Treaty of Kanagawa in Japan: Definition & History

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Did you know that for roughly 200 years, Japan intentionally cut itself off from much of the world? This all changed in 1854. This lesson explains the history and major points of the Kanagawa Treaty between the U.S. and Japan.

Japan and Isolationism

When you think of Japan in the modern era, it's hard to imagine that the tiny island country once practiced isolationism, or keeping itself separate from the affairs of the outside world.

During the 1500s and 1600s, Japan traded with a number of European countries, including the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. Japan's government figured out pretty quickly that many of the trade deals were incredibly unfair.

For nearly 200 years, the country maintained very limited trade with its neighbor, China, and a handful of Dutch traders. Japan's two centuries of isolation came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa, an agreement with the United States that opened Japan's doors to the Western world.

Events Leading to the Treaty

In the early 1850s, American president Millard Fillmore was determined to open up Japan to the United States. At the time, the U.S. was interested in opening up Japanese ports so American steamships could stop and refuel. On behalf of the president, Commodore Matthew Perry, a seasoned naval officer, sailed into Tokyo Bay with just a handful of ships on July 8, 1853.

At first, the Japanese government wanted nothing to do with Perry and his men. Perry, however, was relentless. Eventually, the Japanese agreed to meet with Perry. When the two groups finally met, Commodore Perry gave the Japanese a number of gifts from the Western world, including a miniature train set. The gifts were meant to show the Japanese that the United States was in fact superior.

Commodore Matthew Perry
Commodore Matthew Perry

Before leaving Japan, Commodore Perry informed the Japanese government that he would return within the year. When he came back, he would have a much larger fleet with him, and he expected the Japanese to sign a treaty with the United States.

Commodore Perry and his fleet in 1854
Perry second fleet

The Terms of the Treaty of Kanagawa

True to his word, Perry returned in 1854. This time, the Japanese could not deny that they were no match for Perry's strong American fleet. On March 31, 1854, the United States and Japan signed the Kanagawa Treaty. Through the treaty, Japan agreed to:

  • Look after American sailors who were stranded in Japan
  • Open up two ports for American use
  • Allow American consuls to live in the two ports

In addition, Japan agreed to the most important part of the treaty: the most-favored nation clause. Under this clause, whenever Japan signed a trade agreement with another country, the United States automatically received the same treatment as the other country. For example, if Japan's government agreed to let Spanish traders trade in Tokyo Bay, the United States would be allowed to do the same.

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