The joke to longtime Rhode Islanders is that while we’re small, sooner or later most everything will somehow pass through our little state. After all, Babe Ruth played on the Providence Grays on his march towards baseball legendry. John F. Kennedy gave a tumultuous speech in front of Providence City Hall on the eve of his presidential victory. Superstar Viola Davis spent her formative years growing up in Central Falls. But nowhere is this Rhode Island connection more evident than in the historical shaping of our nation during which, as one of the original 13 colonies, many of our residents stepped forward to serve and lead our country.
One of the most significant was the nautical Perry family. South Kingstown–born Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry was the hero of the War of 1812 and, after winning the naval battle of Lake Erie, uttered the legendary phrase “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” His brother Commodore Mathew Perry is perhaps even better known. He was the man who arrived in Japan with his famous “black ships” in 1854, demanding that the shogun open Japan’s ports to trade with the U.S. Perry arrived with a team of botanists, painters, photographers and scholars, who captured details of life in Japan, then relatively unknown to the West after almost two hundred years of isolation under the rule of the shogunate. The result was a richly detailed, 3,500-page, three-volume manuscript produced for Congress at a cost estimated at $10 million in today’s money, symbolizing Japan’s entry into the modern world.
The Japanese celebration of Perry’s arrival was held this past May in Shimoda, Japan, a delightful and picturesque town on a peninsula several hours south of Tokyo where the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa initiating trade between the two countries was signed. It was an impressive event, now in its 78th year and complete with the laying of wreaths, parades, and a weeklong festival that featured symbolic and formal exchanges among Japanese and American dignitaries and naval personnel, finishing with a truly memorable fireworks display. But perhaps the most exciting part of the festivities was a parade through the narrow streets of the downtown, cheered on by throngs of spectators as long rows of Japanese and American flags fluttered overhead. Given the Commodore’s Rhode Island heritage, it is appropriate that Newport and Shimoda have become sister cities – and that the mayors of each town are important elements of the exchange.
This month, Mayor Harry Winthrop and Spencer Viner, head of the Japan-America Society of Rhode Island, will have the opportunity to repay the hospitality when they welcome Shimoda’s mayor and his delegation to participate in Newport’s popular Black Ships Festival on July 13–16. Some of the festival’s highlights will include the opening ceremonies at Touro Park at 10:30am on the 14th and a special Sushi Sake Sail from 3 to 5pm later that day. Saturday the 15th will feature Japanese-themed activities all day long at Touro Park, including kite making, origami and a demonstration of samurai sword techniques. Things get even more festive in the evening when a spectacular gala of dignitaries, dining and dancing will take place at the Rosecliff mansion. Black tie is suggested; kimonos are welcome. On Sunday the 16th, wreath laying ceremonies will be held at Perry’s Tomb in the Island Cemetery on Farewell Street, a spectacular double Taiko Drum presentation will be held at Cardine’s Field at noon, and a second Sushi Sake Sail of Newport Harbor will take place from 2 to 4pm.