America’s first fascination with Japan flared -- and disappeared -- like fireworks. Before J-Pop, or the American discovery of Zen, or even the reshaping of Impressionism by the Japonisme aesthetic in the late 1800s, the United States was seized by a wave of Japan mania that started in California 150 years ago this month and that is barely remembered today.
Anniversary events in San Francisco and on the East Coast are commemorating a strange East-plops-into-West odyssey that began when a large group of Japanese samurai stepped out of more than two centuries of cultural seclusion, boarded two ships and steeled their courage to make history’s first official Japanese visit to America.
Thousands lined the shore in San Francisco to catch the first glimpse. It took a lot to excite wonder in the jaded eyes of San Francisco in 1860. The Gold Rush had swelled the city into a bustling, multiethnic entrepôt of 57,000 souls -- 10 times bigger than the township of Los Angeles.
But these stoic-looking visitors -- in kimonos with swords and samurai top-knots -- seemed truly exotic, emerging from the long-closed country ruled by a mysterious shogun, the place famously called “that double-bolted land” in “Moby Dick.” Hardly any spoke English, and their three-month tour became a huge public spectacle, as well as a foundation stone for Japan’s long, sometimes stormy relations with the United States.
People crowded them at every stop. A few made racist remarks, some reached out to feel their garments. Yet thousands cheered, cannons boomed in salute, Japanese flags festooned buildings. Newspapers featured lavish drawings, vivid descriptions of manners and dress, banquet menus and questionable renditions of Japanese ethnography.
The guests dined in state with President Buchanan at the White House. In New York, an estimated half a million people -- half the city’s population -- crammed onto sidewalks and balconies to see their grand parade up Broadway.
One onlooker in what the New York Times called a “sea of humanity” that day was Walt Whitman, who saw the Japanese arrival as a momentous meeting of cultures that culminated eons of waiting. His reverie found effusive expression in his poem, “The Errand Bearers,” later retitled “A Broadway Pageant.”
The excitement generated by the trip, however, was soon forgotten as both nations were plunged into domestic cataclysms. “This took place in the year 1860, and that was exactly less than one year before the great Civil War in this country,” Keio University professor Naoyuki Agawa said Monday at a commemoration lecture here. “And it was also shortly before the civil war in Japan.” Japan’s Meiji Restoration in the 1860s ended seven centuries of shogun rule and set Japan on its westernization path under the emperor.
Still, the visit inflamed public curiosity while it lasted. Outwardly, the impassive diplomats appeared to the press as “dignified” and “refined,” as they carried out their official mission -- delivery of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce to Washington, D.C. Inwardly, their diaries reveal much anguish. The greasy American diet sickened them, except for two items -- champagne and ice cream. Though they scandalized ladies of San Francisco when they initially bathed together outdoors in the nude, they were shocked to see women in public with bare shoulders.
They held their tongues while eager Americans explained technology that Japan had already mastered, such as the telegraph, and were astonished at the bizarre sight of men and women hopping around together in an activity called “dancing.”
Among the 170-member retinue was an unknown 25-year-old samurai of low rank who had begged to go as a servant to the commander of the first of the two ships to arrive, the Kanrin Maru, the first Japanese naval vessel ever to cross the Pacific.
The keenly alert young man, Yukichi Fukuzawa, was a passionate student of western learning. He later wielded tremendous influence, becoming the Japanese thinker widely considered most responsible for leading his nation along the path of westernization. Founder of Japan’s Keio University, he’s been called the father of modern Japan, and his portrait appears on the 10,000-yen note.
1860, however, was long before he wrote the books that led Cambridge anthropologist Alan Macfarlane to call him “arguably the greatest Japanese social thinker of the last three centuries.”
Fukuzawa’s status was so low he was obliged to remain with the contingent that stayed in San Francisco while the rest of the entourage traveled by way of Panama to the East Coast. Still his curiosity and boldness were evident the day he did what none of his shipmates dared -- strode into a San Francisco photo shop, found the shop owner’s 15-year-old daughter standing there and asked her to pose with him. The photo is among the Fukuzawa memorabilia treasured in Japan.
The visit shaped the young man’s future -- and through him Japan’s. Fukuzawa bought a Webster’s dictionary and on returning home translated the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution into Japanese.
The 1860 sojourn began with visitors and hosts alike expecting to encounter foreign barbarians and ended with them narrowing the cultural divide. Comparing rude Americans to dignified Japanese, Harper’s Weekly wrote, “The barbarian and savage behavior has been entirely on our part.”
The Japanese envoys, only seven years after U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry appeared with gunboats off Japan’s coast to pressure the country to open its ports, had left a nation racked by strife over western imperialism and what many were to see as exploitative terms in the treaty that their envoys carried to Washington. But most members of the mission found their views altered by the Americans they met. “For the most part,” one wrote, “the people of this country are extremely generous, honest and sincere.”
To mark the historic encounter, San Franciscans dedicated a bronze plaque Wednesday at Pier 9 to honor where the samurai from the Kanrin Maru stepped ashore in their hemp sandals on March 17, 1860, after 37 stormy days at sea. Other anniversary events in San Francisco include a campaign to plant 150 cherry trees in Japantown, a May 10 Japan Society symposium, a visit by a Japanese tall ship beginning May 5 and an Asian Art Museum exhibition starting May 4, “Japan’s Early Ambassadors to San Francisco, 1860-1927.”