Iwakura Embassy

A Japanese Ambassador’s Thoughts on Black Americans in 1872

The fall of the Japanese Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868 ushered in the Meiji era, a period of industrialization and modernization. During the reign of the Shogunate, Japan had a period of strict isolationism for 265 years, but the new Empire of Japan under Emperor Meiji sought to change course by finding inspiration from Western governments and revising their unfair treaties. This was precisely the job of the Iwakura Tomomi, who led an embassy of 46 people throughout Europe and America for nearly two years before returning home in 1873.

A detailed account of their travels was recorded by Japanese historian Kume Kunitake. Omitting official diplomatic exchanges and political meetings, Kume “patched together” the overall thoughts, feelings, and impressions of the embassy throughout the voyage. Kume’s account includes observations related to politics, society, religion, technology, education, and of course, race.

Tomomi Iwakura
Tomomi Iwakura

Kume’s nation was recently transformed by the end of the Shogunate, but America also went through a transformation a few years prior. The Civil War ended in 1865, which led to an end of slavery and a flood of black people becoming citizens. Interestingly, Kume only mentioned black people in passing throughout the embassy’s journey through America until he reached Washington D.C., where he had the most exposure to them. Throughout 1872, the embassy traveled from San Francisco, through the Rocky Mountains, to Chicago, and eventually the District of Columbia.

Initially, Kume’s impression was that black people were “thought to be ignorant and uncultured,” which he primarily blamed on their enslavement:

Blood flowed for four years until eventually the issue was settled, and for the first time black people gained the freedom enjoyed by other Americans. However, because they had been made to labour like oxen and horses they were thought to be ignorant and uncultured. Even today there is still a tendency for white people to feel ashamed about associating with them. For this reason, public schools have been established where black children can receive the same education as white, even though their schools are separate.1

It’s interesting to note that Kume observed white and black schools as receiving “the same education” as each other despite being segregated. It would take two more decades before the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which set the precedent that segregated public facilities, including schools, must be equal in quality. Despite that, some states, like Virginia, had already began formulating legal frameworks for separate but equal schools by the 1870s.2 Kume’s observation about the quality of black schools wasn’t hearsay — the embassy had actually visited a black school. The embassy observed black children studying Greek, Latin, chemistry, and mechanics. This is an important note to emphasize: black children in America, at least in D.C., seemed to be receiving the same education as white children.

Kume must have been encouraged by the sight of black children studying, because he went on to make comments about race that were progressive by 19th Century standards:

Some black people achieved freedom early on, other outstanding black people were elected to the House of Representatives and still others have accumulated great wealth. Clearly, the colour of one’s skin has nothing to do with intelligence. People with insight have recognised that education is the key to improvement, and they have poured their energies into the establishment of schools. It is not far-fetched to believe that, in a decade or two, talented black people will rise and white people who do not study and work hard will fall by the wayside.3

By the time the embassy had arrived in America, there had already been 6 black people who served as members of Congress, and 4 of them were former slaves. Given Kume’s observations, his predictions about black people made sense. If it was indeed a fact that black people were no less intelligent, then there seemed to be nothing that could hold them back from achieving success, given that they had access to, in his view, “the same education,” and were obviously capable of winning seats in public office.

Portrait of Kunitake Kume
Kume Kunitake

To put it another way, Kume observed the fact that black children were being given the same opportunities as white children, so there was no reason to believe black people wouldn’t eventually achieve the same success if race wasn’t a factor in intelligence and the “ignorance” of black people was the result of recent enslavement. However, the following century and a half would prove that there was a flaw in Kume’s theory somewhere — to this day, black people have high rates of poverty, unemployment, and lack of achievement compared to all other races in America. Is there still some mysterious “systemic racism” that compels black people to commit more crime or is there another explanation? This is a somewhat taboo subject that America is still grappling with a century and a half later.

Despite Kume’s apparent sympathy toward black people, his description of them as a people was less flattering:

In America and Britain black people are called ‘negroes’. Their race originally came from Africa. Their ugliness is extreme; their hair is tightly curled so that you might think they suffer from a black scalp disease; their skin is as dark as burnt soil; their lips are thick and protruding; their eyeballs are a yellowish colour. Only on the palms of their hands is the skin the same colour as that of ordinary people. The lands they originally inhabited were deep in the tropical forests where wild beasts roam. They ate with their hands… Some of the people lived in trees like the apes.4

Later on, in Philadelphia, Kume revealed that those in the embassy were relieved to be out of Washington D.C., partially because of the “ignorant and dirty” black people.

“During our half-year in Washington we found that prices there were very high and the behaviour of the people rather crude,” Kume wrote. “Black people were ignorant and dirty and there were many thieves; naturally, we did not much enjoy staying there.”5

An outsider’s perspective of any given nation will never be spot-on — it takes more time than a couple of years to learn every relevant aspect of a nation’s politics, culture, and people. However, a critical view of an outsider’s perspective can reveal self-evident truths about a culture and society that insiders might be oblivious to.

  1. Martin Collcutt, The Iwakura Embassy, 1871-1873, Volume I: The United States of America: A True Account of the Ambassador Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary’s Journey of Observation Through the United States of America and Europe, edited by Kume Kunitake, Graham Healey, and Chushichi Tsuzuki (MHM Limited, 2002), 216.
  2. Acts of the General Assembly of the State of Virginia, Passed at the Session of 1869–’70 (1870), 402-417.
  3. Collcutt, 219.
  4. Ibid., 216
  5. Ibid., 349.
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