I'm out of academia! Temporarily! Maybe! Check out my new blog, focused on my interests in weird fiction, experimental music, and generally all things so post-academic that they're not academic at all, over at Blownhorizonz.com.
After hearing some academic rumors to this effect, I've finally done the digging, and it's true: when Admiral Perry sailed into Edo Bay in 1854, a troupe of minstrels was on board the U.S.S. Powhatan with him. They performed in both Tokyo and Yokohama, more than once. NYU's Victor Fell Yellin (whose name could actually be the title of a minstrel routine) has got the academically legitimized version. Less authoritative-looking but very informative is this brief article (Japanese), which draws its information from Kasahara Kiyoshi's 黒船来航と音楽 (Music and the Arrival of the Black Ships).
And there are a few great images floating around the web:
A Western depiction of the March 27th "Welcome Party" (talk about a euphemism) at which the minstrels performed. I can't quite tell from this whether that's actually them on stage.
And best of all, one of several images of the troupe produced by Japanese artists of the era: