Japan Journal, Part 2: Commodore Perry, the Izu Dancer and the Black Ships

14 Apr


One of the key things I wanted to do while in Japan was visit the Izu Peninsula to see sites connected to Yasunari Kawabata’s famous story, “The Izu Dancer,” which has frequently been adapted for films and TV programs in Japan. In researching sites for the trip, I discovered Shimoda, which also happens to have a number of sites connected to Commodore Matthew Perry and the arrival of the famous American squadron of “Black Ships” in Perry’s second Japanese expedition in 1854 and the one that yielded the first treaty between the two countries. So I booked a hotel room in Shimoda for the night of March 22, a one-night stay away from Tokyo, with the intention of visiting assorted spots in the area connected to both Commodore Perry and “The Izu Dancer.”



I took the Japan Rail train, the “Odoriko Express” (a reference to the Kawabata story’s Japanese title, “Izu no Odoriko”) from Tokyo Station and traveled along the coast, a nearly three-hour ride down the Izu Peninsula.


As the train passed the wooded coastal hills that formed the backdrop 90 years ago for Kawabata’s tale of a student spending the final days of his summer vacation trailing a traveling performance troupe and the dancing girl he’s become smitten with before his inevitable departure back to Tokyo, I was dismayed at how developed the area has become. There are new homes and structures, including apartment buildings, crammed into every nook and cranny available. It looks nothing like I imagined it and certainly nothing like it did in any of the films and TV programs I’ve seen (five at last count) based on “The Izu Dancer.” Now, granted, it was foolish of me to expect it to look the same, and I supposed I’d have to stick to the one area, the Kawazu Seven Falls, preserved as a tourist attraction specifically for “Izu Dancer” fans, but still, it was disheartening.

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Looking out the other side of the train, towards the sea, I did occasionally see piers that reminded me of the final scene in “The Izu Dancer” where the girl frantically waves goodbye to the student as he ships out on a boat back to Tokyo.


When I got out of the train at the Izukyu Shimoda Station, the first thing that greeted me was a small-scale replica of one of the Black Ships.


It would have been nice if they’d included an English translation of the description below the ship:


I visited the local tourist information center across the street and picked up an English-language map of the area and asked the nice ladies there to mark the spots on the map I should visit that were related to Commodore Perry and the Izu Dancer and they did so.

Shimoda Map 1Shimoda Map 2

I then took the shuttle bus to my hotel, the Shimoda Tokyu Inn, and checked in, leaving my overnight bag there and then heading out to see some sites before it got too late. The hotel was on a high hill and required a long walk downhill (and, worse, a long walk back up). The map was not too detailed and made everything look much closer together than it was, so it took a while to find the first site I was seeking, Rosenji Temple, where Commodore Perry had come ashore to finalize negotiations and where Townsend Harris had met with Japanese officials also. Harris was the first American Consul General in Japan, having set up shop in Shimoda in 1856, something I hadn’t been aware of till I got to Shimoda. There were no signs in English explaining what had happened at Rosenji Temple, so my visit was brief, although there were artistic renderings of the events there.

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Right up the block was the clearly-marked Museum of Black Ships (MoBS), so I went in there to see what they had and learned they did not allow photography in the museum proper, so I don’t have much of a record of what they offered. They did display lots of clippings from English-language newspapers covering the interactions between Japan and the west, including the Japanese delegation’s visits to Washington, D.C. and New York in 1860, covered in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, several copies of which were on display. There were also original drawings and watercolor paintings by Japanese artists documenting Commodore Perry’s visit in 1854. They allowed photography of the lobby displays, so we can see some of those, and they sold a publication, in Japanese, which had several images of items in the museum, so I’m including scans of those.


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The coverage of the Japanese delegation’s visit to New York in June 1860 and the subsequent parade in lower Manhattan ties in with an event I witnessed in New York’s Central Park on Japan Day, June 6, 2010, when the Japanese consular officers in New York recreated the parade of the Japanese delegation from 150 years earlier. One of the participants in that parade, portraying a Japanese princess, was one of my favorite Japanese pop stars, Ai Kago, a former member of Morning Musume, whom I’d met at an event in New Jersey the previous November. I took pictures of her and the parade that day.

