1860: The Japanese Ambassadors Visit the United States

I just completed the first episode of Ikoku Meiro no Croisée, in which a Japanese girl travels to France in the late 19th century. This brought to mind an earlier (and non-fictional) cultural exchange which I thought I should share, since most people are probably unfamiliar with the story, even though it was a big deal when it happened.

As you probably are aware, Matthew Perry opened up trade with Japan in 1854. Shortly afterward, in 1860, a delegation of Japanese ambassadors arrived in the United States to greet “his Majesty, the President of the United States,” a welcome distraction for a country which was edging closer and closer to civil war. I highly recommend reading this excellent article for an account and discussion of the trip.

I have a few assorted observations on cultural differences which weren’t mentioned in the article. All of the excerpts are from the Times articles linked to below.

  • The Japanese delegates are frequently referred to in the newspapers as “Japs”— my impression had been that this originated as a derogatory term during the second world war, but clearly the term has much older origins, and originally didn’t have its current insulting and demeaning connotations.
  • The shop owner in Ikoku Meiro no Croisée is not the only one who had the bright idea of using the Japanese as an advertisement. From the June 12 New York Times article (referenced below) on the delegations visit to Philadelphia:

    The occasion of [the Japanese delegation’s] presence in the street was, however, the signal for a popular rush, and had it not been for the strenuous efforts of the Police, they would have been quite run down. The shop windows on Chestnut-street are filled with various articles which are marked “to be presumed to the Japanese Embassy,” “To be presented to his majesty the Tycoon,” which attract crowds of the curious. Whether they will ever reach their pretended destination or not, they serve as excellent advertisements, and cheap. Indeed, the visit of the Embassy to Philadelphia seems to take a practical turn — a number of purchases have already been made, and private establishments visited, which affords an able prominence to some of the Quaker City merchants. The attractions of most of the jewelry are however wasted on all but the inferior Japanese. The higher classes dress in the plainest manner, and, if perchance they carry gold watches, they keep them out of sight. The exhibition of trinkets and ornamental jewelry about the person is considered vulgar in Japan. 

    Yune seems to wear quite a bit of jewelry. Does anyone know whether this is a misunderstanding by the Americans, this aversion to jewelry is limited to men, or this is an inaccuracy in Ikoku Meiro no Croisée? The delegation did appear to have a deep interest in clocks and watches, however.

  • The American hosts were taught Shogi by the Japanese delegation, and displayed a deep fascination with it, printing the entirety of the rules in the Times. The Japanese were also observed by their hosts playing Go.
  • The Japanese appeared to have a much stronger desire for privacy than their hosts.

    Measures have been taken to secure for the Embassy the utmost seclusion and privacy should they desire it. No one will be allowed to enter any part of the corridor of the second floor devoted to their use, without special permission. This rule will be strictly enforced, as it has been found by experience in other cities, to be absolutely necessary to the comfort of the guests.

  • The ambassadors developed a liking for western music.
  • The ambassadors couldn’t quite figure out what to do with western furniture.

    The after part is devoted to the Ambassadors, who soon after taking possession of it summarily kicked all the elegant movable furniture out, and then squatting down on the soft velvet carpets, resumed their normal positions.

  • Anyone know what to make of this, if anything?

    The Ambassadors while away the time in eating seven or eight repasts a day, puffing small whiffs of tobacco, playing chess and caressing their big toes — the last occupation affording them apparently the greatest solace and satisfaction.

  • The ambassadors weren’t quite sure what to make of Christian prayers.

    When the crew are summoned to evening prayers the Ambassadors regard the proceedings with extreme attention. At first, when our excellent Chaplain began, and as he would throw his head back in addressing the Supreme Being, the Japanese would follow the eye of the speaker and peer intently at the maintop or the mizzen-stay in the most inquiring wonder, and then turn one to the other, bob their shaved crowns and inverted pigtails, as much as to say the matter was entirely beyond their comprehension.

  • The Americans saw the Japanese as polished and refined, yet selfish. Only of them appeared to bathe, and had an astonishing way of going about it.

