Ian Nish, ed. The Iwakura Mission in America and Europe: A New Assessment. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1998. xii + 228 pp. $48.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-873410-84-4.
Reviewed by John E. Moser (Department of History, University of Georgia)
Published on H-US-Japan (July, 2000)
A New Look at Japan's Embassy Abroad
Certainly one of the most noteworthy events in nineteenth century Japanese diplomatic history was the voyage of the Iwakura Mission to America and Europe in 1872-73. It is perhaps best known not for its tangible accomplishments but rather for its makeup. While it was not the first Japanese mission to the West -- there had been two others in the 1860s -- the tour of the Iwakura Mission was considerably longer, and was made by a far more distinguished group. Many of those who participated had played leading roles in the Meiji Restoration, and it was expected that these men -- among them Iwakura Tomomi, Okubo Toshimichi, Kido Koin, and Ito Hirobumi --would form the backbone of the oligarchy that would dominate the new Japan. That the leadership in Tokyo felt it could spare such important individuals for an extended period during such a critical time in the nation's development is remarkable. It no doubt illustrates how much value the Japanese placed on harmonious relations with the West.
In spite of this there remains little published in English on this special embassy. The Iwakura Mission in America and Europe: A New Assessment is an attempt to correct this. The book is an edited collection, based on papers presented in Budapest at the 1997 conference of the European Association of Japanese Studies. The participants represent a broad range of academic disciplines, from literature to history to political theory. The bulk of the book consists of essays focusing on the mission's visits to particular countries -- Great Britain, the United States, France, Belgium, Germany, Russia, Sweden, and Italy. In some instances the choice of countries is odd -- Austria-Hungary, a major European power visited by the mission, is excluded, while seemingly less important states such as Belgium, Sweden, and Italy are included.
Following the "country" essays are two contributions dealing with some of the effects of the mission in Japan. An eleventh essay gives some background on Kume Kunitake, a scholar who assembled the official chronicle of the mission, based on the notes taken by all of the delegates. The renowned Japan scholar Ian Nish, in addition to editing the volume and contributing an essay on the visit to Russia, provides both an introduction and some concluding thoughts.
The Iwakura Mission left Japan with a number of goals in mind. Its primary purpose was to open negotiations that would lead to the revision of the unequal treaties that Japan had been forced to sign in the waning years of the Tokugawa shogunate. Judged against this objective the mission must be deemed a failure, as no country visited by the delegates was prepared to consider treaty renegotiation at that time. However, diplomacy was only one aspect of the special embassy. Another high priority was to learn first-hand of the scientific and technological accomplishments of the West. Japan's leaders had long since determined that the key to attaining a respectable place in the global hierarchy was industrial development; consequently words like "enlightenment" and "progress" appeared again and again in the delegation's accounts, particularly during its visits to the United States and Great Britain.
One motive which receives surprisingly little attention in the collection is the Japanese search for a political model. As the authors of the "America" and "Britain" essays point out, the delegation harbored a deep mistrust of republican forms of government. Their goal was a system that would allow them to tap the talents and abilities of the Japanese people without inviting them into the decision-making process. They ultimately found what they believed to be an effective model in Germany, so that the Meiji Constitution would draw heavily from that of the Kaiserreich. Regrettably there is no mention of this in the essay on the mission's visit to Germany.
The essays do not always hang together well -- a common enough problem for works based on conference proceedings, particularly when the conference is cross-disciplinary, as this one was. Alistair Swale's essay on "America" is an extended discussion of the different meanings that the term "enlightenment" had for Westerners and Japanese. As such it spends relatively little time on the history of the mission's visit, and while it may be of interest as a work of political theory it does not seem to fit in with the other essays. On the other extreme, several other of the "country" essays -- Andrew Cobbing's piece on "Britain", Ulrich Wattenberg's "Germany", and Bert Edstrom's "Sweden" chief among them -- are largely surveys of the mission's itinerary, with little effort to explain why and how the visits were important. Much better are Richard Sims's "France" and Ian Nish's "Russia," which combine cogent analysis with historical detail.
Overall, however, the reader is left wondering just what is so new about this "New Assessment" of the Iwakura Mission. Surely its conclusions about why the embassy was important, and how it affected Japan, are not terribly original. One finds a similar argument in Nish's earlier Japanese Foreign Policy, 1869-1942 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977), as well as in the more recent W.G. Beasley, Japan Encounters the Barbarian: Japanese Travellers in America and Europe (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995).
The foreword promises to use "American and European sources" to "throw light on the mission and on the Western reaction to it." The main purpose of the session on which the book was based was to explore "not the wide-eyed accounts chronicled by the Japanese...so much as the wide-eyed accounts of their hosts." (ix) Fair enough, but here too the book remains something of a disappointment. For most of the essays the only Western sources consulted were newspapers, and by the admission of many of the authors themselves the majority of Westerners took little notice of the mission. There were, to be sure, some expressions of disappointment that the delegates appeared in Western, rather than traditional Japanese attire, and there were scattered protests by religious groups against Japan's persecution of Christians, but for the most part the mission passed without comment.
The Iwakura Mission in America and Europe is not without value for students of Japanese diplomatic history. The essays contained in it are rich sources of information on where the embassy went, what it saw, and how it was received. Much of this is based on Kume Kunitake's account, Tokumei Zenken Taishi Bei-O Kairan Jikki, a massive multi-volume chronicle which has never (to the best of this reviewer's knowledge) been translated into English. The authors have thus done a substantial service for those without Japanese language skills. However, in terms of insight and analysis into the importance of the mission, this book -- with the exception of two or three essays -- has relatively little to offer.
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John E. Moser. Review of Nish, Ian, ed., The Iwakura Mission in America and Europe: A New Assessment.
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