Hear the First Japanese Visitor to the United States & Europe Describe Life in the West (1860–1862)

“Oh, would some Pow­er give us the gift / To see our­selves as oth­ers see us!” wrote poet Robert Burns. “It would from many a blun­der free us, And fool­ish notion.” I can­not vouch for a being blun­der-free, but read­ing his­tor­i­cal accounts of our nation from for­eign vis­i­tors does help to increase our world­ly per­spec­tive, and hope­ful­ly ques­tion what often we take for grant­ed. The 19th cen­tu­ry was a par­tic­u­lar­ly ripe time for the nar­ra­tives, as ocean­ic com­merce (and on its tail tourism) was mak­ing the world small­er than ever before.

The YouTube chan­nel Voic­es of the Past has been bring­ing a lot of these sto­ries to life over the last few years, with new trans­la­tions of for­eign texts, dra­mat­ic read­ings, and thought­ful image pre­sen­ta­tions to reveal the world to us as new and won­drous as it was to the orig­i­nal writ­ers. The video above and the one below take us on trips to the Unit­ed States and Great Britain by some of the first ever Japan­ese trav­el­ers to step onto West­ern soil.

For over 200 years, 1600 — 1868, Japan had remained iso­lat­ed from much of the world, a time known as the Edo Peri­od (named after the capi­tol) or the Toku­gawa Peri­od (named after the shogu­nate). With­in this hot­house, it devel­oped much of the tra­di­tion­al cul­ture that we know today—the tea cer­e­mo­ny, haiku, wood­block prints—and the cap­i­tal Edo (now Tokyo) grew from a fish­ing vil­lage to a major city. When Com­modore Matthew C. Per­ry land­ed in 1853 to get Japan to open up to trad­ing, the coun­try knew its time in iso­la­tion was at an end. The tech­nol­o­gy they saw on the Amer­i­can ships was advanced enough they knew they’d have to catch up or be dom­i­nat­ed.

Both videos con­cern Fukuza­wa Yukichi, one of the founders of mod­ern Japan. An author, jour­nal­ist, founder of Keio Uni­ver­si­ty, and cre­ator of the first Eng­lish-Japan­ese dic­tio­nary, he was also a main pro­po­nent of mod­ern reform. (He’s also the face on Japan’s 10,000 yen note).

In Fukuzawa’s retelling, you can hear how his encoun­ters with Dutch and Eng­lish trades­men made him insa­tiably curi­ous to learn the lan­guage he could not under­stand. After the Japan­ese gov­ern­ment bought a ship from the Dutch, nam­ing it the Kan­rin Maru, Fukuza­wa and a crew of 96 men (a minor­i­ty being Amer­i­can), land­ed in San Fran­cis­co in 1860, the first Japan­ese diplo­mat­ic mis­sion to Amer­i­ca. Tech­ni­cal­ly they did not stay in San Fran­cis­co, but in a naval hotel on Mare Island, 23 miles north east of the city. Fukuza­wa takes note of the abun­dance of car­pet and rugs in many of the offi­cial buildings—such fab­ric was so expen­sive in Japan that he had only seen it used as hand­bags and such—and the Amer­i­can desire to walk on it with their street shoes. Even more amaz­ing: ice cubes. He also notes some­thing that hasn’t changed since his time: the amount of waste in the streets, and the high cost of goods in Cal­i­for­nia.

Fukuza­wa likens his experience—warm hos­pi­tal­i­ty mixed with his own embar­rass­ment of an unfa­mil­iar­i­ty with for­eign mores—with the “shy, self-con­scious blush­ing bride.”

The most impor­tant pur­chase Fukuza­wa made on his trip was a Webster’s Dic­tio­nary, which would help him write his own Eng­lish-Japan­ese ver­sion when he returned. Two years after his Amer­i­can trip, he once again set out on a diplo­mat­ic mis­sion, this time to Europe. He and his co-patri­ots would be away from Japan for a whole year, tak­ing in France, the Unit­ed King­dom, the Nether­lands, Prus­sia, Rus­sia, and Por­tu­gal. This trip is dif­fer­ent in its aware­ness of pol­i­tics. Men­tion is made of Napoleon III (well admired) and the rise of Prus­sia. He is suit­ably baf­fled by Britain’s Par­lia­ment (as are most Amer­i­cans these days watch­ing it on CSPAN), but comes away with a strong con­vic­tion in inde­pen­dent thought and democ­ra­cy that would begin to change Japan through his influ­ence.

We have men­tioned Voic­es of the Past pre­vi­ous­ly, and you can find all sort of accounts of ear­ly inter­na­tion­al trav­el­ers. Fukuzawa’s accounts are some of the best, as his down-to-earth voice feels less for­eign than the Eng­lish speak­ers he meets.

Relat­ed Posts:

A Beau­ti­ful New Book of Japan­ese Wood­block Prints: A Visu­al His­to­ry of 200 Japan­ese Mas­ter­pieces Cre­at­ed Between 1680 and 1938

A Japan­ese Illus­trat­ed His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca (1861): Fea­tures George Wash­ing­ton Punch­ing Tigers, John

Adams Slay­ing Snakes & Oth­er Fan­tas­tic Scenes

The Entire His­to­ry of Japan in 9 Quirky Min­utes

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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