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What Do Kume Kunitake’s Observations of the West During His Travels with the Iwakura Embassy Reveal About Japan in the 1870s?

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In December 1871 the prominent Japanese minister Iwakura Tomomi led almost half of the new Meiji government (“the government”) on an embassy around the Western world. Travelling with the ‘Iwakura Embassy’ was Kume Kunitake, a Neo-Confucian scholar and historian. Employed as both Iwakura’s personal secretary and the Embassy’s recorder, Kume along with his assistant Sugiura Kozo (later Hatakeyama Yoshinari) were instructed to record what the Embassy witnessed in the West. The record they produced was to form the basis for Kume’s ‘True Account’ (‘Jikki’) of the Embassy’s ‘Journey of Observations’ (‘Kairan’).
Clearly set aside from the Jikki’s narrative in indented sections are Kume’s ‘personal views and observations’ (“Kume’s observations”). Yet these are much more than mere observations. Indeed, before Kume could publish his work he required the approval of Iwakura. While this presumably encouraged Kume to toe the government line, it also gave Iwakura considerable influence over Kume. Considering that the Jikki was revised over ten times before it was approved, it seems that Iwakura fully exercised this influence. Indeed, as Kume’s observations often appear to digress from the main narrative it suggests that they were imposed into Jikki at a late stage of compilation, presumably during these revisions. This suggests that these observations were written under Iwakura’s influence. Hence, when Iwakura finally gave his approval in 1876 and the Jikki was published two years later their likely purpose was to act as a political polemic of the government, focusing on the new issues which had arisen since the Embassy’s return to Japan.
As a result of the Meiji reforms the traditional Japanese social structure was being radically transformed and had left the former samurai (“shizoku”) largely destitute as they were gradually stripped of their traditional privileges. These reforms and the increasing westernisation of Japan was creating considerable discontent among the “conservative” shizoku. Already in 1874, many had joined the Saga Rebellion, the first of many such “samurai revolts” which would eventually culminate in the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion. Additionally, the 1870s saw Japan engulfed in a maelstrom of Western ideas as the Japanese Enlightenment (“Bunmei Kaika”) took hold and its advocates (“the Westernisers”) called for the wholesale replacement of Japan’s traditional culture with “Western civilisation”. Similarly, other “Radicals” shizoku drew on Western ideas and began to call for liberal rights as they campaigned against the increasing authoritarianism of the government.
Writing the Jikki in an archaic form of Chinese which few but these shizoku could read, and employing references to the Chinese classics, common to their samurai education, Kume was likely directing his work at these shizoku. Likewise when Iwakura “guided” Kume to write his observations he intended them for the shizoku. This indicates that the Jikki was designed to inform and educate the shizoku on conditions in the West. Indeed, Kume’s observations utilised examples from the West to counter their arguments, contain their radicalism and convince them of the merits of the government’s policies.
Consequentially, Kume’s observations reveal the major issues and hence the political climate of Japan in the 1870s. His denouncement of the Westernisers illustrates the problem of misinformation and the differing views towards westernisation. His reassurances and appeals to the conservatives demonstrate how the government hoped to acquire their support. Similarly, his explanations and promotion of Western economics reflects the government’s efforts to rehabilitate the shizoku. Finally, his condemnation of the Radicals conveys the debate over liberal rights.

