‘By reading, hearing, and by observation in foreign lands, our people have acquired a general knowledge of constitutions, habits and manners as they exist in most foreign countries. . . . Japan cannot claim originality as yet, but it will aim to exercise practical wisdom by adopting the advantages, and avoiding the errors, taught her by the history of those enlightened nations whose experience is her teacher.”

So spoke vice ambassador Hirobumi Ito in San Francisco, on Jan. 23, 1872, at the banquet the city gave the Iwakura Embassy, a mission of high-ranking government officials sent abroad by the new Meiji administration to observe and learn from the West. Headed by senior minister Tomomi Iwakura, the embassy had arrived at “the throat of the entire state of California” eight days earlier. Charles Lanman, American secretary of the Japanese Legation in Washington, who may have had a hand in the speech, reported that Ito delivered it “in a clear voice, so as to be distinctly understood by all present.”

“With more than 300 guests in attendance, it was a splendid occasion,” wrote Iwakura’s private secretary Kunitake Kume, who later prepared the remarkable document “Beio Kairan Jikki,” a five-volume account of the mission’s travels. First published in 1878, it has now been translated into English in its entirety as “The Iwakura Embassy 1871-1873: A True Account of the Ambassador Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary’s Journey of Observation Through the United States of America and Europe” (The Japan Documents, 2002).

“Wreaths made with green leaves interspersed with flowers decorated windows and walls. The crossed flags of the Rising Sun of Japan and the Stars and Stripes of the 37 United States were hung in several places. The whole embassy, Mayor Alvord of San Francisco, Governor Booth of California, officers of the army and navy — all sat at a raised table at the head of the room. A band played during the banquet. The food was elegantly presented and very delicious.”

San Francisco’s welcome befit the ambitions of the embassy, which was conceived with the kind of daring that characterized the Japan of the day.

There was, first, its size and composition. Made up of nearly 50 officials, it included about half the leaders of the new regime. Iwakura, the ambassador, was minister of the right (the third-ranking officer in the new administration), and among his four vice ambassadors were Councilor of State Takayoshi Kido and Minister of Finance Toshimichi Okubo. The speech-maker Ito, another vice ambassador, was senior councilor of public works.

Equally weighty was the timing. The Meiji government, created just three years earlier, had brought forth a transformation “unprecedented in Japanese history,” as Kume put it in the preface to his report. There were three factors that made it so: “1. Arresting shogunal power and restoring direct rule by the emperor; 2. Amalgamating the scattered authority of the feudal domains and thus making a unified polity; 3. Reversing the isolationist ‘closed country’ policy.”

Any one of these would be hard to pull off at any time, Kume pointed out, but achieving all three at a time of rapid change, as his government had, was “almost heaven’s act, not man’s.” Indeed, even as he labored over his report, the samurai who had been deprived of privileges were rebelling, and the peasants who felt overtaxed continued to revolt.

Finally, there was the length of time — 10 months — that the embassy planned to be away. Imagine, in the United States, half the Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officers, plus the speaker of the house, vacating the country for most of a stressful political year — say, right after the Civil War — in order to see what the rest of the world looked like! As the late Marius Jansen of Princeton University observes in his foreword to the “The Iwakura Embassy,” “A historian would be hard put to find another [such] instance” in the world.

Little wonder the departing party felt compelled to extract from the men staying home a written pledge not to introduce any significant policy changes while the embassy (which ultimately took 22 months to complete its tour) was away. The pledge was signed, only to be ignored.

The Iwakura Embassy was not only meant, of course, to observe the “constitutions, habits and manners” of “those enlightened nations.” In his speech in San Francisco, Ito referred to “the treaty powers.” After abandoning its national seclusion policy in 1854, Japan had quickly been saddled with a series of unequal treaties granting extraterritoriality to foreign nations but securing no tariff autonomy in return. Nearly 20 years later, the time for the treaties’ renegotiation was coming up. Another goal of the embassy was therefore to assess, from a weakling’s perspective, the state of affairs in those treaty powers.

In the event, that goal took an ironic turn. The grand, indulgent receptions Americans gave the embassy everywhere they went — in San Francisco, Chicago and Washington — generated the hope that the United States had a soft spot for Japan. The reality of international power politics, however, couldn’t have been more different. When they finally sat down to talk, they learned, in short order, that U.S. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish and his deputies had no intention of yielding an inch. It would take three more decades, in fact, for Japan to be able to persuade the treaty powers to give up extraterritoriality and allow Japan tariff autonomy.

Still, the palpable sense of realpolitik gained from that experience led to what some historians call a coup d’etat after the embassy’s return. While the mission was away, a plan to send an expeditionary force to Korea to appease the discontented samurai had been hatched. Okubo and Kido, knowing such an overseas venture could be fatal to Japan, scotched it, driving its planners out of power.

