The lwakura Mission (岩倉使節団 Iwakura Shisetsudan, 1871-1873) was an eighteen-month embassy to the United States and Europe by leading members of the early Meiji government and one of the most remarkable journeys in world history. It was commissioned by Emperor Meiji and was said to have cost one million U.S. dollars (more than 20 million dollars in modern currency). The mission was led by the influential senior minister Iwakura Tomomi, as chief ambassador, and his close political allies and followers Ōkubo Toshimichi, Kido Takayoshi, Itō Hirobumi, and Yamaguchi Naoyoshi (山口尚芳, 1839-94), as vice-ambassadors.

Several high-ranking officials representing each of the departments of the central bureaucracy, including Sasaki Takayuki (佐々木 高行, 1830-1910), Yamada Akiyoshi (山田顕義, 1844-1892), and Tanaka Fujimaro (田中不二麿, 1845-1909) were associated with them as commissioners. There were about 50 members, ranging from ambassadors and commissioners to secretaries, interpreters, clerks, attendants, and baggage handlers, most of whom had never been outside Japan. The number varied slightly as better-suited recruits replaced some of the original appointees abroad. Many students accompanied the mission, including five girls ranging from 6 to 15 years in age, the first Japanese females to go abroad for study, but they were not officially part of the mission.

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The Iwakura Mission photographed in London in 1872: Iwakura Tomomi in the centre in traditional Japanese attire; the others left to right: Kido Takayoshi, Yamaguchi Masuka, Itō Hirobumi, Ōkubo Toshimichi (public domain).

The embassy, dispatched at a time of considerable uncertainty, had three ambitious tasks. First, they were to pay good-will visits on behalf of the emperor to the monarchs and heads of state of the fifteen Western countries with which Japan had signed treaties of friendship and commerce ("Ansei Treaties", 安政条約 Ansei jōyaku). The mission hoped to convince the Western nations that the Japanese were progressive and open to new ideas. Second, the ambassadors were to exchange views with the heads of foreign offices on the actual operation of the treaties, which the Japanese regarded as demeaning and in violation of their national sovereignty. The Meiji government, however, was anxious that it might lose more than it could gain at the bargaining table. It had, therefore, decided not to seek an immediate revision. However, the Harris Treaty of 1858 had made provision for renegotiation after twelve years and to postpone it until the mission learned what reforms were required to end extraterritoriality, fixed tariffs, and other unequal practices that infringed on Japan's judicial and economic autonomy. The third purpose was to examine Western society both for its sources of wealth and power and for nature and the extent of its enlightenment. The mission was one of the many ways in which Japan during the era of bummei kaika (文明開化, "civilisation and enlightenment") was systematically acquiring Western learning: translations, overseas study, employment of foreign teachers and advisers, and tours of limited duration by lower-ranking officials to gain specific information.

In this case, prominent leaders decided to see the Western world for themselves since they were responsible for necessary policies. They were discontented with ad hoc decisions and wished to determine priorities and long-range solutions rationally and based on principles. They believed they must have first-hand information and a broader perspective. Travel abroad might bolster the ambassadors' political position by deepening their superficial Western expertise. Unlike their predecessors on the Shogunate missions to the West in the 1860s, they chose to dress in Western attire, cut their hair in Western fashion, and eat Western food. Before they departed, the ambassadors and leading members of the caretaker government, such as Saigō Takamori, Itagaki Taisuke (板垣退助, 1837-1919), and Ōkuma Shigenobu, pledged to remain in close contact, to concentrate only on crucial reforms, and to refrain from making new high-level political appointments. Upon the mission's return, there was to be a comprehensive review of foreign and domestic policy, incorporating its findings.

On 23 December 1871, the mission set sail from Yokohama on the Pacific Mail steamship America, escorted by the United States minister to Japan, and arrived in San Francisco in January 1872 for a seven-month stay in the United States, prolonged far beyond the original plan by the unexpected willingness of President Ulysses S. Grant and Secretary of State Hamilton Fish to negotiate a revised treaty. Their subsequent extremely frustrating experience in Washington confirmed the ambassadors in their original estimate that it was much too soon to expect equal relations. After that, they carefully confined the mission's diplomacy to polite discussions in Europe. They remained in Britain for four months (August to December 1872). They travelled on the continent for over seven months (December 1872 to July 1873), visiting France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Switzerland. Hawaii, Spain, and Portugal were omitted from the original itinerary. Their voyage home took them through the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea for brief glimpses of the principal harbours of southern Asia and the treaty ports of southeast China. Ōkubo and Kido, at the urgent request of the caretakers, returned early, in the late spring and summer of 1873, and Iwakura arrived in Tōkyō with the main party in September.