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Kume’s observations reveal that by 1876 the issue of westernisation had become a major political issue. He describes how ever since ‘news’ of the West’s ‘progress’ had reached Japan ‘impetuous individuals’ had begun advocating the destruction of Japan’s “backward” traditions and the wholesale imitation of Western civilisation. As this position was only adopted after this ‘news’ arrived, it suggests that until recently most Japanese had been largely ignorant of conditions in the West. Moreover, as they advocated imitation Kume claims that they perceived the West as “superior” to Japan. Hence it seems likely that this ‘news’ must have revealed many new and “superior” Western innovations. Consequently this reflects the on-going Japanese Enlightenment and suggests that these Westernisers were its advocates who viewed Japan’s past negatively and promoted wholesale westernisation.
Additionally, Kume relates that certain Japanese had been suggesting the importation of Dutch hydro technology to control water in Japan. Yet, he claims that this technology would be useless as Japan receives ten times more rainfall than Holland. As these Japanese were advocating imitation of the West they were presumably Westernisers. Thus, Kume is likely misusing his unique experiences of the West to hugely exaggerate the difference in rainfall and so demonstrate the Westernisers’ ignorance of the West. Hence, he is suggesting that few of them had actually visited the West and that therefore much of what they claimed was misinformed. Consequentially, it seems likely that Iwakura intended Kume to convey the “real West” and dismiss such misinformation.
Indeed, Kume claims that Christianity is used as a tool by the Western upper classes to control the common people. This could reflect the government’s opposition to rival religions which might threaten its attempts to establish what became known as “Shintoism” as Japan’s state religion through the ‘Great Promulgation’ (1870-1884). Alternatively it could be a demonstration of Kume’s own lukewarm attitude towards religion. This was to be illustrated in his 1891-2 article ‘Shinto is an Outdated Custom of Heaven Worship’, which implied that Japanese Shintoism was a merely a primitive cult. Yet, as Christianity is the dominant religion in the West, he could also be demonstrating that there are undesirable features of Western civilisation. Indeed he also condemns Western democracy, militarism and colonialism. Consequently it seems more likely that actually Kume is simply denouncing the Westernisers’ notion that it would be beneficial to imitate the West wholesale.
Kume focuses his second volume almost entirely on describing the benefits of Western industry and technology. This suggests that he also wished to demonstrate the positives of Western civilisation. Thus, Kume presented the West as having some desirable and some undesirable aspects. Consequently, this would seem to reflect the government’s selective attitude towards westernisation, rejecting “negative” aspects while adopting the perceived “positives”. Therefore, Kume’s observations reveal that while the Westernisers were spreading misinformation and advocating wholesale westernisation, the government sought to dismiss their misinformation and promote selective westernisation. Yet surely any westernisation would also create fears among conservatives about the potential effect on Japan’s traditional culture.

Kume’s observations expose that the government sought to convince the conservative shizoku of the merits of westernisation and modernisation. He explains that the “Western gentleman” regards ‘decorum’ as highly important and exercises moderation in his smoking and drinking, so that ordinary people will follow his example. This is similar to the ideal of the Confucian “Junzi” or gentleman who is likewise meant to be a cultivated and disciplined individual who sets an example for society to follow. Consequently it seems that Kume is presenting the Western gentlemen as inadvertently following Confucian ideals. This suggests that adopting Western social values would not change much. As this is a rather dubious assertion it implies that Kume is trying to reassure someone. Considering that he is utilising Confucian ideals, a traditional philosophy, and is presenting westernisation as not bringing much change it suggests he is trying to reassure advocates of tradition and the status quo. Consequently, this indicates that he is attempting to reassure conservative shizoku.
Additionally, Kume states that Japanese ‘men regard drinking as a mark of virility’ so indulge in this activity. This suggests that they are setting a bad example by acting without restraint and so are failing to live up to the ideal of the Junzi. As this stands in stark contrast to Kume’s image of the Western gentlemen Kume is implying that the introduction of Western social ideals might actually help revitalise traditional Confucian ideals in Japanese society. Thus, Kume is trying to convince the conservatives that they can actually embrace some Western ideas which, not only do not require them to forsake their traditional values, but may actually enhance them.
Moreover, Kume claims that ‘progress’ is achieved by refining and accumulating the past, not rejecting it. To illustrate this he explains that modern Western civilisation was created by refining the remnants of the ancient Classical civilisations. Hence Kume is presenting the past as integral to modernisation. This implies that Japanese traditions, as the embodiment of the past, will actually help achieve modernisation. Thus, Kume is suggesting that modernisation does not threaten Japan’s traditions. As the Conservatives would undoubtedly wish to protect tradition this seems intended to reassure them that westernisation will not endanger these traditions.
Furthermore, Kume claims that modernisation has led to the creation of museums and libraries in the West. These not only seek to preserve the past, but also attempt to use it to educate the masses. Hence, Kume is demonstrating that modernisation has provided the West with institutions which help preserve and promote the past. Considering that the conservative shizoku would undoubtedly wish to preserve the past it seems that Kume is seeking to convince them that selective modernisation would actually promote their values. Thus if we integrate the previous points into this, Kume’s observations reflect that the government was attempting to reassure the conservatives about westernisation and modernisation and gain their adherence towards them. Likewise, this effort to persuade the shizoku to embrace westernisation was also at the heart of the government’s hopes to rehabilitate the disestablished shizoku back into society.