That and other diplomatic and political affairs were, however, outside the purview of Kume’s “true account.” As he explained, reports on such matters had already been filed by other members of the embassy. What Kume dealt with instead were the results of the embassy’s principal aim of observation and learning, and he fulfilled his task of recording these brilliantly.

Kume was blessed with two traits that mark a good reporter: the ability to observe and compare and the ability to write well. He was also able, despite the astonishing differences he confronted between his own country and those he visited, to maintain his intellectual poise. The vastness of the lands, the opulence and the awesome industrial superiorities that he witnessed could have intimidated him, as indeed such things cowed his compatriots in later generations. But he did not lose his equanimity.

The fact that he was already well informed of international current affairs certainly helped in this regard. His fiefdom, Hizen (covering today’s Saga and Nagasaki prefectures), was relatively small, but it was responsible for the port of Nagasaki, Japan’s only window to the globe while the country was closed. His scholarly training in Chinese classics was also invaluable, enabling him to view events within a wider historical perspective, and he readily cited ancient sources in his account of the mission.

In Washington, D.C., for example, in describing the horrors of slavery, a practice that the United States had abolished a mere seven years earlier, he refers to a fourth-third century B.C. collection of traditions and administrative precepts attributed to the Chou (Zhou) Dynasty: “In the ‘Chou li,’ the section dealing with the responsibilities of governors and officials forbids the selling of human beings as if they were oxen or horses.” At another point he refers to the “Kuan-tzu,” a collection of writings attributed to Chinese statesman Kuan Chung, who died in 645 B.C. The reference occurs in one of the many passages where Kume reflects on the embassy’s most important finding: the crucial role of international trade in a nation’s prosperity.

This particular occasion was the embassy’s visit to the United States Mint in Philadelphia. Shown “displays of foreign coins, including Ancient Greek and Roman coins, and old and new coins from various countries in Europe and from China and Japan,” Kume realized that the West had kept the values of coins precise, treating them, correctly, as “a medium for trade and commerce.” The East, on the other hand, had been careless about them, at times even minting extravagant gold coins to be used as gifts. This partly explains why, despite the advice given in the “Kuan-tzu” and other ancient texts, “The peoples of Japan and China, from ancient times until now, have put commerce outside their field of interest” (italics in the original). Consequently, the West has prospered, but the East has not.

The United States Mint was just one of an enormous variety of places to which the members of the embassy were guided during their travels. They visited girls’ schools, botanical gardens, ironworks, shipyards, glass factories, a chocolate factory, a racetrack, palaces, prisons, millionaires’ residences, a school for the deaf and a school of anatomy (these two in Russia), to name only a few, and in each place were provided with detailed explanations and demonstrations.

Kume not only recorded these experiences carefully and accurately, but also used his considerable talent as a writer to bring them to life for the reader. His description of the porcelain factory at Sevres on the outskirts of Paris, for example, is full of technical detail — he was, after all, from a domain famed for its porcelain industry — but also includes observations such as the following: “The porcelain here is so exquisitely made that it is quite dazzling to look at. On some flat pieces were reproductions of fine oil-paintings, and when these were hung on the wall as pictures, they were so lifelike that they appeared to be moving.”

Gemlike vignettes also add color to many accounts. For example, there is the embassy’s visit to the Woolwich Arsenal in London, the largest in the world at the time. When someone expressed admiration for the stupendous technological prowess on display, Gen. David Wood, commandant of the arsenal, responded (and Kume was careful to note it): “The sole purpose of all these things is in the last analysis the spilling of human blood. How can they be for the good of a civilized world? I am utterly ashamed of them.”

It was crucial for the embassy to have an accurate grasp of where nations stood in their political development. Japan was going through wrenching changes, but so were some of the more important countries in Western Europe. In summarizing the history of France, Kume tells us what has been happening in the neighboring countries as well:

“Following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, France reverted to a monarchy, which lasted for the next 33 years until, in 1848, there were more uprisings, clamoring for popular rights and sending waves of unrest across neighboring lands. Consequently, the Italian states, too, were finally unified in 1860, and Austria, where the vision of feudalism still persisted, made sweeping reforms in 1867 to introduce an entirely constitutional system.”

Of the five most powerful empires in Europe, Germany had been unified only a few years earlier, in 1870-71, while Russia was “the most backward.” Despite the “prodigious efforts” made since Peter the Great onward to develop itself, it was a country which “the great European powers” looked down upon as “an upstart youth.”

In fact, Russia was a revelation for the embassy. Japan had a “delusion” that Russia was “the largest and most powerful country . . . perpetually stalking the land in a rapacious mood and nursing ambitions of conquering the world.” In reality, it was a vast land where progress was stymied because “wealth (was) concentrated in the hands of the powerful” and the great majority of its people, still no better than serfs though recently liberated, had no incentive to work to improve themselves.

