Japan Rising: The Iwakura Embassy to the USA and Europe 
by Kume Kunitake, edited by Chushichi Tsuzuki and R. Jules Young.
Cambridge, 528 pp., £17.99, April 2009, 978 0 521 73516 2
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On 16 December 1872, six days before Parisians read in Le Temps of Phileas Fogg’s triumphant dash homeward, a group of Japanese travellers arrived in the city, halfway through their much more stately but no less adventurous tour around the world. Led by Iwakura Tomomi, the Iwakura Mission’s tour of the United States and 11 European nations was carefully documented by the group’s secretary, Kume Kunitake:

Each day we were fully occupied and had scant time for rest … When we arrived at a destination, we would hasten to a hotel to unpack and immediately set out on a tour of observation. We spent days on trains with screaming wheels and screeching whistles, careering through billowing clouds of smoke amid belching flames and the smell of iron. Soot and smoke caked our bodies and flew into our eyes. When darkness fell and we reached our hotel rooms, we scarcely had time to wipe off the dirt before it was time for the next banquet … No sooner did we go to bed at night than it was time to wake up, with representatives from the next factory awaiting us.

The 108 participants’ experiences and Kume’s 2500-page report were crucial to Japan’s effort to establish itself as a major world power in the early 20th century.

Japan had only just done away with its policy of seclusion, which had severely curtailed its relations with the outside world for more than two hundred years. Three years had passed since the Meiji Restoration, which ended the Tokugawa shogunate and led to the establishment of a new government centred on the symbolic authority of the Meiji emperor, but factional conflicts lingered. The Tokugawa-era domains were formally abolished and centralised rule established in the autumn of 1871, a few months before the mission set out. ‘Any one of these reforms would have been difficult to accomplish,’ Kume observed. ‘To attempt all three at once, in a hazardous period of rapid change, was to attempt a miracle almost beyond human capability.’

The scale of the mission and the status of its personnel were unprecedented, certainly in Japan and probably in the world. A number of people had been sent abroad in the 1860s, but the Iwakura Mission was different because its ambassadors were among the most powerful figures in the new government. Throughout their journey, they kept in contact with the ‘caretaker government’ in Tokyo. In this respect the Japanese experience was different from the Chinese. Several Qing officials also toured the West in the 1870s; they wrote insightfully about many of the same places, but their writings had little impact back home.

Earlier Japanese missions had been undertaken for diplomatic ends; the Iwakura Mission’s three main objectives were to reassure the Western powers of Japan’s stability in the wake of the Meiji Restoration, to begin negotiations on the revision of the so-called ‘unequal treaties’ – those imposed by the West – and, significantly, to examine the modern West’s institutions. Kume’ s account shows that nations sought to outdo one another in the lavishness of their hospitality. ‘It is not necessary, or even advisable, that we should emulate the bombastic reception which has been given to the Japanese in America,’ the London Times warned, yet the Japanese were treated to a lunch for a hundred guests in a Northwich salt-mine, lit by 70,000 candles. ‘The lights inside the tunnels receded into the far distance, growing ever fainter,’ Kume wrote, ‘like an apparition of some great glittering city underground.’ Apart from occasional grumblings about Japan’s prohibition on Christian proselytising, press coverage in both America and Europe enthusiastically endorsed the direction in which the new regime was leading Japan. In spite of the Japanese diplomats’ best efforts, however, the Western powers were prepared neither to relinquish their rights to extraterritoriality nor to allow Japan to determine its own trade tariffs.

Comparatively little attention was paid to the success of the mission’s other objective, examining the institutions of the modern West, until the 1970s, when scholars in Japan and abroad began to use Kume’s report as evidence that Japan had sifted through an overwhelming array of institutional models in search of those that could best be applied to its emerging social, political and economic needs. Kume wrote A True Account of the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary’s Journey of Observation through the United States of America and Europe in diary form, using a densely allusive, erudite and highly Sinified form of Japanese. A five-volume complete translation into English, made by half a dozen American, European and Japanese scholars, has been available since 2002; a complete translation into modern Japanese appeared in 2005. Japan Rising, edited by Chushichi Tsuzuki and R. Jules Young, is an abridged version of the 2002 translation. It dispenses with some of the detail in Kume’s historical and geographic overviews, and omits some of his lengthy sidebars on such topics as the state of British glass manufacturing, the merits of different types of fertiliser and the development of Italian sericulture. The cuts are mostly judicious, and the editors have retained not only Kume’s basic itinerary but also a range of his synoptic digressions.

