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Arrival of First Japanese Embassy at the Navy Yard (1860)

Japanese embassy posing for photo with naval officers at Washington's navy yard (Library of Congress)
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In January 1860, the Tokugawa shogunate sent a delegation to the United States with the primary objective of ratifying the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation (aka, the Harris Treaty). Commodore Matthew Perry (not Chandler) had opened Japan (forcefully) in 1854 and this was the first Japanese diplomatic mission sent to the United States.

This historic event is particularly interesting to me because, while I was born in the area, I grew up in Japan, spending the better part of my youth in the Land of the Rising Sun.

USS Powhatan carrying the First Japanese Embassy to America, approx. 1860. Woodblock print, ink and colors on paper. (source: nichibei.org)
USS Powhatan carrying the First Japanese Embassy across the Pacific to America, approx. 1860. Woodblock print, ink and colors on paper. (source: nichibei.org)
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The May 11th arrival of the Japanese in Washington was cause for much celebration, not to mention a huge attraction for onlookers and gawkers to participate in the formal reception ceremonies.

The Baltimore Sun tracked the groups progress on the Eastern Seaboard and wrote about the May 11th arrival at the Washington Navy Yard.

This is one of the proudest days every witnessed in the metropolis of America. From every prominent point the Star Spangled Banner flaunted, and the sun never smiled more benignly upon any people. Frequently rains had laid the dust, the air was balmy, whilst the beautiful green sward and rich foliage of the trees presented a scene transporting and grateful to the mind.

The Baltimore Sun’s programme was soon read by every body, and by the hour of nine every carriage, omnibus, coach and vehicle of every description were put in requisition to place whole families within the ample limits of our Washington navy-yard. By ten o’clock every avenue and every street were thus thronged, but great as was the press, good nature prevailed throughout, and our police forces were present to give advice or render assistance.

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Not the slightest accident occurred to person or property, and within the walls of the Washington navy-yard the most perfect order reigned supreme, and the time was rendered to all exceedingly agreeable, many witnessing for the first time the most attractive operations of its establishments. Within the yard the Japanese flag floated side by side with the American.

The hour of eleven arrived, and not less than ten thousand visitors could have been within the gates, whilst thousands more awaited events in the dwellings and along the sideways of Garrison street, thronging the crossings of every avenue and street leading thereto, also the capitol grounds of the Capitol squares, and also all along Pennsylvania avenue.

Japanese embassy posing for photo with naval officers at Washington's navy yard (Library of Congress)
Japanese embassy posing for photo with naval officers at Washington’s Navy Yard (Library of Congress)

At half-past eleven o’clock the steamer Philadelphia, handsomely decorated with flags was signaled above Alexandria, and the gun announced the fact. In a moment the workmen suspended their labors, the shops were closed, and the mechanics repaired to the great avenue to meet their families and unite with all other citizens in the ceremonies of the occasion.

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The steamer now approached slowly between the arsenal and the navy-yard. Every eye was upon her. The piazzas around the first and second stories of the commodore’s office, a number of platforms in every observable position, the shop doors, and the entire margin of the wharves being densely crowded with eager lookers on. “Here she comes!” “Here she comes!” An almost breathless silence prevailed among the immense masses, when the Marine band on the upper deck of the Philadelphia, struck up the Star Spangled Banner. The steamer, now near the wharf, the enthusiasm began to rise. Just as the steamer touched the pier a spontaneous cheer arose from a number of spectators, but soon terminated, for all were anxious to witness the landing.

The steamer moored, and all the American officers were in attendance. Soon a large steamer from Alexandria, gaily decorated, followed. Some time elapsed. there was the long-looked for “Philadelphia.” On her upper deck stood the distinguished visitors looking as calm, collected and unenthusiastic as if no special honors were in progress, when a messenger was sent on board to ascertain the cause of the delay. He returned with a reply that the proper personal arrangement were being made, the ambassadors adjusting their toilets, &c. Most of the Japanese were, however, viewing the scene from the steamer’s deck with evident delight; one of them was observed taking sketches. An American daguerrotypist erected his camera to take the picture, and club boats were running about the river with the American and Japanese flags, adding to the effect of the brilliant scene.