And it is in recounting the embassy’s travels to Eastern Europe and Russia, which were “mostly cold and barren,” that Kume makes one arresting observation: “For all the talk about civilization and development, when the whole world is taken into consideration these notions amount to no more than the light of a star on the ground in one corner of the world.”

Political development was not only in flux, but its variety offered plenty of food for thought. If “the governance of Russia” was at one extreme, characterized as it was by “imperial absolutism,” the United States was at another extreme and was proud of it.

“Of course, no man-made constitution” (or law) “will be perfect,” Kume wrote, becoming philosophical in reflecting on democracy in America. “If you give power to the people, the power of government will be reduced. The more you promote liberty, the more lax the laws will become. It is a natural principle that if you gain something in one direction, you lose something in another.

“However, the American people . . . see no fault in their democratic system, only perfection. Because they think their system is the best in the world, they encourage everyone to adopt a similar one.”

So, after all this, what was Kume’s conclusion? It was at once a statement of fact and a declaration of intent.

“European countries at the present day stand at the pinnacle of civilization,” Kume said. “They are immensely rich and powerful, their trade is on a huge scale, they excel in arts and manufactures, and their peoples live pleasant lives and are extremely happy. It is natural to assume . . . that it is peculiar to this continent.

“However, the truth is otherwise,” he concluded. “It is since 1800 that Europe has attained its present wealth; and it is only in the last 40 years that it has achieved the truly remarkable level of prosperity we now see.” (original emphasis).

In other words, given 40 years, Japan could, and should, attain the European level of industrial progress.

On July 9, 1873, more than a year and a half after first setting sail from Yokohama, the embassy received a telegram from the Japanese government, telling it to return to Japan immediately. The following day, members of the mission went on a cruise on Lake Geneva that the Swiss governent had arranged for them. Kume describes the idyllic scene, a sharp contrast to the political turmoil that would confront them on their arrival back in Japan, with typical rhetorical skill: “From the stern of the boat, the musicians’ charming melodies floated away on the breeze to drift across the lake, so light and airy as to put one in mind of [Taoist] immortals taking wing to rise up to Heaven. The snow and ice of Mount Blanc glittered, and by the town of Nyon mist shrouded the waters of the lake and the summer mountains were a hazy green. . . .

“We sailed below the walls of an ancient castle [the Chateau de Chillon] near Vevey and finally arrived at Chambon, at the head of the lake. Just to the south of this point, the river Rhone debouches into Lac Leman. On its way to the lake, it flows along a narrow plain with mountains on either side. The river is a torrent which scours this alluvial plain before emptying with a roar into an arm of the lake, foaming tumultuously and muddying the waters. The mountains which flank the river are precipitous, towering overhead like wild waves about to break. . . .”

A month later, as they made their way home, the party called in at the port of Point de Galle, Ceylon:

“A promontory like an elephant’s trunk curves round the southwest side of the bay, and a lighthouse 50 feet [15 meters] high stands at its tip. On the seaward side of the lighthouse lie submerged reefs, dangerously jagged rocks and a scattering of islands, both large and small. The waves rush towards the shore like a never-ending procession of white horses; after galloping some dozens of yards, they break over the rocks. Here and there spray leaps upwards, like snow-flakes flying through the air. It is as though a thousand whales were doing battle.”

Kume’s report, sumptuously illustrated, sold well upon its publication in 1878, and Kume himself went on to become a distinguished historian, taking up a professorship at the University of Tokyo in 1888. He died in 1931 at the ripe old age of 92, but not before becoming a victim of the emperor-worship instituted by the Meiji government. In 1892 he was forced to resign from his university post for writing that Shinto was nothing but “an ancient folkloric custom.” He then saw Japan slide into militarism — a great disappointment for a man who had ardently hoped for progress based upon harmonious relations between nations.

Ito, the speech-maker in California, visited Europe again in the early 1880s, this time for the specific purpose of preparing a constitution for Japan. The result of that 1 1/2-year stay was the Meiji Constitution, promulgated in 1889. He went on to serve the Meiji government with distinction, becoming prime minister twice. In 1909 he was assassinated by An Chung Gun, leader of the movement to oppose Japan’s dominance of his country, Korea, which Japan annexed the following year.

Ito, in fact, became the only one among the top leaders of the embassy to survive long enough to influence the entire course of Meiji Japan. Kido, who was all for Westernization, died in 1877. Okubo, who, with Kido, pulled off the coup d’etat that prevented an earlier invasion of Korea, was assassinated the next year. Iwakura died in 1883. Other than the coup d’etat and the administrative and judicial reforms Ito pursued, the tangible effects of the Iwakura Embassy are therefore difficult to assess.

But the embassy’s mission was to observe and learn, and Kume showed how well that goal was met. The first detailed account of the rest of the world made available to Meiji Era Japanese, there is little doubt that “The Iwakura Embassy” played an important role in teaching them about life overseas and the need to transform themselves.

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