    They are, indeed, a very polished people in their peculiar way, and at the same time extremely selfish, never refraining from asking and taking all they want, and not unfrequently much more than they want; but yet they are the Nation’s guests, and it behooves us to smile upon them and put up with their exactions. Nor are they the scrupulously neat and cleanly people we had supposed they were; for although commodious bathing rooms have been provided for them, yet I doubt if a man of them has so much as wet his fingers since coming on board. I most except, however, the hawk-nosed Ambassador, who takes what an old Quartermaster told me the other day was a “spirt bath,” every morning. The process is simply this: The chief bather sits down before his lord, with a large teapot of warm water before him. After a decorous interval he fills his capacious month with the liquid, and then purls it in a spirting stream over the tawny skin of the Ambassador. The operation lasts about an hour.

  • The youngest member of the delegation, Tateishi Onojero, was overwhelmingly popular with the ladies, and the menfolk were not amused. He was quite upset to finally put America behind him and head home. One of his love poems is included in the Oct. 6 article.

    TATEISH ONOJERO, or TOMMY PUNERTERO, as he is commonly styled, is a very amusing young vagabond, and goes hoppling and toppling about the decks wherever he can find guzzling or edible matter to consume. He takes a lesson daily with the chaplain, whom that profane small Pagan calls the “Joss Pidgeon,” after the heathenish term applied to his own idolatrous worshippers. When not studying or guzzling he writes soul-touching love-letters to his sweethearts in America — lying in the most polished manner to all of them, and signing himself “Your lovely TOMMY.”

  • One of the delegates was a bishounen, and the public began to suspect he was a crossdresser.

    Another individual of this interesting Embassy has, however, caused more alarm than amusement. It is a soft, round person, with rather a pretty, beardless face, and black glossy hair. It is attired in a sort of blue blotting-paper gown, and from some outward indications we began to believe it was a lady in disguise. After a time her situation became apparently so very interesting, and knowing that amongst all the Purser’s slop clothing no baby linen was supplied, we thought it advisable to consult the surgeon. That gentleman being a practitioner of much obstetric experience, and a close observer, made some few casual observations, and assured us that there was nothing in it — that it was a simple case of adipose, and that we might set our minds at rest.

  • The delegates came to like American food, but would not stop eating rice.
  • One of the Times articles mentions that the Japanese bear a close resemblance to the American Indians.
  • Observers commented that the Japanese were industrious, busy and good-natured.
  • The ambassadors requested a warm fresh water bath for the entire delegation while on a ship offshore Africa, and were offered the use of the engine boilers but politely declined.
  • The Americans were also fascinated by Japanese acupuncture and herbal medicine.

Further Reading:

4 thoughts on “1860: The Japanese Ambassadors Visit the United States

  1. What a wonderful article – I’m a historian by profession, so this was naturally up my alley. Thanks for dissecting the information – I enjoyed reading this post thoroughly!

    1. Thanks, didn’t realize you were a historian! If you like this kind of thing, I can’t recommend the Disunion blog enough, where the first article I linked to was published. They are blogging the Civil War in real time for its 150th anniversary, and most of the articles are of this same caliber (although obviously most are not about Japan).

  2. I’m no historian, but I do remember my high school history classes and some of this seems familiar.

    If I understand correctly, the premise of the anime seems weird to me. I think Yune is the daughter of a wealthy family and it had been her lifelong dream to live/study in France. The family agrees and sends their (8 year old?) daughter to a foreign country with a (foreign) old traveler (possibly) never to return again.

    Was she there to study? Were young Japanese women even encouraged to study at home in the 1890s – or even abroad?

    I need to brush up on my Japanese history >.<

    1. I don’t know much about Japanese history either, so your guess is as good as mine. My impression was that studying abroad was something particular to Yune’s family- I’m certain that most people couldn’t afford it. I think her trip is more along the lines of an apprenticeship to be a sign girl than studying.

      It does seem crazy to send your daughter off overseas with some old foreigner. I would guess that Oscar stayed with them for a while and earned their trust before they allowed her to go? It doesn’t seem like the show is going to deal much more with Yune’s past either, so who knows…

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