Welcome to the Iwakura Mission Exhibit, a project of the Digital Museum of the History of Japanese in New York. The project recognizes the 150th anniversary of the Iwakura Mission’s 1871 departure from Japan, a pivotal moment in the country’s development of international presence. The Iwakura Mission is a cornerstone of Japan’s modern history.
We welcome you to explore the tabs above to dive into elements of the exhibit, or continue to scroll for an overview of the mission and a timeline of the delegates' journey.
In the mid-nineteenth century, after a prolonged period of relative isolation, Japan resumed trade with much of the outside world. This shift to a more globalized commerce resulted in dramatic changes within Japan, and eventually throughout the world — its significance building so much as to partly cause the formation of a new Japanese government in the late 1860s.
Under the previous Shogunate governance, diplomatic missions had visited the United States in 1860, and Europe in 1862 and 1863. The new Meiji government had modernized objectives for its own diplomatic visit and created the The Iwakura Mission, also called the Iwakura Embassy, to undertake an expedition from 1871 to 1873. Roughly 50 members of the government participated, journeying to the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and several other countries.
At the time, many Japanese administrators were frustrated by their relationship with Western nations, feeling exploited economically and politically. The Iwakura Mission was dispatched as a means to better understand the political, military, economic, and educational institutions of the United States and Europe, with hopes to amend the history of unequal treaties and re-establish Japan on the world stage.
This exhibition provides an overview of the entire two-year Iwakura Mission. There is a special emphasis on the several months that the delegates spent traveling through the Eastern United States, highlighting their negotiations, meetings with American dignitaries, and visits to some of the most significant historical sites.
After a long journey aboard the SS America from Yokohama, Japan, the group arrived in San Francisco on January 15, 1872. Next, they traveled by train, making stops at Salt Lake City and Chicago, until they eventually reached Washington, D.C. on 29 February.
Image: (Right). Yokohama, 1881, Courtesy of Royal Collection Trust. (Below). Late San Francisco Bay, Late 19th Century, Free Usage via Library of Congress. (Bottom Right). Train at Monterey, California, March 19th, 1891, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The delegation arrived in Washington D.C. by train on February 28, 1872. The following day they received a bouquet from Hannah Grant, the first lady of the United States.
On March 4, 1872, the delegation attended a formal state reception at the White House.
The following days they visited the Capitol building and watched a debate in the House of Representatives. The group also went to the National Theater, which was decorated with crossed Japanese and American flags.
The delegates attended a banquet hosted by President Grant in the Blue Room of the White House.
Five Native Americans visited the Embassy at their hotel to have a brief interview.
The Embassy visited a home for soldiers, a care facility for veterans, and a college for African Americans.
The delegates received a tour of the Patent Office. Later, the group visited the U.S Printing Office and watched as steam-powered machines handled complex printing services.
The delegates attended a celebration for Emancipation Day in front of the White House. They were also treated to a tour of the Smithsonian Institution, took a boat cruise down the Potomac River, and visited the Department of the Treasury and the United States Postal Service.
The Iwakura Mission traveled to Annapolis, Maryland to visit the United States Naval Academy. Upon returning to Washington D.C., they watched a Civil War memorial service at Arlington Cemetery.
The delegates arrived in New York City via ferry from New Jersey.
They took a buggy ride down Broadway, and noted the brick roads and trolley cars before arriving at their hotel.
On the morning of June 11, 1872, the embassy left the city to travel upstate. Their first stop was West Point Military Academy, where they remained for two days. The delegates observed multiple combat drills and dined with officers, including the Secretary of War William Belknap. In their notes, the delegates commended the professionalism of the infantry during drills, but were somewhat unimpressed with their marksmanship, remarking that, “compared with Japanese soldiers, American gunners rarely hit the[ir] targets.”
In records from the Iwakura Mission, there is a mention of a brief stop in Albany, New York. The delegates described the town as a “vista of chimneys” that drowned out the sight of the river from their train. At the time, the New York State Capitol building was under construction, remaining unoccupied until 1879 (and still standing today). The photograph below was taken in September 1871, less than a year before the Embassy passed through the city.
The delegation stayed two nights at the International Hotel in Niagara Falls. On June 14, they spent most of the day exploring the falls, Goat Island, and Whirlpool Gorge. Kume described the “roaring tumult” of the waters as “scattering jewels and falling snowflakes.” That evening the embassy dined with former president Millard Fillmore, the president who had dispatched the original mission to open trade relations with Japan in 1853.
The delegates traveled to Saratoga to visit a summer resort. Upon returning to their hotel at the Grand Union House, they were treated to a grand banquet and ball.
The delegates ate potato chips at Saratoga Lake, a delicacy of the area. They also visited nearby mineral springs.
The group took a buggy ride to Astor Library, the Bible Society, and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).
The delegation briefly visited Rhode Island to view a hospital and prison. Upon returning to New York City, the delegation watched as oysters were cultivated in the New York Bay.
The delegation arrived in Boston on June 18, 1872, and attended the World’s Peace Jubilee and International Music Festival.
The mission members watched a second day of performances at the International Music Festival. Later in the day they attended a welcome event and cruised the Boston Harbor on a steamship.
The delegation took a train to Springfield and toured the Federal Arsenal.
