In 1852, Perry embarked from Norfolk, Virginia for Japan, in command of a squadron in search of a Japanese trade treaty. Aboard a black-hulled steam frigate, he ported Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and Susquehanna at Uraga Harbor near Edo on July 8, 1853. His actions at this crucial juncture were informed by a careful study of Japan's previous contacts with Western ships and what could be known about the Japanese hierarchical culture. He was met by representatives of the Tokugawa Shogunate who told him to proceed to Nagasaki, where there was limited trade with the Netherlands and which was the only Japanese port open to foreigners at that time.
Perry refused to leave and demanded permission to present a letter from President Millard Fillmore, threatening force if he was denied. Perry ordered his ships to attack several buildings around the harbor to demonstrate US naval power. The Commodore was fully prepared for more hostilities if his negotiations with the Japanese failed, and threatened to use unrestrained fire if the Japanese refused to negotiate. He sent two white flags to them, telling them to hoist the flags when they wished a bombardment from his fleet to cease and to surrender. Perry's ships were equipped with new Paixhans shell guns, capable of wreaking great destruction with every shell. The Japanese military forces could not resist Perry's modern weaponry; the term "Black Ships", in Japan, would later come to symbolise a threat imposed by Western technology.
The Japanese government was forced to let Perry come ashore to avoid further naval bombardment. Perry landed at Kurihama on July 14, 1853 presented the letter to delegates present, and left for the Chinese coast, promising to return for a reply.
Fortifications were built in Tokyo Bay at Odaiba in order to protect Edo from a possible American naval incursion.
Perry returned in February 1854 with twice as many ships, finding that the delegates had prepared a treaty embodying virtually all the demands in Fillmore's letter. Perry signed the Convention of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854 and departed, mistakenly believing the agreement had been made with imperial representatives. The agreement was made with the Shogun, the de facto ruler of Japan.