Object of the Month

“We welcome you, Lords of the Land of the Sun!” The menu for a banquet in honor of the Iwakura Mission during the Japanese embassy’s visit to Boston in 1872.

Banquet to the Ambassadors of Japan, by Members of the Boston Board of Trade: Bill of Fare Broadside on silk

Banquet to the Ambassadors of Japan, by Members of the Boston Board of Trade: Bill of Fare

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This handsome broadside, printed on silk with hand-painted floral decorations, is the menu for a farewell dinner for Japanese diplomats and technical advisors who were about to depart for Europe after a seven-month visit to the United States. Alexander H. Rice, the president of the Boston Board of Trade, hosted a groaning repast on behalf of local political and business leaders at the Revere House. Governor Emory Washburn, Mayor William Gaston, and other local dignitaries addressed 150 or more guests. The main dinner speakers were Boston literary lights Ralph Waldo Emerson and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. The latter composed a poem for the occasion that begins with the line, “We welcome you, Lords of the Land of the Sun!”

The Iwakura Mission

In 1871, less than twenty years after Commodore Matthew Perry’s United States naval squadron had opened Japan to the West, an “embassy” (mission) headed by Iwakura Tomomi (Japanese names are given here in traditional fashion—family name followed by given name) set off on a journey to America and Europe with the two-fold purpose of revising the unequal treaties forced upon Japan by western nations and gathering information about educational, technological, and military methods in use in the West “with the object of adopting them in Japan and establishing them here.”

The embassy was of such importance that among the officials in the delegation were key figures in the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the new imperial regime. Including clerks, commissioners, and more than fifty students— who were to remain in the West for further education—there were more than one hundred members of the mission. American journalists were especially fascinated by five Japanese girls ranging in age from eight to fifteen who accompanied the embassy.

While it spent more than a third of the nineteen months it took to travel around the world in the United States, the Iwakura Mission accomplished relatively little here. The embassy arrived in San Francisco in January of 1872 and travelled across the country on the new transcontinental railroad. The ministers were snowbound in Utah for three weeks, but arrived in Washington in early March where they were received by President Ulysses S. Grant. Attempts to open negotiations to revise the 1858 treaty with the United States proved futile. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish stood on protocol and would not acknowledge that the Japanese were authorized to negotiate a new treaty, so the embassy waited while two members made an 8,000-mile return trip to Japan to acquire the credentials required by the American government. In the meantime, members of the mission travelled through the northern states, visiting New York City, West Point, and Niagara Falls, and spending two days in Boston (18-19 June) before returning to Washington. The delegates sent back to Japan returned in July, but to no avail. The United States was not prepared to negotiate—at least in the short time frame by then available to the Japanese mission. After short visits to Philadelphia and to New York City for a second time, the delegation returned to Boston on 2 August 1872, and sailed for England four days later.

Japanism without Japanese

The Iwakura Mission visited Boston at a time when local and national enthusiasm for things Japanese was building into something approaching a craze. Massachusetts ships began to trade with Japan more than fifty years before the Perry expedition sailed, but it was only in the 1860s, when woodblock prints began to arrive in the United States by the thousand and fans by the million, that a Japanese design aesthetic—“Japanism”—began to influence American art and culture. All this enthusiasm was in spite of very little actual contact with “hidden” Japan. In 1871, Mori Arinori, the Japanese chargé in Washington, estimated that there were about 250 Japanese in the United States—the 1870 U.S. Census listed them together with Chinese immigrants. The 1875 Massachusetts census would enumerate only ten residents born in Japan (all males) in a population of well over a million. In fact, the visit of the Japanese embassy proved something of a disappointment for local observers seeking the exotic: except on formal occasions, their attire was muted and western in style, and several members of the delegation spoke fluent English.

The Revere House

When the Japanese embassy, travelling overnight by steamer from New York and then by train from Providence, arrived in Boston on the morning of 2 August, they were taken by carriage to the city’s flagship hotel, the Revere House in Bowdoin Square. Developed by the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association and named for one of the Association’s founders, Paul Revere, the hotel had been built on the site of Boston merchant Kirk Boott’s mansion—perhaps explaining why at least one Japanese visitor referred to it as an “old inn” although it had opened in 1847. The Revere House had long hosted distinguished visitors to Boston including several presidents, Charles Dickens, Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, and the previous visit of the Japanese embassy in June. If no visit would ever match that of the teenage Edward, Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII in 1860, the hotel knew how to entertain guests by the hundred and, by local standards, turn a banquet into a spectacle.

In spite of their overnight travel, after a brief respite the Japanese embassy was sent off on a whirlwind carriage tour of the city with brief stops at historical and commercial sites, and cultural and educational facilities. They skipped the public library in favor of a visit to a fire station and were back at the hotel in time for a reception, followed by a multi-course dinner and hours of speeches that lasted long into the evening. The formal visit had to have been something of an anticlimax for the members of the delegation who had visited in June. Then they had witnessed the opening of the World Peace Jubilee and International Music Festival by a chorus of 10,000 singers accompanied by a gigantic pipe organ constructed for the occasion, and ascended to 3,000 feet in a tethered balloon to observe the landscape.