Kume focused first on the practical dimensions of what he encountered, as a way to approach and illuminate larger principles. He gives a detailed description of Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue, for example, on the basis of which he makes an argument about the importance of infrastructure in facilitating the circulation of people and commodities:

Western cities spare no expense in paving and maintaining their roads. People do not carry loads themselves, nor do they use pack-horses, yet they can apply several dozen times the power of Japanese people to haul loads. A single horse can exert enough force to pull up to thirty tonnes. This may seem astonishing and incredible, but it is really quite simple. Wheels are very well made and roads are well surfaced.

Anyone acquainted with contemporary Japan’s superb public transport network may be surprised that meticulously observed punctuality could have seemed so novel to Kume, who in the same passage marvels that Washington’s omnibuses arrive and depart according to a fixed schedule and not according to the driver’s wish to pick up more fares.

Kume’s True Account was an official document published by Japan’s Council of State, which may explain why he doesn’t include some of the more colourful episodes recorded in the diaries of his fellow travellers and, indeed, in his own later reminiscences. The True Account does not describe the way some former samurai in the group protested against the officious enforcement of Western table manners by slurping their soup with gusto, or that one of the party asked permission to return to Japan when his pleas to a hotel clerk for ‘sugar water’ brought him only a cigar and butter. Perhaps because of his restraint, the moments when Kume does let go are particularly vivid. ‘In a room filled with musical instruments’ at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris, he writes, ‘there was one curious device’:

The figure of a lady less than a foot high and wearing a gorgeous dress was seated on a piano stool in an attractive pose. When a key was wound, she glanced gently to left and right and her hands struck the keys lightly to produce a melody. She looked so lifelike to us as we watched from the side that we could not bear it when the piece came to an end, so we wound the mechanism up two or three more times before moving on.

Although Kume says little about the many theatrical performances attended by the mission, he does write about the music they heard, presumably because an appreciation of it required no competence in Western languages. He records his impressions of the ‘clear, bright sound, pure and refined’ of Scottish bagpipes and of choral music in Boston, which reminded him by turns of ‘graceful cranes … flying overhead’ and ‘nightingales … cavorting among flowers’.

Kume’s account also registers new ideas that were beginning to gain currency. In Reinventing Japan, the historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki observes that in the course of modernisation, Japan’s dominant view of civilisation shifted away from its traditional cosmology, derived from China, which held that spheres of increasing barbarity radiated around a civilised centre, to a progress-based narrative inspired by the European Enlightenment. A spatial arrangement was replaced with a temporal one: whereas those on the periphery had once been Other because of their distance from the centre, now they came to be seen as belonging to an earlier stage of development. This idea was very much in the air when the mission made its journey, and was the principal model Kume used to interpret his experiences abroad. As the mission travelled east from San Francisco along the transcontinental railroad, Kume noted that ‘the panorama of the pioneering development of America [was] unfolding before us.’ The Native American settlements, by contrast, seemed to him ‘a very ancient, uncivilised wilderness’. Kume expressed some sympathy for those whom ‘white Americans have pushed … out and deprived … of their land’, but essentially the Native Americans were temporal Others to him; in a discussion of their origins left out of this abridged version, he mentions the theory that Native Americans and the Japanese shared a common ancestry. Yet although Kume had internalised 19th-century European notions of civilisation and progress, he flatly rejected Western theories that correlated development with innate racial aptitude: ‘Clearly, the colour of one’s skin has nothing to do with intelligence,’ he declared, and imagined a day when ‘talented black people will rise and white people who do not study and work hard will fall by the wayside.’

Kume saw education and the accumulation of knowledge as essential for development. ‘When one looks at the objects displayed in its museums,’ he wrote after a visit to the British Museum,

the sequence of stages of a country’s civilisation is immediately apparent to the eye and can be apprehended directly by the mind … The knowledge acquired by those who precede is passed on to those who succeed; the understanding achieved by earlier generations is handed down to later generations; and so we move forward by degrees. This is what is called ‘progress’. Progress does not mean discarding what is old and contriving something which is entirely new.

Addressing himself here and elsewhere to those in Japan who advocated the wholesale adoption of Western customs, Kume was pleased to conclude that the assimilation of certain aspects of Western civilisation didn’t require the sacrifice of Japanese tradition. Quite the contrary, he argued, for as Europe’s museums and archives proved, ‘at the root of the march of progress in the West is a profound love of antiquity.’

