The Iwakura Embassy, led by Foreign Minister Iwakura Tomomi, departed Japan in 1871 on a two-year fact-finding mission around the globe to collect information and expertise. Its aim: turn feudal Japan into a modern industrial nation. The embassy’s 108 members sailed east, crossed America, traveled across Britain, Europe, Russia and then returned home again via the Suez Canal. Historian Kume Kunitake, Iwakura’s secretary, kept a record of events and also his impressions of the people and ideas they encountered.

What they learned — about international trade and diplomacy, industry, law, finance and education — changed Japan forever. You can sense that transformation through Kume’s writings as, for example, formal Japanese court dress and behavior is gradually adapted to meet Western diplomatic expectations.

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