After a short trip to New York City and Rhode Island, the mission returned to Boston. They attended a banquet at the Revere House Hotel, hosted by the city in their honor.
The delegation toured a cotton mill in Lawrence, and a wool mill in Lowell, Massachusetts.
The delegation visited a reservoir on the outer limits of Boston. On their way back to the city center, they were able to see the northern lights.
The delegation divided themselves into two groups. One group visited Marlborough, where they attended a reception and toured a shoe and clothing factory. The second group went to Providence, Rhode Island. They attended a similar reception, and toured a gold and silver utensils factory.
The delegation arrived in Philadelphia and accepted an invitation to stay at the country estate of Jay Cooke. Cooke was a wealthy financier, considered one of the first major investment bankers.
On the second day of the delegates' stay at the Cooke estate, Jay Cooke returned home from a business trip. The group enjoyed a banquet at the house and socialized with the family.
During the day, the delegates took a carriage ride around the city and paid a visit to the United States Mint. In the evening the group attended a reception at a mansion hosted by the city, and socialized until the early morning.
The delegation visited Independence Hall, Baldwin Locomotive Works, and a local penitentiary.
After spending over six months in the United States, the Iwakura Mission sailed out of the Boston port and headed for Europe. The mission spent considerably less time across the pond – many countries were toured in just two weeks. There were a few exceptions to this rapid pace, including Great Britain, where the delegates spent four months, and France, where they journeyed for three months. The delegates allocated four weeks for both Germany and Switzerland, and gave three weeks of their time to Italy.
While in America, the delegates had failed to successfully negotiate for a revised treaty with President Grant and Secretary of State Hamilton Fish. The ambassadors took the blunder in stride, but opted for a softer diplomatic approach during the second half of their trip. With less at stake, the mission had a very successful European tour. They were repeatedly received as honored guests and granted time with presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens, government officials, and leaders of industry. While immersed in viewing European government offices, factories, military academies, universities, libraries, and other institutions, the delegation never lost sight of movements back home. They remained aware of the ongoing reforms and kept in constant communication with Japan via letters and personal messengers. As such, Ōkubo and Kido, eager to attend to pressing issues back home, returned in the late spring and summer of 1873.
Meanwhile, Tomomi Iwakura and the remaining delegation sailed through the newly built Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean and East China Sea for brief visits to Ceylon(Sri Lanka), Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. While these visits were limited in scope compared to the tours of America and Europe, they provided clear evidence of the widening influence of Western civilization on Southeast and East Asia. As such, Tomomi Iwakura and his officers arrived in Yokohama on September 13, 1873, with a fresh perspective on the world and new strategies for how best to incorporate Western models into their modernization efforts.
Kume, Kunitake.Japan Rising: The Iwakura Embassy to the USA and Europe, edited by Chushichi Tsuzuki and R.Jules Young.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511721144.
Nish, Ian.The Iwakura Mission in America and Europe: A New Assessment.Routledge, 2008.
Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard 2005.
Image: (Left). The Rotunde at the world’s fair, 1873, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. (Right). Iwakura Mission with President Thiers on December 26, 1872, 1873, Bibliotheque nationale de France.
On September 13, 1873, the Iwakura Mission returned to Yokohama, nearly two years after their initial departure. They had spent eight months in the United States, four months in Britain, and many more months moving through countries of Europe and Southeast Asia. The Mission, composed of more than 100 Japanese politicians, courtiers, and officials, had traversed the globe. Happily, they arrived home with no major incidents to report. The fortune of their safe journey was largely due to the warm reception they received from each host country’s government and citizenry.
In each location they toured, the Iwakura Mission members were treated as honored guests and granted time with heads of state, including President Grant, Queen Victoria, and Otto von Bismarck. These ambassadorial visits opened doors of opportunity for the delegates to accomplish one of their main objectives: to secure high-level international recognition for the Meiji government.
The group’s many tours of Western industries, institutions, and infrastructures also served to accomplish a core objective: to imagine the future of the Japanese state. With each visit the mission’s leaders collected building blocks of ingenuity and technique, and began drafting blueprints of Japan’s future. Thus, even when the delegation was unable to renegotiate the treaties that had beleaguered Japan for nearly twenty years, they found respite in their new set of tools and insight.
Upon their return to Japan, Tomomi Iwakura and other high-ranking mission members had to act on their new blueprints quickly. They aimed to divert Japan away from its impending plans for imperialist expansion, and called for a renewed focus on domestic reform and Western-style modernization. Although both Takayoshi Kido and Toshimichi Ōkubo passed away before the end of the 1870s (the latter as a direct consequence of his support for such reforms), the core objectives of the Iwakura Mission lived on. Tomomi Iwakura, Hirobumi Itō, and many of the other members of the delegation filled out positions in a robust new government structure. They set about creating a new constitution, a revolutionized industrial base, and legal and educational systems based on Western modes of thought.
These transformations were as rapid as they were turbulent, and encountered resistance as often as they garnered support. Nevertheless, the Iwakura Mission and the Meiji leaders were persistent, and gradually their influences became visible at every level of society. Within a few short decades, Japan was recognized as a major international power with industrial, economic, and military prowess. The country had grown to be on par with many of the nations the Iwakura Mission had visited during their extraordinary voyage across the globe.