, it refers to Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and Susquehanna, that arrived on July 14,1853 at Uragamarker Harbor (part of present-day Yokosuka) in Kanagawa Prefecturemarker, Japanmarker under the command of United Statesmarker Commodore Matthew Perry. The word "black" refers to the black color of the older sailing vessels, and the black smoke from the coal-fired power plants of the American ships.

Commodore Perry's superior military force was a factor in negotiating a treaty allowing American trade with Japan, thus effectively ending the period of more than 200 years in which trading with Japan was only allowed to the Dutchmarker and Chinesemarker.

The following year, at the Convention of Kanagawa, Perry returned with eight ships and forced the shogun to sign the "Treaty of Peace and Amity", establishing formal diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States. Within five years, Japan had signed similar treaties with other western countries. The Harris Treaty was signed with the United States on July 29, 1858.

The surprise and confusion these ships inspired are described in this famous kyoka (a humorous poem similar to the 5-line waka):
Commodore Perry's fleet for his second visit to Japan in 1854.
泰平の Taihei no
眠りを覚ます Nemuri o samasu
上喜撰 Jōkisen
たった四杯で Tatta shihai de
夜も眠れず Yoru mo nemurezu


This poem is a complex set of puns (in Japanese, kakekotoba or "pivot words"). Taihei (泰平) means "tranquil"; Jōkisen (上喜撰) is the name of a costly brand of green tea containing large amounts of caffeine; and shihai (四杯) means "four cups", so a literal translation of the poem is:
Awoken from sleep
of a peaceful quiet world
by Jokisen tea;
with only four cups of it
one can't sleep even at night.


However, there is an alternate translation, based on the pivot words. Taihei can refer to the "Pacific Ocean" (太平); jōkisen also means "steam-powered ships" (蒸気船); and shihai also means "four vessels". The poem, therefore, has a hidden meaning:
The steam-powered ships
break the halcyon slumber
of the Pacific;
a mere four boats are enough
to make us lose sleep at night.


'Black Ships' (Kurofune) is also the title of the first Japanese Opera, composed by Kosaku Yamada, "based on the story of Tojin Okichi, a geisha caught up in the turmoil that swept Japan in the waning years of the Tokugawa shogunate" and premiered in 1940.

See also



Notes

  1. "Perry Ceremony Today; Japanese and U. S. Officials to Mark 100th Anniversary." New York Times. July 8, 1953,
  2. Page for the 'Black Ships' opera at the New National Theatre Tokyo
  3. Simon Holledge's interview with Hiroshi Oga citing the premiere of the 'Black Ships' opera


References



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