The progress narrative reassured Kume and his fellow travellers that while ‘European countries at the present day stand at the pinnacle of civilisation,’ they had reached that point not because of any unique intrinsic quality, but through recent technological development: ‘It is only in the last forty years that Europe has achieved the truly remarkable level of prosperity we now see.’ The mission had observed the delicate assembly of Patek Philippe watches in Switzerland and seen a 50-tonne hammer pounding out a cannon barrel at the Krupp steelworks in Germany; they had descended into the ‘hell’ of a Newcastle coalmine and seen the massive ships under construction at Birkenhead. Kume was struck by the way tasks in modern factories were allocated: ‘When we in Japan hear of the huge scale of manufacturing and research in the countries of the West … we probably assume that everyone there must be fully conversant with all branches of science and technology. This is completely untrue. The people in charge of the various operations in a factory have a detailed knowledge only of their specialisations.’ Such methods challenged traditional ideas of craftsmanship. More fundamentally, the state’s active promotion of trade ran counter to Japan’s idealised agrarian suspicion of commercial activity. But Kume made the case for the importance of ‘industries which provide people with their daily needs’, and gave detailed recommendations as to how Japan might promote specific industries and expand trade with its East Asian neighbours.

He also made a comparative critique of political institutions and cultural practices. He had a generally positive impression of republican government and was dismissive of Russia’s ‘imperial absolutism’, to which he attributed the country’s status as the ‘most backward’ in Europe. He had a similar reaction to the Austrian monarchy: ‘The different treatment accorded to people depending on their rank in society is the same as the practice in our country before Emperor Meiji.’ But he disliked the American tendency to ‘think their system … the best in the world’ and ‘encourage everyone to adopt a similar one’. He saw a more nuanced trade-off between freedom and order: ‘If power is given to the people, the power of the government will be reduced. The more one promotes liberty, the laxer the laws will become. It is a natural principle that if you gain something in one direction, you lose something in another.’

He was also dismayed at the Americans’ religious fervour. He was relieved to find less piety in Britain and France, but even in Holland, he noted, ‘those brought up on the political morality of East Asia cannot imagine the influence which religion exerts.’ He found Christian iconography incomprehensibly gruesome (‘Every city in the West has images of this dead man being taken down from a cross, with streaks of blood running down his body’), and thought that ‘the Bible can easily be dismissed as the ramblings of a lunatic,’ but nevertheless acknowledged it as the ‘sacred book of the West and the basis of the people’s morality. It is veneration of God which drives people to work hard.’

The last few of the report’s hundred chapters record the mission’s return journey and the brief stops they made at such ports as Aden, Singapore and Saigon. Discussing Europe’s colonial holdings, Kume wonders how England can call itself civilised when it profits from the opium trade, and struggles to reconcile his favourable impression of Holland with Dutch duplicity and rapaciousness in Sumatra. He had pointed out a similar disparity between Western rhetoric and reality after a visit to a Rotterdam shipyard, observing that the ideal of equality before international law was little more than a polite fiction, and that in fact nations were ‘locked in bitter struggles for power’: ‘the great powers inevitably take pride in their strength and look down on those in small countries.’ A few weeks later, at a dinner in Berlin, he heard Bismarck describe the way Prussia had risen from the ranks of weak and poor nations to a position of military strength. ‘Nations these days all appear to conduct relations with amity and courtesy,’ Bismarck said, ‘but this is entirely superficial, for behind this façade lurks mutual contempt and a struggle for supremacy.’ Bismarck’s lecture must have made a strong impression: this is one of the very few occasions on which Kume gives the content of a speech in any detail.

Given Japan’s emergence as a colonial power in 1895, its victory over Russia in 1905 and its subsequent aggression on the Asian continent, it may be tempting to see in Kume’s report a hint that Japan would follow the Prussian path. Yet when the Iwakura Mission returned home, the ambassadors placed their emphasis firmly on the domestic agenda, and one of the first things they had to do was crush an effort by bellicose members of the caretaker government to go to war against Korea. Focusing on measures to stimulate manufacturing and promote industry, they established the Home Ministry, put the mission’s vice ambassador in charge of it, employed foreign experts as technical advisers, and set Japan on its path to becoming a major industrial power.

As the historian Tanaka Akira argues, the path of military expansionism was by no means ordained when Kume wrote his report. While weighted to the United States, England and France, Kume’s text also devotes a significant amount of attention to Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Denmark and other ‘small countries’, and even notes that their size may make them more useful models. In Tanaka’s view, Kume’s report allowed for the possibility that Japan might develop as a ‘small country’, an idea, he suggests, that still has much to recommend it. Kume’s writings continue to be influential. An organisation called the Iwakura Mission Society was founded in 1996: it convenes international symposia, sponsors reading groups focused on the True Account and has even organised package tours that retrace portions of the mission’s itinerary. As Kume said in the reminiscences he dictated at the age of 90, if Japan’s modern era could be compared to a play, then he had the good fortune to see the most interesting act from the best seats in the house.

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