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.

Japan Rising: The Iwakura Embassy to the USA and Europe, by Kume Kunitake
558 pages
Cambridge University Press, Nonfiction.

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.

Kume’s immediate reactions to the flood of new experiences mirrors a process of change that was already ongoing in Japan at the time.

The original diary runs to five volumes and was translated into English in 2002. This Cambridge edition is heavily abridged to make it manageable but loses none of its value for that.

Kume was a poetic and thoughtful writer with a dry sense of humor, and he was deeply engaged with the world around him. There are few insights into the birth of modern Japan more honest and readable than “Japan Rising.”

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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