Japan’s First Embassy to the United States

To have brought this secluded Empire, into the intercourse of nations…is an achievement which may justly be ranked, among the greatest events of the age…”

– Presentation letter from the New York Chamber of Commerce to Commodore Perry

Portrait of Perry

Matthew Calbraith Perry, Public Domain

In 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry led a small squadron of U.S. Navy warships to Tokyo Bay with the goal of establishing relations with Japan. At this time, Japan had been in self-imposed trading isolation with the western powers for more than 200 years, after what Japanese leaders viewed as threatening and destabilizing colonial encounters with Europeans in the 1600s.  Commodore Perry meant to use force if the nation refused, but the Japanese had already determined to negotiate a treaty, and no shots were fired. The use or threat of military force to advance foreign policy objectives became known as “gunboat diplomacy.”

The expedition laid the groundwork for a trade agreement between the United States and Japan which would open up several Japanese ports to American trade. It also led to the arrival of the first Japanese “embassy” or delegation, headed by three samurai, who landed in Washington, DC, in 1860. They presented the signed Treaty of Amity and Commerce  to the U.S. Secretary of State for official ratification, and met with the U.S. President, James Buchanan. Japanese officials were also tasked by their government to observe the economic and military power of the United States. They were particularly impressed with American machinery and manufacturing, which they believed could be adopted back home.

Remaining in effect for 40 years, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce marked not only a significant trade agreement with the United States and other western nations, but also brought about cultural and intellectual exchange.

What was it like for the first Japanese delegation?

The first Japanese “embassy” was greeted by 5,000 spectators. They were entertained lavishly and hosted in the best hotel in Washington. They had guided tours  around Washington D.C. including the State Department, the Smithsonian museum, and debates of Congress– which one delegate described as reminding them of a “fishmarket.” Sometimes they navigated awkward scenarios due to cultural differences. For example, the Japanese found the American diet—rich in dairy and meat—impossible to consume, including rice cooked in butter and sugar which they politely refused. Though noting that they were treated with great respect, they also marveled at the lack of formality in government meetings.

A photograph of one of the commemorative medals presented to President Buchanan by the first diplomats from Japan.

The Japanese delegation presented President Buchanan with elaborate gifts, including silk screens, swords, and porcelains. In return, Secretary of State Cass gave them commemorative medals featuring the President’s likeness.

Collection of the National Museum of American Diplomacy