When the Samurai came to America

The Tokugawa shogun's 1860 embassy to the United States offers tantalising hints of a road not travelled in the story of Japan’s relationship with the West.

The Samurai Embassy to America, 1860.
The Samurai Embassy to America, 1860. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Photographs of the most famous modern Japanese embassy to the West, held between 1871 and 1873, show all but one of its members dressed in smart Western suits, top hats in hand. They reached American soil early in 1872: the first leg of a trip that took top Japanese statesmen around the world, on a fact-finding mission, covering everything from factories to parliament buildings to opera houses.

Go back just twelve years, to 1860, and images of an earlier, all but forgotten embassy show a group of samurai turned out in top-knots, sandals and kimono of silk interwoven with gold. They are wearing swords at their sides – two or three each, depending on status – as they sit or stand alongside rather awkward-looking American hosts.

The 1860 embassy was sent by the Tokugawa shogun to take part in an exchange of treaty ratifications. The mood was decidedly mixed. The US-Japan ‘Treaty of Amity and Commerce’ had been negotiated in a spirit not of amity but of menace and threat, after the United States and later other great powers, such as Britain and France, arrived off the shores of a partially-secluded Japan and demanded trading and diplomatic relations – more or less at the point of a gun.

In the short period that elapsed between the 1860 and 1871-3 embassies, the samurai members of the first lost almost everything. Some ended up on the wrong side of a civil war, in 1868-9, which brought an end to the shogunate and ushered in a period of modernising change known as the Meiji Restoration – masterminded by the men who led the later embassy. The rest fell victim to one of the central changes of that busy, radical era: the abolition of samurai status, and of Japan’s old feudal lords and domains.

The photographs and diary accounts that survive from the 1860 embassy offer a flavour, therefore, of what US-Japan relations might conceivably have been like, had the shogunate held on. There was no going back on Japan’s forced opening to the Western world: foreign pressures were too great, and the desire within the shogunate to acquire Western technology and weapons too strong. But what might that opening have looked like had its terms been shaped, in some way, by the samurai and by a greater wariness of Western culture?

The 1860 embassy comprised seventy seven samurai. It was led by Ambassador Shinmi Masaoki, Lord of Buzen, and Vice-Ambassador Muragaki Norimasa, Lord of Awaji. The group left Japan aboard the USS Powhatan, with a slightly larger escort group travelling aboard the Japanese warship Kanrin-maru, newly purchased from the Dutch. The point of the latter vessel’s journey was principally to show the world that in short order the Japanese had mastered the use of modern maritime technology and navigational techniques.

For Fukuzawa Yukichi, a leading intellectual and educator of the era who joined the party travelling aboard the Kanrin-maru, his countrymen were quick learners in this regard but either lacked a talent for Western-style diplomacy or did not see the point. He recalled such an ignorance of how foreign credit and money orders worked that hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash were stashed aboard the Kanrin-maru, to allow the samurai to pay their own way. The stern of the vessel ended up awash in dollar coins at one point in the voyage, after they burst from the locker where they were being stored.

Both vessels reached San Francisco in the spring of 1860, from where the main Powhatan party travelled on to Washington DC. The warmth of the American welcome became a consistent theme in Japanese memories of the trip, but so, too, the strangeness of the food and entertainment on offer. One of the delegates recalled with disgust a bowl of ‘greasy soup with saltless small fish’ bobbing around in it. It was served at a formal dinner, given at the International Hotel in San Francisco. Salmon was on the menu, too, that night: prepared, it seemed, simply by dumping the fish in boiling water. This was followed by an unappealing sponge cake, topped with icing – or ‘very sweet bean paste’.

The Japanese delegates seemed to take all of this quite personally, especially the unforgivable things that were done with rice. There was plain old ‘tasteless’ rice, of a quality which in Japan only the very poor would eat. There was rice cooked in butter. There was even, on one occasion, rice blended with sugar. It seemed to be beyond even the stoicism of the samurai to allow very much of this to pass their lips – even though, as one recalled, ‘we couldn’t endure our hunger’. ‘The hardship,’ noted Muragaki, ‘cannot adequately be described with a pen.’