The dignitaries thus addressed through their interpreter bowed their acknowledgements and really appeared pleased with these attentions. Before them appeared in full view of the grand military escort, and now the thundering artillery poured forth the minister’s salute of seventeen guns, and the music all along the line rose in patriotic and transporting strains. The whole scene was grand and exciting.–The salute, the music, the waving flags, the general enthusiasm surpassed description. On a special platform, neatly whitened, flanked by military on the east and by spectators on the west side, the visitors were escorted the length of a square to their carriages.

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The first delegation of Japanese diplomats were slowly escorted by a grand military parade through the streets of Washington up to their quarters at the Willard Hotel on the corner of 14th St. and The Avenue.

M.B. Brady and Frank Leslie's artists taking photographs and sketches of the Japanese presents, in the reception room of the Embassy at Willard's Hotel, Washington (Library of Congress)
M.B. Brady and Frank Leslie’s artists taking photographs and sketches of the Japanese presents, in the reception room of the Embassy at Willard’s Hotel, Washington (Library of Congress)

The article continues with a description of their apartments at the Willard.

The suite of double parlors and chambers on the corner of 14th street and the avenue, usually called the “President’s suite,” connected with the main corridor by a smaller hall, to which the ambassadors have sole entrance, are appropriated to the envoys in chief. This suite is the richest in the house. It is furnished with the finest rose-wood furniture, the most costly tapestry, the rarest paintings and statuary, and, withal, presents a view of the avenue for a great stretch, as well as a clear view of 14th street. The parlors are large and lighted by heavy chandeliers from the centre of the ceiling. In each will be placed divers musical instruments, rare volumes and other curiosities.

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We have heretofore stated that the embassy bring with them $80,000 cash for the purpose of making purchases. Their money was all brought from Japan in Mexican dollars and American half-dollars, stamped with the Japanese mark. They bring an immense amount of baggage–over eighty tons–which made four full car loads over the Panama railroad. they have fifteen boxes containing valuable presents for thee President of the United States.–They have a large quantity of beautiful silks, brocatels, linen, crape silk, pongees, poplins, and so forth, of every conceivable style and pattern.

Later that same week, the Japanese delegation called on the White House to visit President James Buchanan, another cause for formal celebration. The Baltimore Sun reported on the events of May 17th, 1860.

Yesterday was another great day at the National Capital. For the first time in the history of the nation an Embassy from The Empire of Japan was officially received by the President of the United States. The ceremonies were of a very imposing character. The sustained particulars are furnished by our correspondent.

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Another most beautiful pageant took place to-day on the occasion of the formal presentation of our oriental visitors to the President of the United States. On the part of the embassy their eastern usages and etiquette were strictly adhered to, and the scene was impressive.–Both Houses of Congress took a recess for the purpose of witnessing the ceremonies …

Soon after 11 o’clock the distinguished visitors, accompanied by the gallant officers of our navy who constitute the committee appeared and took their seats in open barouches. On the first Prince coming forth the military presented arms and the band commenced an air. The visitors were in full and costly costume, and wore an air of dignity which is characteristic of their exalted positions … The chief ambassador, on descending the steps, was instantly surrounded by his officers, who guarded him to the open carriage in which he took a seat, the servants of the expedition kneeling while he passed them. His body guard immediately placed themselves on each side and behind the coach. The second ambassador then appeared, and then the third, followed by their suites, and similar ceremonies were observed.

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During the march the band performed finely, and the gates were kept closed until the arrival of the pageant. The column then advanced, and the committee, with their Oriental friends, passed through the entrance in perfect good order, when the gates were again closed against the crowd. On reaching the mansion the party alighted, and were at once escorted into the parlors to rest for a brief space of time. At the vestibule of the mansion the subordinate officers of the embassy knelt down, while the envoys passed.

