In the December 21, 1867 issue of the Illustrated London News there appears a striking full-length portrait of a samurai. He is neatly dressed in formal kimono, his left hand holding a sword and his right hand resting on a stool, calmly gazing towards the viewer. Something is odd about this picture, however: the sword looks too large for his body, his forehead too high, and his entire stature seems rather diminutive, even for a Japanese.
Indeed, this samurai was a teenager – barely 14 years old at the time of the article – but an important one charged with a delicate diplomatic mission. He was Tokugawa Akitake (1853-1910), the young half-brother of the “Tycoon” or Shogun of Japan, and had come to Europe on his behalf to exhibit at the Paris Exposition of 1867.
April 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of that exposition, which was the first world fair where Japan had a national pavilion. (It was not the first time artifacts from Japan were exhibited; that was in 1862 at the second London Expo, but the exhibits were collected and brought by Sir Rutherford Alcock (1809-1897), the British Consul-General in Japan.).
A Troubled Shogunate and the Paris Expo
Akitake belonged to the Tokugawa clan, the powerful military family that had ruled Japan since 1603. Akitake’s half-brother, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was the fifteenth Shogun – or “Tycoon” as that title was generally known in the West – the de facto ruler of Japan, who ruled over the regional domains throughout the country from his castle in Edo (present day Tokyo). Japan also had an Emperor in Kyoto, and nominally the Shogun was appointed by him to rule the country, but this was all but a formality. However this is an important fact to note as we examine some of the political issues that occur in the narrative to follow.
By early 1867, when Akitake set off for his nearly two-year sojourn in Europe, the power and legitimacy of the Shogunate was being seriously challenged by twofold threats: externally by unequal treaties imposed by ambitious imperial powers seeking to end the regime’s seclusion policy and open the country to Western trade, and internally by increasingly defiant and powerful reginal domains, some of which were secretly plotting to overturn 260 years of Tokugawa rule.
When the Shogunate decided to participate in the Paris Exposition, it called upon merchants and regional domains to contribute exhibits. But times were turbulent, and only a few responded to the call. They were Shimizu Usaburo, a merchant, and the Saga and Satsuma domains, both from the southern island of Kyushu. The two domains, however, had their own secret agendas: Saga had plans to order a warship from the Netherlands, and seized the opportunity to send their people to Europe; Satsuma was in discussion with a French merchant over the establishment of a trade firm in Brussels, and used the Exposition as cover to further their negotiation.
The Shogunate’s authority was already reaching its limit. By participating in the exposition, the Shogunate, near the brink of collapse, was trying to appeal the legitimacy of its rule toward the world and maintain its regime. Such appeals were not limited to the sending of exhibits; Akitake, as the Shogun’s deputy, was to actively socialize with the royalty and leaders of various countries gathered in Paris in palaces and hotels. By introducing Akitake as a strong candidate for the next “Tycoon”, the Shogunate tried to sway global public opinion and trends towards them. (Kuni 29-30)
Satsuma Outmaneuvers the Tycoon
Satsuma’s disloyalty was quickly exposed when Akitake and his retinue arrived in France. They were informed that Satsuma had arrived before them, and “was attending the opening ceremony as the Embassy of the Ryukyu King, and that their pavilion was also rented as the exhibit area of the Ryukyu Kingdom … in other words, Satsuma was participating as an independent state.” (Kuni 32)
Ryukyu was a kingdom located in southern islands of present-day Okinawa and had tributary relations with Satsuma. Satsuma was using the Ryukyu name to distance themselves from the Shogunate and implying that they were an independent power. Infuriated by this audacious move, Akitake’s followers confronted the Satsuma delegates in Paris, and after a heated debate, reached a compromise where the latter will drop the Ryukyu name and participate as “Gouvernement de Taishiou de Satsouma,” (“taishiou” meaning feudal lord), with the flag of Japan shown above that title.
However the inclusion of the word “gouvernement” and the flying of the Japan flag proved to be misleading still to the Europeans and Americans. Following this incident, several newspapers — much to the dismay of Akitake, and glee of Satsuma — reported that the “Tycoon” was merely the leading regional warlord among many, much like Prussia in the German Confederation.
There appears to be much confusion in these and other articles concerning the relationship between the Tycoon (Shogunate) and the Emperor of Japan. As explained earlier, the Shogunate’s rule was based on the nominal premise that the Emperor had invested political power on them, but this separation between nominal and actual power was perhaps, to the Europeans, too ambiguous—an ambiguity that Satsuma fully exploited in Paris.
The Exotic Guests from the Orient
Such plots and intrigues aside, the exotic appearance of the Japanese, and especially in Akitake’s case his extraordinary youth, attracted the curious attention of many European and American onlookers during the opening ceremonies held on April 1, 1867
Glimpses of the Japan exhibits can be seen in various plates and illustrations within L’Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée edited by François Ducuing.