The 2 August dinner began with a moment of confusion: at each bouquet-decorated place setting was a menu printed in Japanese, but after baffling the English-speaking guests for a moment, the menus were quickly replaced by examples of the elegant “carte” displayed here (the Historical Society has this bill of fare printed on silk in three different color schemes). The menus give us some sense of what were, according to contemporary newspaper accounts, elaborate dinner decorations on display that evening.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes Address the Banquet

The after-dinner remarks by Ambassador Iwakura and other members of the Japanese embassy, by then inured by a series of balls, banquets, collations, and receptions stretching back to their arrival in San Francisco, were succinct and flattering to their hosts: one Japanese guest referred to Boston as “the brain of the American Republic.” While their Boston hosts were equally congenial, their many replies (there were more than a dozen speakers on the program as well as extemporaneous remarks) were not Boston’s finest rhetorical hours. Neither Ralph Waldo Emerson nor Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, two of Boston’s most famous orators, rose to the occasion. Emerson was plagued by failing memory and his house in Concord had burnt to a shell the week before. He dredged up remarks that he had heard in college about looking to the mysterious East—and praised President Fillmore for bringing Japan, via the Perry Expedition, the blessings of the railroad and telegraph. If he overlooked the fact that the Japanese had received those blessings at gunpoint, he only echoed what members of the mission said themselves—at least in public—and the mission had hosted former President Fillmore at dinner during the course of their travels.

Oliver Wendell Holmes could not resist references to the embassy’s very late arrival in Boston: “You are welcome, but oh! You’re a little too late!” Apparently he was unaware or had forgotten that part of the delegation had attended the opening of the World Peace Festival in Boston back in June. In his poem, Holmes made a series of play-on-word jokes and puns about the U.S. presidential election campaign then underway: “When we choose our Tycoon” (an Anglicized version of a Japanese term for the shogun). Since several of the Japanese ministers present had participated in the overthrow of their last “tycoon,” this was not a particularly happy comparison, although the embassy had been hearing about the upcoming presidential election since their arrival in Washington. At 10:00 PM, at the end of a day that began aboard ship in New York Harbor the night before, and an evening that had stretched on since 4:00 in the afternoon, the delegation was allowed to retire, but only after Ambassador Iwakura was given the honor of sounding a fire alarm and causing the Boston city fire department to rush to Bowdoin Square.

The following day the embassy was dispatched by train to view the textile mills of Lawrence and Lowell, northwest of Boston, and after a quiet Sunday in the country they were divided up, with some members visiting shoe factories in Marlboro, west of the city, while others returned to Providence to see the American Screw Company and the Gorham silver manufactory. Even on 6 August, the day that the Olympus, the Cunard mail ship carrying the embassy, departed from Boston, a city delegation followed them by boat into the outer harbor for a last shipboard meal together before they were at last on their way to England and into Japanese modern history. In something of an understatement, embassy member Kume Kunitake wrote in his diary, “American people treat foreigners like family or friends, and are very warm and welcoming.”

Further Reading

Beasley, William G. Japan Encounters the Barbarian: Japanese Travellers in America and Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

________. The Meiji Restoration. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972.

Holmes, Oliver Wendell. The Complete Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Cambridge Ed. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1895.

“The Banquet to the Japanese Embassy,” p. 201-202.

“The Japanese. Arrival of the Embassy.” The Boston Globe. Boston: Aug. 3, 1872, p. 8.

A detailed account of the arrival of the Iwakura Mission in Boston and the banquet for them with a list of speakers and excerpts from their speeches.

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

Laidlaw, Christine W. “Painting with Silken Threads: Fanny Dixwell Holmes and Japanism in Nineteenth-Century Boston.” Studies in the Decorative Arts, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Spring-Summer 2003), p. 42-68.

Fanny Dixwell Holmes’s embroidery panels are interesting examples of the influence of “Japanism” on art and intellectual life in Boston at the time of the Iwakura Mission. Her father-in-law, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, was one of the principal speakers at the banquet for the Japanese embassy.

Lanman, Charles. The Japanese in America…. Tokyo: Japan Advertiser Press, 1926.

Part I is a history of the Iwakura mission; Part III: “Life and Resources in America” is a series of reports prepared at the time of the mission by the Japanese chargé, Mori Arinori.

Mayo, Marlene T. “A Catechism of Western Diplomacy: The Japanese and Hamilton Fish, 1972,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 26, No. 3 (May 1967), p. 389-410.

Revere House (Boston, Mass.) Proprietors. Records, 1797-1907.

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds a collection of the records, primarily account books and financial records, of the Revere House hotel.

Swaite, Alistair. “America 15 January-6 August 1872.” In The Iwakura Mission in America and Europe: A New Assessment, ed. by Ian Nish. First published by Japan Library, London: 1998. Taylor & Francis e-Library ed., 2005, p. 11-35.


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