The Iwakura Mission or Iwakura Embassy (岩倉使節団, Iwakura Shisetsudan) was a Japanese diplomatic journey around the world, initiated in 1871 by the oligarchs of the Meiji period. Although it was not the only such "mission", it is the most well-known and possibly most important for the modernization of Japan after a long period of isolation from the West. It was first proposed by the influential Dutch missionary and engineer Guido Verbeck and was probably based on the model of the Grand Embassy of Peter I.
The Iwakura mission followed several such missions previously sent by the Shogunate, such as the Japanese Embassy to the United States (1860), the First Japanese Embassy to Europe (1862), and the Second Japanese Embassy to Europe (1863).
The mission was named after and headed by Iwakura Tomomi in the role of extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassador, assisted by four vice-ambassadors, three of whom (Ōkubo Toshimichi, Kido Takayoshi, and Itō Hirobumi) were also ministers in the Japanese government. The historian Kume Kunitake was the official diarist, keeping a detailed log of all events and impressions. Also included were a number of administrators and scholars, totaling 48 people.
In addition to the mission staff, about 60 students were brought along. Several of them were left behind to complete their education in the foreign countries, including five young women who stayed in the United States to study, including the then 7-year old Tsuda Umeko who founded, in 1900 after returning to Japan, the renowned school now called the Tsuda College.
Kaneko Kentarō was left in the U.S., too, as a student. In 1890 he was introduced to Theodore Roosevelt. They became friends and their relationship resulted later in Roosevelt's mediation at the end of the Russo-Japanese War and the Treaty of Portsmouth.
Makino Nobuaki, a student member of the mission was to remark in his memoirs: Together with the abolition of the han system, dispatching the Iwakura Mission to America and Europe must be cited as the most important events that built the foundation of our state after the Restoration.
Nakae Chōmin, who was a member of the mission staff and the Ministry of Justice, stayed in France to study the French legal system with the radical republican Emile Acollas. Later he became a journalist, thinker and translator and introduced French thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Japan.
On December 23, 1871 the mission sailed from Yokohama on the SS America (1869), bound for San Francisco. From there it continued to Washington, D.C., then to Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, Germany, Prussia, Denmark, Sweden, Bavaria, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland. On the return journey, Egypt, Aden, Ceylon, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, and Shanghai were also visited, although much more briefly. The mission returned home September 13, 1873, almost two years after setting out.
Iwakura Tomomi was at the head of the Manchester-Liverpool delegation which culminated in a Civic Reception and Banquet where the toast highlighted the leading role of the region in world manufacturing, technology and municipal administration. In 1997 a special celebration marked the 125th anniversary of the historic visit to the north-west of England.
In Newcastle upon Tyne they arrived on October 21 staying in the Royal Station Hotel where they met the industrialist Sir William Armstrong. It had been ten years since the Bakufu mission had visited the town.
- "The gentlemen were attired in ordinary morning costume and except for their complexion and the oriental cast of their features, they could scarcely be distinguished from their English companions." (Newcastle Daily Chronicle, October 23, 1872)
They visited the Elswick Engine and Ordnance Works with Captain Andrew Noble and George Rendell, inspected the hydraulic engines and the boring and turning departments and examined the construction of Armstrong and Gatling guns. They also visited the Gosforth Colliery, descending into the mine itself. Further visits were made to Bolkcow and Vaughan Iron Works in Middlesbrough and iron-ore mines in Cleveland. The Newcastle and Gateshead Chamber of Commerce arranged a river trip on the Tyne, taking in the New Tyne Bridge, the Tharsis Sulphur and Copper Company Hebburn and the Jarrow Chemical Works.
Purpose and results
The purposes of the mission were twofold:
- To renegotiate the unequal treaties with the United States, Great Britain and other European countries that Japan had been forced into during the previous decades.
- To gather information on education, technology, culture, and military, social and economic structures from the countries visited in order to effect the modernization of Japan.
Of these two goals, the first one failed universally, prolonging the mission by almost a year, but also impressing the importance of the second goal on its members. The attempts to negotiate new treaties under better conditions with the foreign governments led them to go beyond the mandates set by the Japanese government, which caused friction between the mission and the government. The failures and their prolonged stay became useless at this point, which put Okubo and Kido on bad terms politically. On the other hand, members were impressed by modernization in America and Europe, which made them take initiatives to modernize Japan later.
- Baron Kaneko and the Russo-Japanese War, 2009, Part One, Chapter Four
- The Iwakura Embassy to the USA and Europe 1871-1873, Kume Kunitake, p.226-227
- The official report of the Mission compiled by Kume was published in 1878, entitled Tokumei Zenken Taishi Bei-O Kairan Jikki (特命全権大使米歐回覧実記). It is available in English as A True Account of the Ambassador Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary's Journey of Observation Through the United States of America and Europe, ISBN 4-901617-00-1.
- The Iwakura Mission in Britain, 1872 London School of Economics STICERD discussion paper IS/98/349 (March 1998)
- Nish, Ian. (1998) The Iwakura Mission to America and Europe: A New Assessment. Richmond, Surrey: Japan Library. 10-ISBN 1873410840/13-ISBN 9781873410844; 10-ISBN 9780415471794/13-ISBN 0415471796; OCLC 40410662
- Japan and the North West of England: A Special Publication to mark the 125th anniversary of the Iwakura Mission, edited by Geoffrey Broad, published by the Greater Manchester Centre for Japanese Studies (September 1997) ISBN 1-900748-00-2.