The Sumo Won Perry's Heart
Shun Kasahara, The University of Tokyo (Spring, 2009)

When commodore Mathew C. Perry visited Japan, Americans showed their technological achievements, which surprised the Japanese. In contrast, were the Japanese able to give any shock to Perry and Americans? As a return for an exhibition of American technology, the Japanese government held a performance of sumo. In "The Personal Journal of Commodore Mathew C. Perry," Perry described the sumo wrestlers as "stall fed bulls than human beings" (1968, p.190), and ritual action of sumo as "the action of the bull, who paws the earth when preparing for an attack" and "seemed to be very foolish" (p.192). Perry looked down on sumo which is a Japanese traditional culture. But in fact his personal journal contains no less than sixty lines about such a "foolish" sport. If he had been really bored with sumo, would he write so many lines about the performance and tell it to other Americans in detail? I believe Perry was attracted to sumo but he did not describe his real feeling about it. But there was a Japanese painter at the sumo performance who depicted how much the Americans were enjoying this sport.

According to the personal journal of Perry, Perry and Americans were not interested in the sumo performance. But according to the drawing "Sumo" the Americans were enthusiastic at the sumo performance. Since "Sumo" was depicted by a Japanese artist, the drawing represents what was really seen with eyes of Japanese. There are seven American members of the band in addition to the sailors watching the sumo performance. The band members appear in only four of the drawings of the scroll, and in two of them ("Sumo" and "Rice") these men are painted as individuals who are fascinated by the sumo. These men were not depicted in the drawings about American achievements (such as "The Gears") but they exist in the drawings about private interactions between Americans and Japanese (such as "Trading Umbrellas"). The reason why the band members appear in only few drawings seems to be that the band members did not need to participate in official interaction with Japanese, which was different from other sailors. But these band members enjoyed interaction privately, and watched the sumo of their own will. "Sumo" shows the band members rushing to the entrance to the sumo performance. Through the irregular presence of the band members, we can read how greatly the Americans had been attracted to the sumo performance. Perry did not write well about sumo because he wanted to hide his interest in sumo, but unfortunately for him the great success of the sumo and enthusiasm of other Americans were known thorough "Sumo." In addition, there is a person in red clothes, who is a member of a boy's band (Kasahara 2001), and in front of this boy there is an adult who seems to prevent the boy from watching the sumo performance. I believe that the two symbolize the conflicting mind of Americans at that time. The adult who stops the boy symbolizes a mind which does not appreciate Japanese culture and the boy who is eager to watch innocently symbolizes a mind which is interested in Japanese culture. This conflict might have been in Perry's mind.

In addition to the sumo performance, Perry had another chance to watch the sumo wrestlers when the wrestlers carried bales of rice, and he wrote about it in his personal journal. The same situation was painted in the drawing "Rice." As he wrote, the wrestlers carried two bales, each of which weighed 135 pounds. They carried them on their shoulders, and one man carried them by his teeth. Another "held one in his arms and repeatedly turned a [somersault] upon the ground, retaining the bale in the same embrace" (p.192). These facts are so surprising even for modern Japanese, and it must have been so for Perry and his American crew. Also Perry wrote that Japanese had Perry examine the massive body of Koyanagi Tsunekichi, who is said to heve beaten an American wrestler and boxer in front of Perry. He described that Koyanagi was a "massive because his frame was covered with a mass of flesh, which to our ideas of athletic qualities would seem to incapacitate him from any violent exercise" (p.190). This means in America there were few sportsmen who had muscles as developed as Koyanagi, and Perry was surprised to meet such a huge man for the first time. Perry must have been aware of the incredible strength of Japanese the sumo wrestlers and impressed by that strength.

If it is fact that Perry was attracted to the sumo, then why did not Perry write his real feeling? Commodore Perry was sent to Japan as an American government representative. Before he came to Japan, the American government ordered Perry to keep the dignity of America and himself (Nakano 2008), and indeed Perry took strong attitude toward Japanese and frightened them with four big black ships. Perry showed such a show of forces not only because it seemed to him to be difficult to make nationally closed Japan open, but also because he wanted to keep his own dignity. From these facts it is possible to surmise the reason why Perry could not write his impression candidly. If he had written in his journal he was impressed by the strength of the Japanese, the American government would have thought that Perry was fascinated at Japanese culture and he change his mind easily, and the government would have considered him undependable.

Compared with great technological achievements Americans brought, one may think the sumo performance was strange and unsuitable for an example of Japanese culture. But in fact Americans looked excited at the sumo, as far as the Japanese painter's eyes were concerned. Sumo also gave Perry the feeling that Japanese are powerful and attractive. In the personal journal of Perry, the sumo is described badly, but that journal only represents the mere pride and vanity of Perry as a great commodore.


  1. Roger, Pineau, ed. The Japan Expedition, 1852-1854; the Personal Journal of Commodore Matthew C. Perry. Washington: Smithsonian, 1968.
  2. Kiyoshi Kasahara. Kurohune raikou to ongaku[The coming of the black ships and the music]. Tokyo. Yoshikawa kobunkan,2001.
  3. Masahiko Nakano. "2.Washin joyaku to Kaikoku [The treaty of peace and amity and the opening of Japan to the world]." Japan-US Encounters Website. 7 Oct 2008. 23 Jun 2009 (