The entertainment on offer, during and after these dinners, received similarly scathing reviews. The noise of speeches, clapping and the popping of champagne corks put one of the Japanese in mind of ‘a drinking bout with day labourers in [the city of] Edo’. Fukuzawa was struck by the dancing: men and women ‘hopping about the room together.’ Muragaki compared it with the frolicking of mice, and marvelled at the way that women’s skirts seemed to grow to ‘enormous proportions’ as they moved around the room. Fukuzawa managed to stifle his laughter. Muragaki did not.

The emissaries of 1872 paid careful, respectful attention to Western democracy, already starting to think, as they were, about what sorts of constitutional arrangements might work in Japan. There was little of this in 1860 – times were tough for the shogunate, but the ending of its 250-year run in power was not yet on the cards. Instead, electoral politics appeared distinctly uncivilised, at least to some members of the delegation. President James Buchanan, they discovered, had subjected himself to the ignominy of bidding for his job. His reward was a mere four years of limited authority and the chance to live in a house that was both rather ordinary – a far cry from a Japanese castle – and not his to keep. Nor were the descendants of past presidents honoured in the way that might be expected. Fukuzawa was shocked by the apparent lack of a great and influential dynasty called the ‘Washingtons’, descended from America’s first president.

The Japanese delegation was given the opportunity of attending a session of the Senate, during a period of historic tension in America’s national life – Japan was not the only country on the cusp of civil war. Unfortunately, few of the Japanese spoke enough English to understand proceedings. The impression they received was one of rowdy, gesticulating men – comparable, thought one, to a fish market back home. When the President asked the group to take a tour of the American states, they were astonished at the pointlessness of the idea, and refused.

Food, entertainment and politics notwithstanding, the Japanese delegates found plenty to admire in America. Gas-lit streets meant that one did not have to carry around a lantern at night. Flushing toilets were a wonder, as was the ability to communicate with far-off England via submarine cable. The sight of the moon through the latest observatory technology was unforgettable. Its surface turned out to be every bit as rough and variegated as that of the Earth, and the Japanese learned that many of its natural features had already been named by Westerners. Hardly less extraordinary was the spectacle of American doctors performing surgery, using sulphuric ether to knock out their patient and then setting about them with a diverse range of instruments. Women, meanwhile, appeared to be treated with the sort of respect that Japanese men would reserve for their parents.

Muragaki noted, with apparent pleasure, the comparative ease with which ‘the American military hires and dismisses men’ – unthinkable in Japan, whose martial culture was premised on birth and honour. ‘I secretly thought,’ he recalled, ‘that it would be easy for us, with the formidable fighting spirit and loyalty of our samurai, to destroy America completely.’ Not a very diplomatic sentiment, but the men of the 1860 embassy had not been selected for their love of, or interest in the West. They were there to sign a treaty, with a nation that had helped plunge their own into chaos.

Antagonism aside, there was a cultural confidence to the 1860 embassy that seemed lacking in its successor of the early 1870s. The members of that latter mission did not lack for pride in Japan, nor were they uncritical of what they saw on tour – noting, for example, the urban poverty that appeared to blight industrial societies. Still, as the winners of a civil war, intent on forging a new Japan and only too aware of the distance that they needed to make up with the West, they approached the task of learning from Western countries in a way that conservatives within Japan found rather slavish.

How might Japan’s next few decades have turned out if the shogunate had somehow struggled on into the twentieth century? War with America might have come sooner, or perhaps not at all. Relations with Britain, formally an ally after 1902, might have been closer still. In the First World War, Japan’s modernised navy – complete with officers dressed in Western-style uniforms, taught to admire Nelson – had run operations in the Mediterranean, rescuing Allied forces at risk of drowning when their vessels sank. Might there, in addition, have been samurai on the Somme? Might the steady cooling of co-operation with the West, from the 1930s onwards, have been avoided – due as it was, in part, to Japanese conservative reaction against the encroachment of Western culture and values?

Counterfactuals are as sticky as the high-quality rice to which the 1860 embassy hurried home. But the possibility is intriguing nonetheless: that the photographs and diaries which remain of that journey represent a hint, of some kind, at a road not travelled in the story of Japan’s relationship with the West.


Christopher Harding