Iwakura Tomomi (岩倉具視, 1825-1883) was a courtier and statesman who played a vital role in the Meiji Restoration . The only court noble in the early Meiji government, he was described as shrewd and cunning, but instrumental in mediating between Satsuma and Chōshū and with a strong influence on Emperor Meiji.


Iwakura Tomomi (childhood name Kanemaru) was born in Kyōto as the second son of Horikawa Yasukicha (堀川康親), a low-ranking courtier and was later adopted by Iwakura Tomoyasu (岩倉具康). While the Iwakura were a prestigious family, they ranked low among the other 137 court nobles and often faced dire financial straits. In 1854, he became a chamberlain to Emperor Kōmei (孝明天皇, Kōmei-tennō, 1831-1867). Just as most other court nobles, he opposed the shogunate's plans to open Japan to foreign powers. When the senior councillor (老中 rōjū) Hotta Masayoshi (堀田正睦, 1810-1864) travelled to Kyōto to seek imperial sanction for the Harris Treaty between Japan and the United States, Iwakura and other nobles convinced the emperor to withhold his approval. In 1858, Ii Naosuke signed the treaty without imperial consent, which strained the relationship between the court and the bakufu further.

Iwakura later supported the policy of Kōbu gattai (公武合体, "Union of the Imperial Court and the Shogunate") and helped arrange the marriage between shōgun Tokugawa Iemochi and Princess Kazu-no-miya Chikako, a half-sister of Emperor Kōmei. Many of the more radical samurai in Kyōto supported the Sonnō jōi (尊皇攘夷, "Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians") movement. They blistered Iwakura for what they saw as unacceptable appeasement of the shogunate. He was eventually forced to go into exile and spent the next five years in the village of Iwakura north of Kyōto. There, he realised that the days of the Tokugawa were numbered and secretly communicated with Ōkubo Toshimichi and Saigō Takamori, leaders of the movement to overthrow the shogunate, to help them engineer the seizure of the Imperial Palace in Kyōto on 3 January 1868, a move that triggered the Meiji Restoration.

The new government appointed Iwakura to a series of important positions. He was largely responsible for drawing up the Charter Oath (五箇条の御誓文 Gokajō no Goseimon, lit. "Oath in Five Articles"), promulgated at the enthronement of Emperor Meiji on 6 April 1868 in Kyōto Imperial Palace; Iwakura also implemented the new prefectural system. In 1871, soon after his appointment to udaijin (右大臣, Minister of the Right), he was asked to lead a mission abroad to observe the political and social institutions of Europe and the United States, the famous Iwakura Mission.


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).

When the mission returned to Japan in 1873, they found a country in political turmoil. Iwakura vehemently opposed plans Saigō and others in Japan's caretaker government had made in his absence to dispatch a military expedition to Korea. In Iwakura's view, it was imperative to strengthen the country internally before turning to foreign adventures. The plans to invade Korea were given up, and on 14 January 1874, Iwakura was attacked by a group of nine disenfranchised shizoku (士族, members of former samurai families) who were all apprehended and sentenced to death. Iwakura escaped with only a slight injury but was severely perturbed by the incident. Four years later, his friend Ōkubo Toshimichi would be assassinated by shizoku over his role in the Satsuma Rebellion.


Iwakura Tomomi as udaijin (Photo credit: NDL)

Iwakura Tomomi was an ardent supporter of the imperial system and opposed the Freedom and People's Rights movement (自由民権運動 Jiyū Minken Undō), but based on his experiences gathered in the West he acknowledged the advantages of adopting a constitutional system to achieve parity with Western nations. In 1881, he ordered Inoue Kowashi (井上毅, 1844-1895) to draw up guiding principles for a Japanese constitution. One year later, he sent Itō Hirobumi, then the secretary of the bureau established to draft the constitution, to Europe to study the constitutional systems of various nations.

Iwakura worked hard to proliferate the wealth of the imperial family and his fellow members of nobility: he established the Japan Railway Company (日本鉄道会社 Nihon Tetsudō Kaisha) and the Fifteenth National Bank (Daijūgo Kokuritsu Ginkō). By 1883, he had seriously fallen ill and was diagnosed with throat cancer. Attended by Erwin von Bälz (1849-1913), the personal physician to the Japanese emperor, Emperor Meiji visited Iwakura in person before he succumbed to his disease.


  • 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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