Figure 1 Diagram of a Bessemer Iron Converter.
Figure 1 Diagram of a Bessemer Iron Converter.
Kume’s observations reveal the government’s plan to rehabilitate the shizoku. He provides highly detailed accounts of industrial processes, utilising ancient Chinese explanations to describe them and at times even includes diagrams (Figure. 1). This is in stark contrast to many Japanese works on the West at the time, which often dispensed with Chinese characters. His intention is surely to make these processes clear and comprehensible. This suggest that he wishes the shizoku to understand these processes and so implies that they were to participate in Western commerce. Indeed, Kume states that while Westerners had long regarded commerce as highly important, the Japanese have paid little attention to it and so do not appreciate its benefits. This reflects that trade had long been perceived as a selfish practise which produced nothing of value to society. Yet Kume reminds his readers how trade was promoted by the great ancient Chinese Emperor Shun. As Shun was later considered the god of agriculture he must have been a particularly highly revered Emperor. As the shizoku were raised on such tales, Kume is both depicting trade a “neglected tradition” of a great historical figure, and presenting it within a familiar and therefore acceptable framework. Thus this reflects how over the 1870s the government ended prohibitions on samurai employment and even offered financial hand-outs to try to encourage the shizoku to engage in commercial activities.
Kume also suggests that Japanese tea, sake and rice would all be popular if sold in the West. Additionally, he claims that as Western products largely consisted of raw materials found in South Asia ‘an enormous amount of profit’ could be made from acquiring these commodities and exporting them to the West. Hence Kume is advising the shizoku on how to succeed in trade. However considering that few Japanese have travelled abroad he is exploiting his experiences to grant the shizoku a knowledge of the international trading scene inaccessible to most ordinary Japanese. Thus Kume is giving them an unfair advantage. This suggests that the shizoku were meant to dominate trade.
Additionally, when describing the British aristocracy Kume compares their social esteem to that of the Shizoku. However, unlike the shizoku, the aristocracy have bought and cultivated huge swathes of land, making them enormously rich. This wealth has allowed them to monopolise Parliament. Thus, Kume is informing his shizoku readers that their British equivalents have managed to achieve political and economic domination through agricultural cultivation. As Kume states that Britain and Japan are geographically similar this implicitly implies that the shizoku could replicate this in Japan. Indeed, in December 1873 the government had actually begun a scheme offering the shizoku cheap land in Hokkaido for cultivation. Therefore, Kume’s observations reflect that the government hoped to rehabilitate the destitute shizoku as the economic, social and political elite of Meiji Japan, by urging them to engage in Western commercial practices. In contrast, Western political ideas were more of a problem than an asset for the government.

Kume’s observations convey the complex issue of liberal rights in Japan. He describes how ‘Affluent Gentlemen’ (“the Radicals”) were exhorting ‘their colleagues’ for liberal rights. Considering that only Meiji ministers could institute a law granting liberal rights these colleagues of the Radicals must be ministers. While this initially implies that the Radicals are also ministers, as they are having to exhort these rights it suggests that they no longer hold power and so must be ex-ministers.
Additionally, their demand for rights suggest that they believed the people needed more freedom. This implies that the people lacked freedom and so indicates that they considered the government authoritarian. This suggests that their demands for popular rights were aimed at reducing this authoritarianism and granting the common people greater freedom. As this advocacy was aimed at benefitting the common people it must have received popular backing, transforming it into a widespread political movement. Indeed Kume is describing the Popular Rights Movement which was led by a faction of ex-ministers who criticised the government’s authoritarianism and demanded liberal rights.
Furthermore, as they needed to persuade the government to grant rights, this implies that the government was refusing to do so. Indeed, Kume claims that granting rights transfers power from the government to the common people. This makes it harder to uphold the law and results in the people becoming rebellious. Considering that the Radicals are also shizoku, Kume is attempting to rile his shizoku readers “class consciousness” against the Radicals by depicting them as “class traitors”. Considering that the government was implementing radical and unpopular reforms, as well as facing the samurai revolts he is also presenting the granting of rights as undesirable at this time. Hence, Kume is justifying the government’s refusal to grant rights. Yet, this also implies that once the government had implemented its laws and stabilised its position then rights might be granted.
Indeed, Kume states that countries need to be governed ‘in accordance’ with the ‘people’s customs’. He explains that Western and Eastern governments are ‘completely different’. While Western governments are based on ‘corporations’, these are alien to the East. Likewise, while Westerners devote themselves to attaining wealth, Easterners regard this as shameful. Hence, Kume is showing that Western customs are alien to the Japanese. Consequently, to rule in accordance with the ‘people’s customs’ Japan must first have a foundation in Western customs before it can grant Western political ideas like liberal rights. This implies that once this is achieved liberal rights will be granted. Therefore, Kume is justifying the government’s official policy of “gradualism”, which argued that rights and representation should be granted gradually. Thus, Kume’s observations reflect the debate over liberal rights and the nature of the Popular Rights Movement.

