Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Friday, March 26, 2010

150th Anniversary of 1st Japanese Embassy to America

Samurai sailors from the Kanrin Maru. (Wikipedia Commons)

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the first official Japanese embassy to the United States. In 1860, the Tokugawa shogunate government sent a group of samurai to America in order to ratify treaties between the two countries. The treaties were the result of the visit by the American "Black Ships" in 1853 headed by Commodore Matthew Perry whose purpose was to "pry open" the country of Japan. Although there had been a small handful of Japanese who had visited the United States previously, this official visit attracted much attention and curiosity among the citizens of San Francisco and the nation. Thousands lined the shore in San Francisco to watch the arrival of the Kanrin Maru, the small Japanese ship manned by samurai sailors. The Kanrin Maru was piloted by Katsu Kaishu, the man who would be the mentor to Sakamoto Ryoma, one of the famous leaders of the Bakumatsu period and the restoration of the emperor.

Newspapers reported on the visit to the smallest of details and reflected on the popular view of the time at how awed these visitors would be as they encountered Western civilization and American progress. However, that outlook changed when the stately, and always polite, Japanese ambassadors occasionally encountered rowdy crowds who mobbed them to get a glimpse of the exotic Japanese. Dismayed by these unseemly popular displays, some editorials began asking just who was really more "civilized".

While the Kanrin Maru and her crew remained in San Francisco for a period of time before returning to Japan, the embassy leaders traveled to Washington to meet President Buchanan at the White House where they were treated to formal dinners. In New York, the Japanese were welcomed by a grand parade up Broadway watched by half a million people. Unfortunately the excitement of the embassy was soon washed away by the civil wars that engulfed both nations later in the 1860s.

To mark the historic event, the city if San Francisco dedicated a bronze plaque last week at Pier 9 to honor where the samurai from the Kanrin Maru came ashore on March 17, 1860. Other events will include the planting of sakura trees in Japantown and a visit by a Japanese tall ship on May 5th as well as an exhibition at the Asian Art Museum called "Japan's Early Ambassadors to San Francisco."


President Buchanan receiving the embassy in Washington. (Wikipedia Commons)

17 comments:

  1. awesome history lesson, I think I might blog about this

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  2. Excellent. Go for it.

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  3. Brings a whole new meaning to the term 'culture shock'.

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  4. I figure the samurai more shocked than the Americans.

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  5. We had a lecture event here in Honolulu for the occasion,...

    But it slipped my mind and I neglected to go :(

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  6. That's too bad. That would have been an interesting lecture.

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  7. I heard the most curious thing today from Obata Sensei about this. He asked me what I knew about Katsu Kaishu and then went on to talk about him at great length disputing much of what is written about him. The oddest thing I heard was that on the Karin Maru he got sea sick which probably explained why he didn't captain anoother ship and spent the next years at Edo Castle. Who is to say. I personally like Katsu Kaishu but then again its based on what I know of him. Who knows? He is portrayed very differently in Shinsengumi than he is in Atsuhime. I will love to make a road trip on May 5th to see that exhibition. This plays heavy into my novel on chapter 6 - Spring in San Francisco 1860.

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  8. What you heard is basically true and then some. I have read in several books that once the Kanrin Maru got underway, Katsu Kaishu basically went to his cabin and essentially never really piloted the ship and he did very little. The Japanese sailors and the one American on board either complained about this or just talked about it. Katsu Kaishu was an important figure during the bakumatsu years and after the Meiji Restoration but he was not a great ship pilot, at least with regard to the Kanrin Maru.

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  9. I really enjoyed this post. I don't know jack about the late Edo or Meiji periods, but the more I hear, the more interesting it appears.

    Katsu Kaishu, seasick? That is hilarious. I haven't been following the current Taiga Drama, but I wonder if we'll be seeing Katsu Kaishu.

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  10. Thank you. I am watching Ryomaden which so far is pretty good. I am on episode 5. There is no doubt that Katsu Kaishu will be a part of this Taiga as he is Ryoma's mentor and hero. Ryoma does not meet Katsu until 1862 when he went to Edo to assassinate him but changed his mind upon meeting him. So it will be a while probably before Katsu makes and appearance on Ryomaden.

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  11. ジョン-さん
    Thank you for posting this info about the Karin MaruII. I just booked a hotel room for the 8th of May. I have to go there due to the critical relativity to Chapter 6 in my book. This is like a great opportunity dropped right into my lap to do research and gain some more insight as to what really happened that May in 1860 with the Shogun's Delegation in San Francisco.

    どもありがとう ございます!

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  12. Incidently,
    How are you getting channel 18.2? Time Warner in Hollywood does not support it. Meanwhile I am still watching Shinsengumi at Episode 15.

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  13. I have the Japanese TV channel subscription from TW because my wife is Japanese. The non-subtitled Ryomaden's started a few months ago and they started showing the subtitled episodes about 5 weeks ago.

    Shinsengumi is a great Taiga.

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  14. I remember in US history class in high school we had a few photos of this event. I didn't know anything about Japanese history at the time, but I was endlessly fascinated by the photos of samurai in the middle of 19th century America.

    I wish I still had those photos.

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  15. Were they original? Those would have been great to have.

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  16. Sorry, I missed your reply. I forget to subscribe to comments sometimes. No, they weren't original. They were in our history book, the name of which I have long since forgotten.

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