(Japan shared their pavilion area with China and Siam, and the Japan section façade can be seen in the far right of the above illustration.)
Japan’s greatest “hit”, however, came not from the Shogunate’s or the dominion’s displays, but from a tea house display erected by the merchant Shimizu Usaburo, as recounted by a reporter in the Pall Mall Gazette.
“The Europeans and Americans gathered to the teahouse to see this scene, and sales from the tea house amounted to 65,000 francs. This was equivalent to the entire sales generated by the Shogunate’s exhibits.” (Kuni 37). Perhaps the real attraction was not so much the tea but the Japanese geisha ladies in the adjoining room. The Pall Mall article continues:
The Young Prince in England
Now we return our attention to Akitake, the Tycoon’s young brother. Akitake and his train did not stay at the exposition until its closure in November. Instead from September onward, using Paris as their base, they began a tour of various European nations. They visited Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and England, meeting Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on December 4. It was this last visit that was covered in the Illustrated London News article cited at the beginning of this article.
In these visits he was greatly assisted by Alexander von Siebold (1846-1911), a German translator and the eldest son of legendary Japanologist Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866). Nineteenth Century Collections Online: Asia and the West includes several of Von Siebold’s handwritten letters sent to the British Foreign Office on the detailed arrangements preceding and following visit, which reveal something about the cultural gaps that Von Siebold was striving to bridge, and also about Akitake’s character:
Below is a partial transcript of the above letter:
As I have already mentioned in my letter of the 10th instant that they had intended to do so, it is now according to this perfectly optional to receive him in the manner most convenient to H. M.’s Government; but I would beg to observe, that, although they have written that no ceremony should take place, they would be very sorry to go without it—the Japanese as all Orientals care a great deal for outward show, and I know from experience that the prince and his party are always greatly pleased if they get some of it. It is therefore my opinion that if an invitation was given to the prince he would gladly accept it, and in fact I observed also, that from some letters they have got from the pupils staying in London, they were somewhat prepared to receive an invitation from Her Majesty. I am therefore of opinion that the prince would be more pleased to receive an invitation than to go on his own account.
The prince has no likings or taste for our dinners, balls and parties; he would be therefore if once put up, give you very little trouble, if somebody was charged to look after him. The prince as far my experience goes cares specially for Military matters and armaments, in fact it is the only thing he seems really to care for, it will be therefore necessary to have some military officer attached to him as otherwise his visits to our dockyards and arsenals would be without professional explanation of no great value. It shall be a very great pleasure to me to be of service on this occasion but I think the addition of a military officer would be most useful.
Another letter details the suggested hotel room arrangements and seating arrangements for dinner:
It surely must have been a daunting task for Von Siebold to bridge two cultures with completely different notions of protocol and etiquette!
Akitake’s visit to England on a whole seems to have made a favorable impression on the British government, as the earlier Illustrated London News article writes:
The article concludes that “[his visit to England], although of very short durance and made in an unprofitable season, we hope has not been without beneficial effects as affecting our relations with that hitherto so little known empire.” Sadly, however, this was not to be.
In early 1868, a string of messages from his home country brought increasingly depressing news to Akitake. His brother, the Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu, had voluntarily “restored” political authority to the Emperor in November 1867. In January the following year, a civil war had erupted between the Shogunate and the Satsuma-Choshu-Tosa alliance. The latter, armed with modern weapons and with the young Emperor Meiji on their side, crushed the outnumbering Tokugawa forces in Kyoto in a matter of four days. By May, Edo Castle was captured and Yoshinobu had surrendered. The Meiji Restoration had begun.
In July 1868, Akitake received an order from the newly erected Meiji Government to return to Japan. He departed from Marseilles in October, sailing two months, and arriving in Yokohama two months later in December.
Postscript from Philadelphia
Eight years later, in a heavily foxed, wrinkled and annotated invitation list from the Philadelphia Exhibition of 1876, we find Akitake’s name again. His is listed as one of the Honorary Commisioners from the “Japanese Empire”. Carrying no title but “Mr.”, his is not even the first name in the list, which is preceded by a longer list of Commissioners. At the top of the page is the name “His Excellency Okubo Toshimichi.—Minister of the Interior and Privy Counsellor, —President”. One of the key leaders of the Meiji Restoration, Okubo was a former samurai of the Satsuma domain.
Kuni, Takeyuki. Hakurankai to Meiji no Nihon. Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 2010.
(All citations translated into English by Morisawa).
Gale databases cited:
British Library Newspapers
The Illustrated London News Historical Archive Online, 1842-2003
Nineteenth Century Collections Online: Asia and the West: Diplomacy and Cultural Exchange
Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers
Smithsonian Collections Online: World’s Fairs and Expositions: Visions of Tomorrow
The Times Digital Archive 1785-2011