First Encounters: The First Japanese Embassy to the
United States, 1860 is a graphic novel that
tells the story of the first Japanese diplomatic mission to leave Japan after
over two centuries of isolation under the Tokugawa Shogunate.
On a mid-March day in 1860, the Kanrin Maru, a steamship
manned by a Japanese crew, sailed through the Golden Gate after more than a
month at sea. It was a remarkable event. Not only was it the first Japanese
vessel to make a Pacific crossing, but many Japanese had gotten their first
glimpse of a steamship only seven years earlier. Astonished then at the sight
of a ship that could move without wind in its sails, the Japanese now proudly
demonstrated that they could navigate such a vessel themselves.
The Kanrin Maru accompanied the USS Powhatan, an American
naval vessel carrying the members of the first Japanese diplomatic mission to
the United States. They had come to ratify a treaty negotiated two years
earlier by Townsend Harris, the first American diplomat in Japan, to open trade
and diplomatic relations with the United States. After more than two centuries
of limited contact with the outside world, Commodore Perry's gunboats, then
Harris's persuasive arguments, had persuaded the shogun's officials that the
time had come to open up the country.
While the Tokugawa shogun was overthrow by a revolution in
1868, a new imperial government, determined to build up the country's national
wealth and strength, accelerated pursuit of "new knowledge" from the West. Many
officials who sailed on the Kanrin Maru, like Fukuzawa Yukichi, Katsu Rintarō,
and even "Tommy" Tateishi, contributed to that effort. So did the ship's
Japanese boiler men and deck hands, who helped build Japan into a maritime
power as sea captains, engineers, and naval officers.
Inspired by the Kanrin Maru's epic journey, a younger
generation of Japanese, eager to unlock the secrets of Western strength, came
to study in the United States, a country idealized as a "sacred land of
liberty." The voyage of the Kanrin Maru thus marked a major turning point not
only in the history of Japan, but in the history of Japanese-American cultural
-Excerpted from a letter to students by Peter Duus,
Professor Emeritus, Department of History, Stanford University