Perry Expedition member buried in Greenwood Cemetery

Lieutenant Commander Robert May, buried at Greenwood Cemetery was a member of the Perry Expedition to Japan. The two trips to the island nation had significant impacts on both Japan and the United States in the later years.

LEXINGTON — If one finds themselves wandering through the older graves of Greenwood Cemetery in Lexington, they may stumble upon a gravestone with significance to the history of Japan.

Located with the Reynolds family plot is a simple gravestone which is inscribed with, “Robert Logan May, 1832-1916, Lieut-Comm. U.S. Navy, Member Perry Expedition to Japan.”

The Perry Expedition was a diplomatic and military expedition undertaken by Commodore Matthew Perry, whose goal was to establish diplomatic ties with a Japan which had shut itself off to the rest of the world for nearly 220 years.

With the end of the Sengoku, “warring states,” period of Japan, which had torn the country apart through the fighting of various warlords, the country was finally united under the Tokugawa shogunate.

After the Tokugawa came to power they implemented an isolationist foreign policy called Sakoku, “closed country.” In effect Japan cut itself off from the rest of the world, severely limiting ties with foreign nations and barring foreigners from entering Japan. The policy was enacted in 1633 and would not be ended until 1853.

According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, growing commerce between China and the United States, increasing monopolization of coaling stations by the British and French and a sense of manifest destiny all contributed to the decision to dispatch the Perry Expedition.

Some 18 previous expeditions, including four from the U.S. failed to breech the Japanese wall of isolation. This was the period of gunboat diplomacy, the tactic of a conspicuous display of naval power with the threat of warfare if terms should not be agreeable to the superior force, according to a book written by James Cable.

The details of Robert May’s involvement with the Perry expedition are scarce and it is unknown if he participated in the Perry’s first visit to Japan, the second, or both. It is known Perry had at least 250 sailors with him during his first voyage to Japan and brought a further 1,600 with him during the second visit.

The effect the visits of these new American steamboats deeply worried the shogunate in Japan. They felt it was impossible to resist American military force. For the first time the shogunate allowed its decision making to be a matter of public debate, but the effect of this was making the shogun look weak in the face of military force.

The leaders of Japan were split on how to respond, some wanted to accept the American demands while others wanted to oppose them. The opposing side rallied behind the phrase, “revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians.” What they all did agree on was bolstering Japanese coastal defenses.

Perry returned to Japan in 1854 and after more negotiations and conspicuous displays of force, the Convention of Kanagawa was signed which opened up the ports of Hakodate and Shimoda to American ships.

The effect of Perry’s expedition was the eventual collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate and the Meji Restoration. The restoration was aimed at modernizing Japan and catching up with the rest of the world after the 220 years of isolation had left Japan in a considerably weak position in the world in the 1800s.

Japan would quickly adopt modern techniques and evolve into a great industrial, mercantile and military power in Asia in the intervening years. Ironically, this opening of Japan to the rest of the world and modern industry also paved the way for Japanese imperialism and eventually, bombs falling on American warships at Pearl Harbor.

It’s unknown at the moment what role Lieutenant Commander Robert May played in the expeditions but a little piece of significant world history can be found on a humble gravestone here in Lexington.

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