Symposium reveals the history of U.S.-Japan cultural exchange in SF


Ambassadors in San Francisco

CULTURE SHOCK — Greg Marutani of the Japanese American Citizens League speaks about the experience of the first Japanese ambassadors in San Francisco at the symposium. photo by Deborah Clearwaters.

Ambassadors in San Francisco
CULTURE SHOCK — Greg Marutani of the Japanese American Citizens League speaks about the experience of the first Japanese ambassadors in San Francisco at the symposium. photo by Deborah Clearwaters.

Imagine the world without San Francisco. We could not wear jeans by Levi Strauss, or celebrate the long-awaited championship of the San Francisco Giants. Most importantly, Nikkei history and the relationship between the U.S. and Japan, which originated in the Kanrin Maru’s voyage to San Francisco 150 years ago, would have been much different.

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco hosted an international symposium entitled “Japan’s Early Ambassadors to San Francisco: Diplomats, Artists, and Friendship Dolls, 1860-1927” on Nov. 7. Experts and scholars from both the U.S. and Japan talked about how San Francisco played a significant role in helping modernize Japan at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The symposium also offered ideas about how Japanese immigrants and their artwork contributed to enrich culture in San Francisco.

This year celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Kanrin Maru’s visit to San Francisco. The Kanrin Maru was the first Japanese ship to come to the U.S. and carried a delegation sent by the Tokugawa Shogunate to ratify the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the U.S. and Japan. The first session of the symposium focused on the Japanese delegation to the U.S. in 1860.

“What’s little known about this delegation in both the U.S. and Japan is that the Kanrin Maru was a ship which accompanied the Powhatan, the U.S. Navy ship, which carried high-ranking Tokugawa Shogunate officials,” said the Rev. Taiken Murakami of Tozenji Temple in Takasaki, Gunma prefecture in Japan. Murakami said Kanrin Maru’s mission was to report back to the Tokugawa Shogunate that the delegation arrived in the U.S. That is why the Kanrin Maru sailed back to Japan while the Powhatan continued to sail to Washington, D.C. and New York.

Murakami’s temple enshrines Tadamasa Oguri, one of the delegates, who became Magistrate of Accounts for the Tokugawa Shogunate after the trip. Visiting the Navy shipyard in Washington, D.C. led Oguri to believe Japan needed a comprehensive shipyard and factories to rise as an industrial nation. Oguri advocated for the idea to build a comprehensive shipyard in Yokosuka, near Tokyo, despite staunch opposition within the Tokugawa Shogunate, who said the shipyard would be a waste because it was unclear how much longer the Tokugawa Shogunate would last. Murakami said Oguri dismissed these myopic perspectives by saying that even if the bakufu (Tokugawa Shogunate) had a limited future, Japan was a country that would carry on, and he wanted to contribute to its progress.

“The Meiji government tried to disregard the achievements made by the Tokugawa Shogunate. That’s why the voyage of Kanrin Maru, which carried key people such as Katsu Kaishu or Yukichi Fukuzawa, who navigated Japan through Meiji Era, were highlighted in history education,” said Murakami, who has authored a book called “The Complete History of Oguri Tadamasa.”

Greg Marutani of the Japanese American Citizens League talked about how the delegation was received and the cultural shock experienced by both parties. The delegation stayed at Mare Island in Vallejo, Calif. where the ships were docked and repaired after the long journey. The delegation went to San Francisco when the city threw them a welcoming banquet and ball at the International Hotel.

“Food was a big issue for them. They were served with greasy soup. It was nothing like misoshiru [miso soup]. They saw rice coming, and thought, ‘They know we like.’ There is butter on it. They were treated with something they have never seen before. It was ice cream: sweet custard,” said Marutani. “They must have lost a lot of weight from the trip.”

The U.S. side, of course, was surprised that the Japanese delegation slept not on beds but on the floor, Marutani said.

Symposium Manga
That history is also reflected in Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s “Manga Yonin Shosei,” or “The Four Immigrants Manga.” Manga image from the collection of Frederik L. Schodt

Experts also talked about Japanese artists’ contributions to San Francisco culture, such as Chiura Obata, whose paintings and watercolors of Yosemite are particularly well-known, and Toshio Aoki, who had already won prizes at the Paris Salon before he came to San Francisco in 1896.

The less well-known fact is that the first graphic novel in the U.S. was written by Japanese artists living in San Francisco in the early 1900s.

Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama sailed to San Francisco in 1904 at age 19. He attended the San Francisco Art Institute, and won many awards for his artwork. Kiyama, in addition to his drawings and paintings, worked on “Manga Hokubei Iminshi,” or “A Manga North American Immigrant History.”

“Kiyama’s work shows the history of Japanese Americans and served as a primary source of what it is like to be immigrants,” said Frederik Schodt, an independent scholar and translator who came across Kiyama’s cartoon around 1980. Having gone to school in Japan, he was able to translate Kiyama’s work in English and published the translation under the name “Manga Yonin Shosei,” or “Four Students Manga,” in 1998.

The cartoon describes the life of Japanese immigrants through the lens of Kiyama’s three other friends who came to the U.S. There was an episode of one radical Japanese friend who came to the U.S. to study American democracy and eventually wanted to become an American citizen. He tried to volunteer to fight in the First World War, hoping to be naturalized, but he was simply told by the judge, “Not your turn, yet.” Kiyama drew this man fighting with a Japanese samurai sword on the battlefield to exaggerate his Japanese character.

“There were many things that weren’t pleasant for them, but he told the story with gag,” said Schodt.

The six-hour symposium corresponded with the museum’s exhibit “Japan’s Early Ambassadors to San Francisco, 1860-1927.” The viewers are first welcomed by an elegantly attired Friendship Doll.

Japanese Friendship Dolls and the American blue-eyed dolls was a goodwill program aimed to ease the political tension between the two countries as the Immigration Act of 1924 prohibited Asian immigration to the U.S. The U.S. in early 1927 sent more than 12,000 American blue-eyed dolls to Japan. Japan, spearheaded by Eiichi Shibusawa, a Japanese industrialist often dubbed as the father of Japanese capitalism, sent 58 Japanese Friendship Dolls to San Francisco in return.

Allan Scott Pate, a co-curator of the exhibit, talked about the strange destiny of the dolls, which are elegantly attired as friendship ambassadors.

“Each doll had matching crest on kimono and accessories [such as passport, steamship ticket, parasol, in addition to tea sets and lacquer chest,], but this was not communicated well between Japan and the U.S. Kimonos were exchanged, and a lot of dolls ended up having mismatching accessories,” said Pate.

He said dolls went missing during the war when they were taken away from display and placed in the storage of museums and libraries. The search continues for the missing dolls.

Friendship Dolls had a significant impact on Japanese doll making movement. Keiko Tanaka, assistance curator at the University Art Museum in Japan, said Japanese doll making had won recognition as an art form after this program. Tanaka talked about Hirata Goyo, who made his professional debut as a doll maker with Friendship Dolls. Goyo became Japan’s first Living National Treasure.

The exhibit, “Japan’s Early Ambassadors to San Francisco, 1860-1927” runs until Nov. 28. Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (415) 518-3500 or visit

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