Historic Voyage Marked Beginning of 150 Years of U.S.-Japan Relations


An artist rendering of the Kanrin Maru’s voy- age across the Pacific. Artwork of “Kanrin Maru in Rough Seas” owned by the Kimura family and displayed at Yokohama Archives of History.

The Karin Maru celebration logo.

Curious Americans gathered in droves to see them. Dressed in robes, their hair in topknots, the Japanese who arrived in San Francisco 150 years ago this month on the Kanrin Maru, the first Japanese ship to visit this country, stunned the Americans they encountered.

The fascination was mutual. Members of the Japanese delegation crunched quizzically on ice cubes, tasted their first ice cream, and marveled at the strange tradition of dancing. The visit of the Japanese delegation — undertaken to submit a ratified treaty and establish a Japanese embassy — did not only represent the official start of the countries’ diplomatic relations but also presented ample chances for cultural exchange.

The year 2010 marks the 150th anniversary of the Kanrin Maru’s arrival in San Francisco, a historic moment that represented many firsts: the first Japanese naval voyage, the first arrival of a Japanese ship to the United States, and the arrival of the first Japanese embassy to the United States.

An artist rendering of the Kanrin Maru’s voy- age across the Pacific. Artwork of “Kanrin Maru in Rough Seas” owned by the Kimura family and displayed at Yokohama Archives of History.

“Kanrin Maru was truly the starting point for international exchange between the people of the United States and Japan,” said Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Yasumasa Nagamine.

This anniversary is being marked by numerous events in the San Francisco Bay Area (see calendar, page 9), and offers the opportunity to contemplate the past and future of the relationship between the two countries. On March 15, Naoyuki Agawa, vice president of International Collaboration at Tokyo’s prestigious Keio University, outlined the history and significance of the Kanrin Maru in a lecture in San Francisco’s Japantown, attended by more than 150 people.

In 1635, the Tokugawa Shogunate imposed a strict isolationist policy, but in 1853, the infamous arrival of Commodore Matthew C. Perry — and several U.S. warships — forced the country to open its ports. He returned a year later, and successfully negotiated the “Treaty of Peace and Amity,” ending 200 years of isolationist policy.

In 1860, the Japanese government was ready to send the ratified treaty and its first embassy to American shores. The Kanrin Maru left Tokyo (then Edo) Bay on Feb. 10, with 107 men on board, mostly Japanese. It also carried a few Americans who were stranded in Japan with a damaged ship, including U.S. Navy Lieutenant John Mercer Brooke, who assisted Captain Katsu Kaishu in navigation.

Purchased from the Dutch, the 50-meter (164-feet) long, 8.7-meter (28.5-feet) wide ship faced rough waters and endured damage, but successfully landed in San Francisco on March 17, 1860 due to the combined efforts of the Japanese and American crew. One crew member died on board; two more perished soon after arrival. The three men are buried at the Japanese Cemetery in Colma, Calif.

The Kanrin Maru served as an escort and carried the ratified treaty, while another ship, the Powhatan, actually carried the embassy. The Powhatan left a few days after the Kanrin Maru but, due to damage, stopped in Hawai‘i, where the passengers met the Hawaiian king and queen in another historic first.

Photo of Nakahama John Manjiro.

The Kanrin Maru’s crew comprised the first Japanese to officially set foot on U.S. soil and included men who would go on to shape their country. Nakahama (John) Manjiro, likely the first Japanese person to visit the U.S., was on the ship, serving as a translator and acting as an experienced navigator (see sidebar). Another member, Yukichi Fukuzawa, would later help shape the Japanese government and establish Keio University, the oldest private university in Japan; he is acknowledged as one of the founders of modern Japan.

This voyage also was the first instance when Japanese citizens who left the country could return without the risk of being exiled.

The Embassy landed in San Francisco 12 days later and then continued on to Washington, D.C. The Kanrin Maru’s crew spent nearly two months in the Bay Area as the ship was repaired. Their stay filled the news, and they toured the city and spent time with local officials and citizens.

Poet Walt Whitman witnessed the scene of the Japanese visitors, those on the Powhatan who traveled to the East Coast, arriving in New York City; thousands gathered in the street to watch them walk down Broadway. Whitman’s poem about the scene and guests of honor, published in the New York Times, effervesces, “Courteous, the Princes of Asia… First-comers, guests, two-sworded princes, Lesson-giving princes, leaning back in their open barouches, bare-headed, impassive, This day they ride through Manhattan.”

The Japanese delegates were fascinated by the oddities of the American culture they encountered. When they visited Washington, D.C., they watched Congress in session, and one noted that it reminded him of a “fish market,” with all the angry shouting. They rode in an elevator for the first time, and first walked on carpet, balking at the fabric getting dirtied underfoot.

Japanese delegates were also interested in the lack of reverence for government officials; though they knew that the president changed according to popular vote, one delegate was shocked to see that the Governor of California traveled with a relatively small entourage; another was amazed to find out that the descendants of George Washington were not revered public figures.

Americans, for their part, were surprised at the Japanese delegates’ civility, refinement and elegant manners, which shattered their image of a more backwards people.

Professor Agawa’s descriptions inspired many in attendance to marvel at the Japanese delegates’ experiences.

“I travel to Japan quite a bit,” said Allen Okamoto, co-chair of the Kanrin Maru anniversary committee, “and as a Sansei, born here and as American as anyone, I feel like a foreigner when I go there. I can’t imagine how they must have felt when they arrived here.”

USC Professor of History Kevin Starr, who also attended the lecture, noted that, though most of the attention is focused on what the Japanese learned from this voyage, there was also a significant impact on America, in particular on American aesthetics, with Americans rapidly incorporating Japanese architectural, landscaping, and painting styles as connections between the countries developed.

While the voyage represented an important step forward in U.S.-Japan relations, the course of history prevented the relations from quick advancement. The Civil War would divide the United States just months later; the Boshin War and the subsequent “Meiji Restoration” would radically alter Japan and its government in the coming years.

Though perhaps the Kanrin Maru arrived “a little too early,” Professor Agawa said, suggesting that the voyage might have accomplished more had it occurred at a moment when turmoil did not interrupt progress. He also noted that what was most important were the intentions it represented and the eagerness for exchange. “The voyage of the Kanrin Maru indicates that, at that time, there were people on both sides, the American side and Japanese side, who were willing to cross an ocean,” said the Georgetown University-educated Agawa.

In addition to providing a chance to consider the past, this anniversary signifies a moment to look into the future.

“This is a chance for us to not only honor the achievements of our ancestors and the history of exchange between the United States and Japan, but also to look ahead to the future and the continuing importance of the U.S.-Japan relationship,” said Nagamine.

It’s especially crucial, during times of tension between the two countries, to reaffirm the longevity and significance of this relationship, said Okamoto. “It’s important the general public know that our relationship with Japan is one of the oldest and strongest,” he said. “Even though there was a little glitch in the 1940s, we have one of the strongest connections, politically, financially and socially.”

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