When Matthew Perry was in grade school in Bristol, R.I., he was always a little embarrassed when teachers would single him out in history class.
He had been named for his great-great-great uncle, Commodore Matthew Perry, who had opened up communications and trade between the United States and Japan in 1854. That groundbreaking expedition is celebrated in Japan even today.
Trouble was, Japan didn’t have a great reputation in the U.S. when Matthew’s generation of Perrys came along in the 1940s.
“I was born before World War II. We heard talk about Japan when I was a kid, but it really didn’t mean too much to me,” said Perry, who was in Fort Worth last weekend to give a talk to The Friendship Force travel and cultural exchange group. He also visited the samurai armor exhibit at the Kimbell Museum as well as the Botanical Research Institute of Texas.
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There was family pride in the Perry lineage and its seagoing links back to the Revolution, he recalled, but it would be years before this Matthew began researching his ancestors in earnest.
He followed them into the Navy and served in the Vietnam War, even visited Japan twice during his service. During one trip he visited Kurihama, where Commodore Perry landed, and saw a statue of his famous ancestor.
But the modern-day sailor was an average Joe in the Navy, even with that surname and pedigree.
“The Navy made no connection, and I never brought it up,” he said. He had planned to make a career in the Navy and had received his commission from the Navy’s Officer Candidate School, but Perry found he didn’t particularly enjoy any of the jobs he had in the Navy.
But he had enjoyed classes in his major at the University of Rhode Island, where he had graduated in 1963 with a degree in wildlife management and forestry.
“I told the captain, ‘There’s not enough trees on these ships,’ ” Perry said. He went on to get advanced degrees in his specialty.
Perry is retired from a 45-year career as a wildlife biologist at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, where he still serves as a scientist emeritus.
He has been to Japan five times and plans to return in September.
“Now I have this thirst to learn as much as I can,” he said before his Friday presentation on his family history and Japanese and American relations.
“America still doesn’t understand Japan,” he said. “Our whole perception is Pearl Harbor, and we can’t get past that.
“But the Japanese can.”
Perry is a believer in groups like the Friendship Force of Fort Worth, which practices international travel and cultural exchange, but he prefers more basic treks than tours of castles and cathedrals.
“I deal with people who want to go into the woods,” said Perry, who conducts ecotourism travel expeditions in South America and elsewhere around the globe.
Interested people can learn more about The Friendship Force at www.fffw.org.