During the long tour, the embassy had been received with much ceremony and splendour by presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens, and aristocrats. Curious spectators greeted them everywhere, and media attention was extensive. The mission visited government offices, historical monuments, public museums and libraries, art galleries, zoological parks and botanical gardens, factories, shipyards, mines, public and private schools, cathedrals, military academies, law courts, banks, stock exchanges, and chambers of commerce. They even attended plays, concerts, opera and ballet, a circus performance, a fox hunt, and a masked ball. While in Vienna, they roamed through the splendid exhibits of the International Exposition. Always, there were banquets and speeches. Fully informed of events back home by letters and personal messengers, the ambassadors contributed to urgent reform measures adopted in their absence and assisted education officials in investigating arrangements for Japan's overseas students.

The journey had taken Iwakura and his entourage to Grant's America, Victoria's England, Bismarck's Germany, Franz-Josef's Austria-Hungary, Thiers' France, and Alexander II's Russia. They no longer viewed the West as a monolithic culture but rather in terms of levels of power and enlightenment, with the United States, Britain, and France at the top, Germany in the middle, and Russia at the bottom. They returned with a firm commitment to adopting a constitution as the fundamental law of Japan but remained hesitant to share power broadly or allow an elective legislative assembly. Ōkubo was strengthened in his desire to establish a Home ministry. Though unsuccessful, their observation of diplomatic practices and single attempt at negotiations enhanced their sophistication in international power politics and helped them define a more realistic strategy for treaty revision.


The first modern 10-yen banknote printed in Frankfurt in 1873

The trip was extremely beneficial as a primer in economics. Leaders like Iwakura, Ōkubo, and Kido, politicians with limited knowledge of business, came to understand more clearly the requirements of modern economic life, especially factory production, the application of science to industry and agriculture, mass transportation and communications, rational management, and international trade. Industry and commerce were redefined to increase productivity and raise consumption levels by more significant numbers of people and not, as Neo-Confucians argued, to produce luxuries. Less convinced by British arguments for free trade than American and German advocacy of protectionism, they resolved that the Meiji government should encourage Japanese business people to initiate modern enterprises and act more vigorously as entrepreneurs. Classroom visits simply bolstered their previous conviction that elementary education for all classes and both sexes was vital to training good citizens and self-supporting adults. Still, their many excursions to public museums, sources of endless delight and intellectual stimulation, suggested new means to attain popular enlightenment. Their survey of military and naval establishments prompted the comforting conclusion that the Western world, especially Russia, was not as immediately threatening to Japan's security as they had previously imagined. Japan would need a more massive standing army for insurance, but its function would likely be to quell civil unrest rather than repel foreign invaders.

Rejecting Christianity and individualism as the keys to Western progress while recognising their importance, they stressed hard work, long-range planning, and organisation and management skills. They also emphasised, as did their British mentors, that the West had taken a long time to reach its present high state of development and, in the process, had retained respect for history and tradition. Inspired by the trip, the mission's leaders refined their theory and the rhetoric of gradualism. They conceded that a fundamental change was necessary, but reform must be orderly, selective, and calculated, not to exceed the capacity of the people to understand or accept. Japan must retain its distinctive qualities and avoid "shallow, unworkable, or wholesale cultural borrowing". In 1878, under the aegis of the Grand Council of State (太政官 Dajōkan), Iwakura supported the publication of a five-volume account of the journey, Tokumei Zenken Taishi Bei-O Kairan Jikki ( 特命全権大使米欧回覧実記, A True Account of the Tour in America and Europe of the Special Embassy), compiled by his private secretary Kume Kunitake (久米 邦武, 1839-1931) to help change the public mood.

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Yamaguchi Hōshun (山口蓬春, 1893-1971): Iwakura Mission (Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery)

The mission returned in 1873 to domestic unrest, a power struggle, and a crisis in foreign relations. The main issue was not whether to send a punitive expedition to Korea or not but who should be in charge and how far the reforms should go. When the chief councillor of state, Sanjō Sanetomi (三条実美,1837-1891), collapsed in late October, Iwakura took his place, counselled the young Emperor Meiji , and helped force the resignation of many of the caretakers. Iwakura and his allies, most of them from the former domains of Satsuma (modern-day Kagoshima Prefecture) and Chōshū (Yamaguchi Prefecture), were more potent than before and had a clearer vision of the political future of Japan. Drawing upon their experiences in the West, they promoted policies of internal reconstruction at home and national rights diplomacy abroad.


  • Keene, Donald, Emperor of Japan - Meiji and His World, 1852-1912, Columbia University Press 2002
  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard 2005

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