In conclusion, Kume’s observations reveal the major groups, policies and debates regarding the issues of modernisation, shizoku unrest, liberal rights and shizoku rehabilitation. Thus they reveal by implication the “official” perspective of the Japanese political scene in the 1870s and demonstrate where the government’s priorities lay at this time. Yet some historians have overlooked this, or claimed that the observations merely represented Kume’s personal opinions. Consequently, to further verify the politicised nature of Kume’s observations, a comparative analysis in conjunction with Kume’s original record made during his travels could prove useful. This should reveal Kume’s own perspective of the West, showing which aspects he found most notable. When compared with his observations this would expose any new or redirection of emphasis away from Kume’s personal views. Thus demonstrating the influence of Iwakura upon them, and verifying the politicised nature of Kume’s observations.


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[ 1 ]. K. Kume (ed.), The Iwakura Embassy, 1871-1873: a true account of the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary’s Journey of Observation through the United States of America and Europe, Vol. I the United States of America, pp. xviii-xxiii.
[ 2 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. I, p. 9.
[ 3 ]. K. Pyle, ‘Meiji Conservatism’, in M. Jansen (ed.), The Cambridge History of Japan, Vol. 5, The Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 382-383.
[ 4 ]. S. Vlastos, ‘Opposition Movements in Early Meiji, 1868-1885’, in M. Jansen (ed.), The Cambridge History of Japan, Vol. 5, The Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 676-680.
[ 5 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. III, p. 59.
[ 6 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. III, pp. 227-228.
[ 7 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. IV, pp. 62-64.
[ 8 ]. H. Hardacre, ‘Creating State Shinto: the Great Promulgation Campaign and the New religions’, Journal of Japanese Studies, 12/1 (1986), p. 30 & pp. 42-45.
[ 9 ]. M, Mehl, ‘Scholarship and Ideology in Conflict: The Kume Affair, 1892’, Monumenta Nipponica, 48/3 (1993), pp. 3.
[ 10 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. I, pp. 211-212.
[ 11 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. V, pp. 322-323.
[ 12 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. II, p. 127.
[ 13 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. II, p. VII.
[ 14 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. II, p. 178.
[ 15 ]. X. Yao, An Introduction to Confucianism, (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 214-215.
[ 16 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. II, p. 178.
[ 17 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. III, p. 59.
[ 18 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. III, p. 60.
[ 19 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. II, pp. 332-336.
[ 20 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. III, p. x.
[ 21 ]. M. Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, (Harvard, 2000), p. 104.
[ 22 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. I, p. 345.
[ 23 ]. H. Harootunian, ‘The Economic Rehabilitation of the Samurai in the Early Meiji Period’, The Journal of Asian Studies, 19/4 (1960), pp. 434-435.
[ 24 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. V, p. 316.
[ 25 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. II, pp. 357-359.
[ 26 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. II, p. 127.
[ 27 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. V, p. 317.
[ 28 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. II, p. 214.
[ 29 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. II, pp. 416-418.
[ 30 ]. Harootunian, ‘Economic Rehabilitation’, p. 436.
[ 31 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. III, p. 75.
[ 32 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. I, p. 211.
[ 33 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. III, p. 75.
[ 34 ]. Kume, Iwakura Embassy, Vol. V, pp. 159-162.
[ 35 ]. M. Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, (Harvard, 2000), p. 356.

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