The east room was crowded to its utmost capacity with officers of the army, navy and marine corps–many of whom were attracted here from distant cities by this novel and interesting ceremony. Distinguished civilians, senators, members of the House of Representatives, mayo and members of the corporation of Washington, clergymen, and quite a large number of ladies. Gen. Scott was at the head of the army officers and Com. Shubrick at the head of those of the navy.

President Buchanan with Japanese Embassy (source: History.com)
President Buchanan with Japanese Embassy (source: History.com)

The next part is really interesting, as you can almost imagine the both fascinating and probably slightly awkward meeting of two vastly different cultures.

Precisely at noon the President of the United States, accompanied by the Hon. Lewis Cass, Secretary of State, Hon. Howell Cobb, Secretary of the Treasury, entered the east room, followed by the rest of the cabinet, Hon. John B. Floyd, Secretary of War, Hon. Isaac Toney, Secretary of the Navy, Hon. Jacob B. Thompson, Secretary of the Interior, Hon. Jos. Holt, Postmaster General, and Mr. Black the U. S. Attorney General.

The President and Cabinet took position on the east side, fronting the parlors. A brief pause here ensued, during which the President shook hands heartily with the gallant Lieutenant General Scott. The double doors of the east room now swung open, and the embassy silently advanced and entered to their first view of the President and the imposing array of officials there gathered. They came forward, bowing twice very low, the President once or twice doing the same, and then advanced to the President–Capt. S. F. Dupont, of the U. States navy, accompanied by the chief ambassador, Commander S. F. Lee with the second dignitary, Lieut. D. D. Porter with a third, Dr. Macdonald, secretary to the committee, with a fourth. They were introduced to President Buchanan, by the Secretary of State, when the chief ambassador presented his letter of credence, which the President cordially received, both parties bowing gracefully. The principal ambassador then read an address to the President in Japanese, which had to be interpreted into Dutch and thence into English, thus:

“His Majesty, the Tycoon, has commanded us that we respectfully express to His Majesty the President of the United States, in his name, as follows:

“Desiring to establish on a firm and lasting foundation the relations of peace and commerce, so happily existing between the two countries, that lately the plenipotentiaries of both countries have negotiated and concluded a treaty. Now, he has ordered us to exchange the ratification of the treaty in your principal city of Washington. Henceforth he hopes that the friendly relation shall be held more and more lasting, and he is very happy to have your friendly feeling, that you have brought us to the United States, and will send us back to Japan in your man-of-war.”

The embassy, bowing twice again, slowly retired from the room, to bring in the imperial ambassador, who, according to Japanese etiquette, could not be present at the delivery of the letter. They soon, however, returned with the imperial ambassador, bowing again, and signifying their readiness to receive the President’s reply. Mr. Buchanan thereupon read the following address:

“I give you a cordial welcome, as representatives of His Imperial Majesty, the Tycoon of japan, to the American government.

“We are all much gratified that the first embassy which your great empire has ever accredited to any foreign power has been sent to the United States. I trust that this will be the harbinger of perpetual peace and friendship between the two countries. The treaty of commerce, whose ratifications you are about to exchange with the Secretary of State, cannot fail to be productive of benefits and blessings to the people both of Japan and the United States. I can say for myself, and promise for my successors, that it shall be carried into execution in a faithful and friendly spirit, so as to secure to both countries all the advantages they may justly expect from the happy auspices under which it has been negotiated and ratified. I rejoice that you are please with the kind treatment you have received on board our vessels of war whilst on your passage to this country. You shall be sent back in the same manner to your native land, under the protection of the American flag. Meanwhile, during your residence amongst us, which I hope may be prolonged, so as to enable you to visit different portions of our country, we shall be happy to extend to you all the hospitality and kindness eminently due to the great and friendly sovereign whom you so worthily represent.”

President Buchanan greets the Japanese Embassy in the East Room of the White House
President Buchanan greets the Japanese Embassy in the East Room of the White House

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