When we contemplate contact scenarios between ourselves and extraterrestrial civilizations, we can profit from remembering our own history. The European arrival in the Americas is often a model, but there are other events of equal complexity. In the essay below, Michael Michaud looks at America’s encounter with Japan to examine how we might react to a civilization not vastly more advanced in technology than our own. A familiar figure on Centauri Dreams, Michaud is now retired from an extensive diplomatic career that took him from director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Advanced Technology to chairman of working groups at the International Academy of Astronautics that discuss SETI issues, along with posts as Counselor for Science, Technology and Environment at U.S. embassies in Paris and Tokyo. He is also the author of the seminal Contact with Alien Civilizations (Springer, 2007).

By Michael A.G. Michaud


In the literature about possible future contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, one of the most familiar presumptions is that the aliens will employ technologies vastly more advanced and more powerful than our own. Hollywood has given us binary images of such technologically empowered beings, depicting them as either benign altruistic teachers or as monsters who want to destroy us. There is a lot of room between those extremes.

A countervailing theory suggests that we are most likely to encounter a technological civilization closer to our own level, as the most advanced would ignore us or treat us as irrelevant. What might happen if we came into direct contact with a civilization whose technologies were only a century in advance of ours? Here is an Earthly example.

In 1852, U.S. President Millard Fillmore assigned U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry to force the opening of Japanese ports to American trade. Perry was to deliver a letter from the President to the Emperor of Japan.

At the time, the only authorized port of entry into Japan was Nagasaki, where the Dutch maintained a trading post. The Japanese, forewarned by the Dutch that Perry’s ships were on their way from the United States, refused to change their 220 year old policy of exclusion.

Perry’s mission to Japan was part of a much longer voyage around southern Africa to Asia, a showing of the American flag. After an eight month journey with multiple port calls, Perry’s squadron of four ships reached the entry to Edo (now Tokyo) Bay on July 8, 1853.

Numerous Japanese fishing boats hastily retreated from the American ships, whose crews were at battle stations. Perry’s account reports that the fishermen seemed astonished to see the steam powered American vessels proceed against the wind with their sails furled.

Japanese officials in boats approached the American ships several times, asking them to leave. The first boat bore large banners with characters inscribed on them. The Americans, who could not read Japanese, conjectured that this boat was a government vessel of some kind.

Another Japanese boat approaching the American ships carried a man holding up a scroll which he read aloud. He was admitted aboard to meet with a lower-ranking American officer. The scroll, later found to be a document in French, conveyed an order that the American ships should leave, reiterating that Nagasaki was the only place in Japan for trading with foreigners.

The crews of Japanese “guard boats” made several attempts to board Perry’s ships, but were repelled by Americans with pikes, cutlasses, and pistols. No casualties were reported.


Image: American Navy Commodore Matthew Perry arrives in Japan, August 7, 1853. Credit: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, woodblock print.

Through his officers, Perry warned that he would not permit Japanese guard boats to remain close to his ships. If they were not immediately removed, he would disperse them by force. When a few guard boats remained, Perry sent armed men to drive them away.

The Japanese made token shows of force on shore, firing out of date cannons and launching rockets. None seemed to be aimed at the American ships.

Perry warned the Japanese that, if they chose to fight, he would destroy them. In a demonstration of force that did no physical harm, he ordered blank shots to be fired from his squadron’s 73 cannons.

The Americans discovered that Japanese defenses were more for show than combat. Using a telescope to observe forts on headlands, they found some in an unfinished state. Screens had been stretched in front of the breastworks, possibly with the intention of making “a false show of concealed force.” The narrative’s writer observed that the Japanese had not calculated on the “exactness of view” afforded by a telescope.

Perry strove to impress the Japanese with “a just idea” of the power and superiority of the United States. He described his demands as “a right,” and not an attempt to solicit a favor. He expected “those acts of courtesy which are due from one civilized nation to another.” If the Japanese assumed superiority, that was a game he could play as well as they.

Perry refused to meet with lower level Japanese officials. His narrative observes that the more exclusive he made himself, and the more unyielding he was, the more respect “these people of forms and ceremonies” would award him.

A Japanese man who was described as a Governor came to Perry’s flagship, where he met with American officers while Perry remained invisible. (The visitor actually was the Deputy Governor.) At one point, lower ranking American officers dealing with the Japanese elevated Perry’s rank from Commodore to Admiral.

As one might expect, language was a problem. The Americans had one interpreter who knew Chinese and another who knew Dutch, but no one who spoke Japanese. The Japanese provided an interpreter who spoke Dutch; the two sides used a third country’s language.

The Americans warned that if the Japanese did not appoint a suitable person to receive the President’s letter and other documents from the American capital, Perry’s forces would go ashore with sufficient force and deliver them in person (by implication, to the Emperor). They pointed out that that one hour’s steaming would bring Perry’s ships in sight of Edo (Tokyo). Perry did send one of his ships closer to Edo, anticipating that this would alarm the Japanese authorities and induce them to give a more favorable answer to his demands.

When Perry sent out boats to survey the coastline, Japanese vessels carrying armed men rushed toward them. The American officer in charge of the surveying party gave orders for his men to arm their weapons. Seeing the armed sailors, the Japanese avoided a direct confrontation.

At last, the real Governor visited Perry’s ship, exhibiting a letter from the Emperor that met Perry’s demand for a high level Japanese official to accept the letter from the American President. The Governor provided the Americans with a copy in Dutch.

Arrangements were made for a ceremony on shore. Japanese officials asked Perry to move his ships close to a beach in modern day Yokosuka (where there is now an American naval base). There he would be allowed to land.


Image: Japanese 1854 print describing Commodore Matthew Perry’s “Black Ships.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Perry’s approach the next morning was announced by American guns. In a formal ceremony under a large, decorated tent, he presented the documents from Washington. He promised to return the following year to receive the Japanese reply.

Perry commented in his report that the Japanese officials showed a quiet dignity of manner and never lost their self-possession. However backward the Japanese might be in practical science, he wrote, the best educated among them were “tolerably well-informed of progress among more civilized nations.” Perry expressed a hope in his account that “our attempt to bring a singular and isolated people into the family of civilized nations may succeed without resort to bloodshed.”

Perry returned to Japan in February 1854 with ten ships and 1,600 men, putting even more pressure on the Japanese. After initial resistance, he was permitted to land at Kanagawa, near present-day Yokohama. A month of negotiations led to the first Convention between Japan and the United States.

The American negotiator on the spot had greater latitude in that pre-radio era, when communication with capitals was slow. Unfortunately, Perry was mistaken in his belief that this agreement had been made with the Emperor’s representatives. He did not understand the position of the Shogun, the de facto ruler of Japan.

What lessons can we draw from this? Most obvious is that finding a shared language would be difficult. Points might be made through actions or images rather than words.

Another lesson is that this meeting of technological unequals did not lead to armed conflict. The Americans used their superior weapons and propulsion technologies to intimidate, not to damage or conquer. Despite their threats, they acted with restraint, and got their way without violence.

The Japanese, though making only weak shows of force, insisted on being treated as diplomatic equals through rituals and symbols. The Americans, as the more powerful civilization, maintained a balance between intimidation and respect.

We may want to keep histories like this in mind as we weigh possible contact scenarios. Contact may not be between cultures separated by millennia of scientific and technological development.

Readers interested in a complete account of this event may wish to look at Commodore M.C. Perry, Narrative of the Expedition to the China Seas and Japan, 1852-1854, reprinted by Dover in 2000. As Perry’s visit took place in the pre-photographic age, that report was illustrated with lithographs and woodcuts by American on-board artists.