Return of the Samurai

Tokyo Bay, Nov. 10, 1860


A contingent of some 60 Japanese ambassadors and their staff returned to Tokyo on Nov. 10, 1860, after a long trip to the United States.

Strange music, discordant to local ears, echoed across the harbor: a brass band playing “Home, Sweet Home” and “Auld Lang Syne.” Dozens of small craft, bright banners fluttering at their sterns, clustered around the great black hull of the foreign frigate. On deck, ranks of blue-coated Marines stood at attention; high overhead, cheering sailors lined the yardarms and clung to the rigging. One by one, the boats began drawing away, each carrying a little group of silk-robed men who fluttered paper fans in farewell. Tears shone on the faces of the Japanese. American eyes – to judge from the newspaper accounts – were dry.

“Amerikakoku”: print by a Japanese artist, c. 1865. Clearly the balloon ascension in Philadelphia had left a strong impression on the travelers.

Almost 10 months after departing from their homeland, the shogun’s six dozen envoys had returned from visiting the United States. They had eaten ice cream in San Francisco, gone on a shopping spree through New York, watched a balloon ascension in Philadelphia and been feted at the White House by President James Buchanan. Their enjoyment of the trip had been dampened somewhat by the fact that their “translators” spoke only broken English and not a single American citizen, as yet, spoke Japanese. (Since Dutch traders had been coming to Japan for centuries, a number of educated Japanese spoke that language – so communications with English-speakers usually required two interpreters: one of them Japanese-to-Dutch, the other Dutch-to-English.)

Still, the travelers had been impressed by how frequently Americans combed their hair and by the ingeniousness of Western bathroom facilities – though the envoys caused a near-scandal at their Washington hotel when several were found naked together in the same bathtub: a Japanese, though apparently not American, custom. (Some of the envoys, for their part, were shocked when they visited a Washington brothel and found multiple couples having sex in the same room – apparently an American, though not Japanese, custom.) Several kept diaries of their journey; it is clear from these that despite linguistic and cultural differences, they quickly grasped certain peculiarities of local politics. One diarist noted perplexedly that in the United States, “anyone of good character except a Negro may be elected president.”

Americans’ fascination with the island nation on the other side of the world – the “double-bolted land,” as Herman Melville called it – which had been growing ever since Commodore Matthew C. Perry forced it open to Western trade in 1854, now reached a crescendo. Japanese words even entered English slang; Abraham Lincoln’s secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, used one of them as a nickname for their boss behind his back: “The Tycoon.” Taikun was a title of the chief shogun, and it suggested – at least to the minds of Hay and Nicolay – not just a wise and powerful ruler but one of deep Asiatic inscrutability.

A sketch of Washington, D.C., by a member of the Japanese delegation, 1860. The Capitol is visible (the artist has finished its incomplete dome), along with the base of the Washington Monument and the Long Bridge across the Potomac to Virginia.

Not all Americans were enthralled with the diplomatic visit, though. One editorial in the Times complained about the Japanese being given information on the latest military technology. “Our Government has expended nearly two millions of dollars in this attempt to cultivate the good will of the Japanese,” the article noted sourly. “We shall be agreeably disappointed if it does not cost us, some day, ten times that sum to avert the results of our excessive civility.”

“Shosha – Amerikajin” (“True Picture of Americans”), c. 1861.

Meanwhile, Japanese were becoming fascinated with Americans as well. Artists created woodblock prints depicting life in the far-off land, basing them on the envoys’ accounts and sketches, observations of Western visitors and a healthy dose of imagination. The results – some of which can be seen on this page – were fanciful, but no more so than Americans’ impressions of Japan.

The steam frigate USS Niagara departed New York on June 30, its cargo holds packed with the envoys’ souvenirs and with official gifts – including, for the shogun himself, a gold medal from Tiffany’s bearing President Buchanan’s likeness. The ship traveled eastward via the Cape of Good Hope, Djakarta, and Hong Kong. Though far from home and cut off from news, its American officers were not unmindful of current events. On Nov. 6, amid a gale in the East China Sea, they celebrated Election Day aboard ship by circulating a ballot box; some even posted placards with anti-secession slogans or racist slurs against Republicans.

Election results from that far-off precinct crossed the Pacific via the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and traveled over the Great Plains by Pony Express to reach The New York Times almost three months later. In early 1861, the newspaper dutifully reported the tally. The Constitutional Union ticket of John Bell and Edward Everett took first, with 14 votes; Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin, winners on land, received just three votes at sea.

Sources: New York Times, Oct. 6, 1860; Jan. 28 and 29, Feb. 12, 1861 (news report and editorial); Harper’s Weekly, Feb. 9, 1861; Masao Miyoshi, “As We Saw Them: The First Japanese Embassy to the United States (1860)”; Masayiko Kanesaboro Yanagawa, “The First Japanese Mission to the United States”; Dana B. Young, “The Voyage of the Kanrin Maru: To San Francisco, 1860” (California History, Winter 1983); Dallas Finn, “Guests of the Nation: The Japanese Delegation to the Buchanan White House” (White House History, 12).

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


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