Black Ship Stew

by AFP/Shigemi Sato, Jul 12, 2003 | Destinations: Japan / Uraga

URAGA, Japan, July 8, 2003 - Two giant foreign container ships and specks of yachts. Nothing in the view from a marina at the mouth of Tokyo Bay may stir memories of four imposing US warships -- known as the black ships -- that arrived here 150 years ago Tuesday to open up Japan.

But try a stew named after them.

For three years, the Kochiya marina has dished "Black Ship Stew" to attract tourists to Uraga, where Commodore Matthew Perry's squadron came to set Japan on its quest for a global presence after two centuries of self-imposed isolation. Nestled in the shadow of Yokosuka, the biggest US naval base in the West Pacific which returned to the news during the Iraq war, this town is keen to plug its historic significance to woo visitors and boost the local economy.

Commodore Perry led the flotilla to shake Japan out of a "long sleep amid everlasting peace", as one satirical poem proclaimed at the time, under the feudal rule of the Shogun, or military commander. As Perry completed his mission, which resulted in the opening of formal ties between Japan and the United States the next year, he left an iron pot as a token of thanks to a sake and rice dealer who had supplied drinking water to his squadron. The utensil, now on display at a local museum, led a group of local leaders to invent a stew 10 years ago that they believed could be similar to that eaten by the squadron. One drawing of the Perry expedition shows goats on board, suggesting that white sauce stew was cooked using milk from the animals. The locals chose to boil shrimp, squid, octopus and mussel to emphasise Uraga's face as a seaside community.

The marina's restaurant also serves a bourbon-laced beef dish christened "Perry Stew". Kochiya executive director Yasumasa Uehara admitted the Black Ship stew had been "in no way a smash hit." "But groups of tourists with an interest in history come along to eat it once in a while."

"It is all part of town-building," said Uehara, whose marina is home to 120 yachts and boats owned mostly by people in Tokyo, 50 kilometres (30 miles) to the north.

Uraga, part of Yokosuka city with 430,000 people, is at the bottleneck of Tokyo Bay where on average 620 ships pass every day. It has developed under the lead of the country's first dry dock, which closed last March to be merged into a nearby shipyard amid a recession.

After World War II, the US Seventh Fleet was headquartered in Yokosuka to take over the Imperial Navy base.

Uraga also wants to capitalise on its links with the US military, despite strong pacifist sentiment nationwide. "We want to embrace the US base into our picture, although there may be some risk," said Uehara, a 52-year-old Uraga native. "We can present the town in the context of different cultures, or the closest foreign country."

Takaho Kawanishi, deputy head of Uraga's administrative office, said the town hoped to revive the red-brick dry dock as a "sort of museum". He lamented that some historical sites, such as the magistrate's office which dealt with Perry and his crew, had gone. "We want to establish new events as well to emphasise the importance of our history." Asked about Japan-US relations, the 56-year-old said: "We cannot say loudly whether we are for or against the US forces. Some may say it is a necessary evil."

Yoichi Funabashi, a columnist at the influential daily Asahi newspaper, recently wrote: "Perry's port call was a typical case of gunboat diplomacy."

"Perry used 'shock and awe' to open Japan," he said, copying the phrase which was used to characterise the US-led operation in Iraq.

Near a tall monument commemorating Commodore Perry's landing, three school children played with a bat and a baseball. "I don't know when he came because I wasn't born then," said nine-year-old Yuta Murakami. "I don't like the United States because they started war." His friend Yoshinari Katagiri, eight, chimed in: "I like Japan where I live. I like baseball because it is a Japanese sport."

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