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 relations.
-Excerpted from a letter to students by Peter Duus, Professor Emeritus, Department of History, Stanford University