Monday, May 18, 2015

Iwakura Mission: A Mission for Japan's Future

Iwakura Mission (left) during their audience with French President
Iwakura Mission aimed for a revision of unequal treaties that Japan signed during the latter part of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Although it failed in some aspects it took many lessons during a mission that took the participants across the globe.

The Iwakura Mission set out in a two year diplomatic mission that focus on the study and talks with western countries. Iwakura Tomomi led the said mission and comprised of later major Japanese statesmen. It aimed in to revise the unequal treaties that Japan signed by the Tokugawa shogunate, to learn personally about the western civilization, and most importantly, to display a new developing and stable Japan. The Iwakura Mission was designed as a study group to go abroad with a diplomatic purpose also at their task.

The planning of the Iwakura Mission began in the 1860’s. At that time, the rapidly declining Tokugawa Shogunate made attempts to improve relations with western countries. It sent mission in 1862 and in 1865 to Europe and the United States. In 1867, Iwakura Tomomi, a courtier in the Imperial court of Emperor Mutsuhito or Meiji, planned another mission abroad. He aimed for the mission to cement the notion that the Emperor held the power over diplomatic relations and not the shogunate. He also aimed for the mission to learn about western culture and civilization that could serve as Japan’s model for development. In 1868, the Boshin War resulted to a power shift from the Tokugawa Shogunate to Emperor Meiji and his advisers. Iwakura, who supported the imperial faction, further urged for the approval of his planned mission. And in October 1871, the Meiji government approved Iwakura’s mission with the following mission: 1) seek for a renegotiation of the unequal treaties signed during the late Tokugawa Era; 2) learn many information about the west, which could be applied for the development of Japan; and 3) to promote a better image of the new developing Japan under the new Meiji regime.

Many officials and students took part in the Iwakura Mission. It composed of more than a hundred individuals with 48 officials and 59 students from the ages of 6 to 15. It also composed of assistant staffs. Certainly, Iwakura Tomomi became the head of the mission. He also had four vice-ambassadors, namely: Okubo Toshimichi, Kido Takayoshi, Ito Hirobumi, and Yamaguchi Naoyoshi. Kume Kunitake served as the mission’s secretary and resident chronicler that recorded the whole adventure. The Meiji government also instructed Japanese students in abroad to serve as interpreters for the mission once they arrived in their respective destinations.

The mission formed themselves into three groups with different agendas in their task. One group concentrated in learning the political system of the country they visited. It included the constitution, laws, and administration. Another group focused on the economic aspects, which include industrial technology, labor, business practices, banking, taxation, currency, trade, and most importantly, transport and communication. The last group aimed in learning about country’s education system, which include the curriculum and the administration. All three groups, however, had also to learn about the military might of the country they visited. These groups served as fact-finding teams aimed to learn much as they can about the education, government, economy, and the military of the countries that they visited.

The Iwakura Mission began on their two-year journey on December 23, 1871. The mission left from the Japanese port of Yokohama and sailed to the other side of the Pacific and into the port of San Francisco. They arrived on January 15, 1872 and took a train ride to Washington DC. On March 4, 1872, the mission arrived in the American capital and had a meeting with the American President Ulysses Grant. On the side lines, US Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, opened to the Iwakura Mission the American willingness to negotiate with Japan for a new treaty. However, Iwakura did not had the power to sign such an agreement. Okubo and Ito had to return to Japan to get the permission from Tokyo. The mission stayed in the United States for around five months. When Okubo and Ito returned to the mission, the negotiations for the new treaty had collapse because of disagreement and both sides decided to do the next round of talks in Europe. Iwakura also decided to interpret the primary goal of the mission to knowing whether the west was open for renegotiations of the unequal treaties. From Washington, the mission went north to Boston, Massachusetts, and set out to a journey to England in August 1872.

On August 17, 1872, the Iwakura Mission arrived in Liverpool, England and proceeded to London. There they had the chance to meet Queen Victoria on December 5, 1872. The mission during the long months between their arrival and their meeting with Queen Victoria became a time to know more about the most powerful industrial country in the world at that time. They visited British factories, rose in British railroads, and learn about global finance. They learned about the British constitutional monarchy form of government and learned more about the workings of the Parliament. They also learned from British universities, public schools, as well as libraries and museums. They also got the chance to learn about the British high class society and the pomp and circumstances of the British royalty. But most importantly, they learned from the British military, their arsenals, weaponry, and shipbuilding skills. Nevertheless, they still failed to get a revision of the unequal treaties with Britain.

From Britain, the Mission proceeded to learn more in Continental Europe. In December 1872, they went to France and on the 16th, met with French President Adolphe Thiers. They spent about two months in the country, learning about their military and police force. They also had the chance to learn about the liberal constitution and the democratic government that France had. After France, on February 18, 1872, the mission went to Belgium and met with King Leopold II. From Belgium, they moved north to the Netherlands and had an audience with King William III. They stayed for a week before departing for Germany on March 7, 1873. On March 11, they had dialogues with Kaiser Wilhelm I. During their stay in Germany, they learned about its autocratic constitution and laws, which they later deemed suitable for Japan. On March 28, the mission left Germany to another autocratic country – Russia. On April 3, they had the pleasure of meeting Czar Alexander II in St. Petersburg. They then returned to Germany and went to Sweden and Demark. They met Danish King Christian IX on April 19, 1873, and Swedish King Oskar II on April 25. They then returned to Germany before going south to Italy and met Italian King Victor Emmanuel II on May 13, 1873. On June, they went to Vienna, Austria-Hungary, and met with Emperor Franz-Joseph on June 8. In June 21, they crossed the Alps and into Switzerland and met with the Swiss Confederation President Paul Ceresole. The mission ended their mission in the European continent in July, 1873.

They went to Lyon and then to the port of Marseilles and began their trip back to Japan by the way to the east. From the home of imperialism, they made stops to the victims of imperialism, a fearful remainder of the results of falling to the hands of foreign invaders. They visited Suez, Aden, Ceylon, then Singapore, Taiwan, and Shanghai. They saw the result of British imperialism to the people of Asia, bringing poverty and hardships to many Asians. From Shanghai, they returned to Nagasaki and then Kobe and on September 13, 1878, the mission finally returned to Yokohama, Japan.

The conclusion mission also coincide with the aftermath. Off course, it failed to see the abrogation or the revision of the unequal treaties. Nevertheless, it succeeded in giving its members substantial knowledge about the west, which they used in transforming Japan from a medievalistic country to a modern country. The mission opened their eyes to the terrible future if Japan fell to western imperialism. Many of the members of the mission, like Okubo and Ito, held significant positions in the government, which gave them power to use what they learned from the mission to change Japan. Although, in diplomatic front it achieved not greater than a breakthrough, but the experience and numerous lessons it gave to its participants forge a powerful, independent, and modern Japan.

See also:

Bibliography:
"Iwakura Mission." In Historical Dictionary of Japan to 1945. Edited by Kenneth Henshall. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2014.

"Iwakura Kengai Shisetsu." In Japan Encyclopedia. Edited by Louis Frederic. Translated by Kathe Roth. United States: n.p., 2002.


Hanashiro, Roy. "Iwakura Mission (1871-1873)." In Japan at War Encyclopedia. Edited Louis Perez. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2013.

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