Sunday, April 04, 2010

Mother of All Missions

In India, the propensity of senior minister's and bureaucrats to go on foreign "study tours" or "missions" is often rediculed by the press - and for good reason too. Most of these public-funded trips,  usually to salubrious environs of Western Europe or USA, are thinly disguised family-holidays, and practically nothing comes out of these trips - except fat shopping bags.

So, last year, when I first read about the Iwakura Mission, it was something of a revelation. To think that a country would send out more than half of its entire cabinet on a foreign jaunt lasting two years was surprising enough. But to realize that the follow-up that took place after this mission transformed the entire socioeconomic structure of a nation, from a agriculture-based economy to an industrial powerhouse, is truly mind-boggling.

Recently I found on "New Arrivals" shelf, an abridged English translation of the multi-volume report compiled by Price Iwakura's personal secretary, Kume Kunitake. It makes for some very interesting reading.

The Iwakura Mission (aka `Embassy`) was sent out by the Japanese government on 23 Dec 1871. Led by Prince Iwakura Tomomi (1825-83), it consisted of over a hundred people, including some of the most senior minister`s in the Japanese cabinet. The Mission went around the globe in 19 months and covered almost all the industrialized countries of the time. The average age of all the ministers (excluding the prince) was just 32 years!

The original objective of this huge delegation was to renegotiate the `unequal treaties` that had been imposed on Japan by the colonial powers. Through these treaties, countries led by USA and England had wrested a number of trade concessions and extra-territorial rights without any obligation to reciprocate the same.

Even though the mission was unsuccessful in it primary objective of getting more favorable treaties, it resulted in a huge volume of literature and reports which were to form the basis of the Meiji Reforms that transformed Japan within just two decades.


* Kume, Kunitake, Japan Rising - The Iwakura Embassy to the USA and Europe 1871-1873; Cambridge University Press, 2009

  • 8 July 1853 - Commodore Matthew Perry's US East India squadron (Black Ships) arrives at Uraga, Tokyo Bay
  • 1854 - Perry comes again with a squadron of nine vessels
  • 31 March 1854 - US-Japan Treaty of Peace and Amity - ports at Shimoda and Hakodate opened for "harbors of refuge"
  • British demanded opening of more and more ports for repair of naval vessels (Nagasaki and Hakodate)
  • 29 July 1858 - US-Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce - opens 5 ports for intl trade (Hakodate, Kanagawa-Yokohama, Nagasaki, Hyogo-Kobe and Niigata
  • Resistance, attacks on foreigners - mostly from Choshu and Satsuma clans
  • 1860, March - First Japanese mission to USA (cosmetic - nothing came out of it)
  • 1861-65 - US Civil War
  • 1867-68 - Civil war in Japan - Choshu & Satsuma against Tokugawa shogunate
  • Choshu & Satsuma domains first oppose and then collaborate to learn from foreigners
  • 1868, Feb. - Meiji Restoration
  • 1871-1873: The Iwakura Mission to USA, Britain, France, Belgium, Holland, Prussia (Germany), Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Austria

Main Members of the Mission:
  • Prince Iwakura Tomomi (1825-83 )
  • Kido Koin (Takayoshi) (1833-77, Choshu clan) - vice-ambassador
  • Okubo Toshimichi, minister of finance (1830-78; Satsuma clan)
  • Yamaguchi Naoyoshi, asst. vce-minister of foreign affairs (1842-94; Hizen clan)
  • Ito Horobumi, ministry of public works (1841-1909; Choshu clan)
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