So it all came full circle as I studied an exhibit in Japan that celebrated the original event. I love it when dots get connected across such vast distances in space and time.

I then headed down to the docks to see the monument commemorating Perry’s landing in Shimoda.

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The inevitable selfie, to document my presence at the site where Perry once walked:


While there, I sought out the pier where the Izu dancing girl is supposed to have waved goodbye to the student. There was a sign in English designating the spot, but it sure didn’t look anything like what I’d seen in the movies and anime based on the story.


Looking up and down from the spot at the nearby docks, I didn’t see anything that reminded me of images from the film versions I’ve seen.


Here are shots from the 1963 version, IZU NO ODORIKO, starring Sayuri Yoshinaga, which has the clearest backgrounds of the ones I’ve seen:


I don’t know where they shot it, but it doesn’t look like Shimoda, unless the area’s been significantly altered since the 1963 location shoot. Interestingly, on the 15-hour flight to Japan, I took advantage of Japan Airlines’ movie selection to watch four recent Japanese movies. One of them was called NAGASAKI: MEMORIES OF MY SON and was about a mother who’d lost her son in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and is visited by his spirit three years after the war. The mother was played by Sayuri Yoshinaga–52 years after playing the Izu Dancer! Talk about coming full circle.

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In nearby Shimoda Park was another monument, this one honoring both Perry and Harris, and required an uphill walk. It includes a plaque commemorating President Jimmy Carter’s visit in 1979.

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The monument itself is above a plaza created in the park.


And the view from the monument, looking out over the bay:


It felt good to connect with the earliest significant American presence in Japan. These two men had started it all, forging a path that I and countless other Americans were following some 160 years later. And the quotes chosen for the monument indicate that the two men’s motivations were never about colonization, but about partnership and they wanted to make that clear. They respected Japan precisely because Japan had held onto its closely-guarded identity for so long and resisted any encroachment in a way few other non-white countries had done in the years of European colonization and imperialism. But by 1853, it was time for Japan to join the community of nations. I’ve always considered what I do, in writing and teaching about Japanese film and animation and immersing myself in Japanese culture and history, as a continuation of the process of “opening up” Japan. Granted, I can’t exactly pinpoint any specific results my work has produced in this process, but it seemed to me, after my trip, that the best way Americans can impact the famously insular Japan and “open it up” is to simply show up there and be a constant presence. As Commodore Perry might have put it when he sailed into Tokyo Bay on that first voyage in July 1853, “We’re Yanks, we’re here, get used to it.” Whatever goals Perry, Harris and American policy makers had at the time, the ultimate result for people like me and the thousands (millions?) of film buffs, manga readers, anime fans and J-pop devotees worldwide is the abundance of Japanese movies, anime, manga and J-pop for us to enjoy today, something that might not have happened in quite the same way had Americans not made those crucial moves 160 years ago.


After I was done, I headed back to the hotel, figuring I’d seen everything on the map relevant to my trip. Why did I book a hotel here, I asked myself, when I could have just taken the train back to Tokyo and returned to my hotel in the early evening. Long story short, when I went down to check out of the Shimoda hotel the next morning, I had to wait for the clerk to show up, so I scoured some of the brochures in the lobby and learned something very important. The temple where Townsend Harris lived and worked, Gokusenji, was in this town and open to the public, with an adjacent museum as well. Also, Okichi, the local woman who served Harris and lived with him, was memorialized in Hofukuji Temple, where she is buried, and an adjacent museum, which was much closer to the hotel. I wanted to visit both sites and would have missed them if I hadn’t stayed overnight and hadn’t picked up this brochure.

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The woman at the tourist center had marked Gokusenji Temple on the map for me, but I hadn’t noted the significance of it at the time. She hadn’t marked Hofukuji Temple, though. Of course, if I had bothered to just turn the map over and look at the back, I would have seen these sites listed, along with many others, something I didn’t notice until I scanned the map for this blog entry.

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In my next entry, I will continue my account of this trip and offer pictures from Hofukuji Temple and its Okichi displays and Gokusenji Temple and its Harris exhibits.





One Response to “Japan Journal, Part 2: Commodore Perry, the Izu Dancer and the Black Ships”

  1. Cold_Sleeper August 10, 2016 at 3:18 PM #

    Thank you. This article is also useful likely.

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