YANKEES IN THE LAND OF THE GODS Commodore Perry and The Opening of Japan By Peter Booth Wiley with Korogi Ichiro Viking. 578 pp. $24.95

COMMODORE Matthew Calbraith Perry's expedition to Japan, undertaken during 1853-54, remains one of the most remarkable episodes of modern international relations. Neither country was quite ready for such an encounter. The United States, although it had acquired California from Mexico in 1848 and looked ahead to expanding its influence in the Pacific, was far from being a united nation. The slavery question was daily becoming more serious, and the country's leaders knew this was not a time to engage in an ambitious foreign enterprise. And yet a number of determined expansionists, Perry among them, had a vision of Pacific empire which was within their nation's grasp if only it awakened to its destiny and augmented its military power accordingly. Perry's squadron, consisting of four battleships, although far smaller than he would have liked, would show the way by displaying America's determination to compel Japan to end its policy of seclusion.

The Japanese had been warned of the expedition by the Dutch, the only Europeans allowed to come once a year to trade. Moreover, American gunboats had earlier knocked on Japan's doors to have the island nation offer assistance to American sailors and whalers, shipwrecked or otherwise, who needed food, medicine and supplies. Still, the country, accustomed to two centuries of peace and without a centralized military force, was hardly in a position to prepare effectively for Perry's arrival or to respond forcefully to the American commodore's demands.

And yet, this awkward encounter produced results far better than either side had anticipated. Perry did not have to resort to force, as he had thought he might, and managed to get the Japanese to agree to the opening of two ports for the provisioning of American ships, though he had privately thought he would be lucky if just a ship-wreck convention were signed. On the Japanese side, the two ports (Shimoda and Hakodate) were sufficiently far away from Edo (present-day Tokyo), the capital of the shogunate, that they could keep foreigners from intruding upon the seat of authority. A dreaded war with America had been avoided, and Japan, its officials thought, had been spared the fate of China following its Opium War with Britain (1839-42). Moreover, the Japanese learned a great deal about the country Perry represented and obtained much fresh information on western history, geography and science, something they would find very useful in their governance.

Thus the two sides parted company on fairly friendly terms, although both the United States and Japan were soon to plunge into civil strife and then spend their energies on their respective nation-building efforts so that it would be several decades before they would once again confront one another, this time as Pacific rivals. But the Perry legacy -- America's Pacific power and Japan's "black ship mentality" -- would continue to define a pattern of U.S.-Japanese relations.

The story is a familiar one, although, as Peter Booth Wiley notes, its historical significance may not have been well understood. His book is the first comprehensive account of the Perry expedition as seen from both the American and the Japanese perspectives. The author take pains to describe the American background of the expedition (especially Perry's close ties with New York merchants and ship-builders, as well as his careful preparation for the expedition) and to detail the response of Okinawan and Japanese officials to the visit by American ships. For most of the American and Japanese actors in the drama, this was the first time that they ever met representatives of each other's nations, and their conduct and the impressions they made on one another were to constitute the point of departure for the subsequent dealings of Japan with other Western nations. SEVERAL themes stand out in this initial encounter, and it is amazing how durable some of them have proved to be. There is, for instance, Perry's strong belief that only a firm demonstration of American resolve, backed up by force, would persuade the Japanese to give in to his demands. Nearly 140 years later, there are still those, here as well as in Japan, who believe the only way to get the Japanese to take American interests seriously is to exert pressure from the outside (gaiatsu).

At the same time, Perry and his men firmly believed the United States was serving higher purposes in bringing Japan "into friendly and reciprocal intercourse with the nations of the world"; far more than an act of national self-interest such an event would constitute an "act of humanity," in line with "the extraordinary progress of the times." America as an agent of international general will, aiming to do good for the world as a whole, has a familiar ring even today. Given such lofty self-perceptions, it is not surprising that Perry found the Japanese decision-making process extremely complicated, as if designed to postpone necessary choices. Japanese officials employed a "thousand crooked arguments," complained Perry, accusing them of being "deceitful" and prone to temporizing rather than forthrightly responding to him. How little these impressions have changed!

At the same time, there were Americans, such as Samuel Wells Williams, the well-known publisher of the Chinese Recorder and one of Perry's interpreters, who were annoyed by the latter's high-handed tactics and disregard of Japanese sensitivities, just as there were Japanese who were open and friendly to American visitors, even some who risked their lives to plead with Perry to take them with him to America for study. To note their presence is to eschew simplistic generalizations about national character and to accept that in the end individuals may count far more than governments or navies as agents of international transactions.

That seems to be the point of this book. Although it is written in a low-keyed, balanced style, the author is critical of America's assertive expansionism in the Pacific, while at the same time showing little sympathy for the official Japanese policy of keeping people ignorant of foreign affairs. Wiley also ridicules both American exceptionalism and Japanese ethnocentrism. These are valid criticisms, although the subsequent history of U.S.-Japanese relations would seem to indicate that in the contest between American universalism and Japanese particularism, the former has been steadily gaining over the latter. In any event, at a time when serious questions are being raised about the nature of the bilateral relationship, it is good to have a well-documented, reliable account of the two countries' first direct encounter.

Akira Iriye, professor of history at Harvard University, is the author of "Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War, 1941-1945" and other books.