Glittering Cities

Matthew Fraleigh

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.

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