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Looking Both Ways: The Use of Meiji Travel Literature in the Classroom

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Although thirty-seven years have passed since my initial visit to Japan, the memories of my first twenty-four hours in Tokyo remain sharply etched in my memory. I still can see— and feel—it all: the dark rain of the first night, the customs officials’ rigidity, the hard bed at the Asia Center, the spaghetti lunch that came when I thought I had ordered a hot dog, the embarrassment of wearing my shoes into the living room of my new apartment, the lovely sour/sweet taste of the Calpis drink my landlord served, the musty aroma of the apartment, my 22-month-old son imitating the cab driver’s sounds: ba-bi-ka-ka-do-ku, the surprising affluence of my Higashi-fushimi neighborhood, the ping-pinging of the train crossing signal.

I realize that some of the memories may be inaccurate, and that my interpretations of what things meant have changed through the years. But that does not rob the memories of their vividness; nor does it alter the fact that those first impressions created a powerful base for many of the understandings of Japan that I carry with me to this day.

That vividness, I suspect, explains why travel writings make such appealing classroom tools. The best of these accounts have a directness—and thus a power—that scholarly, seasoned analyses often lack. They reveal the outsider’s unvarnished responses to a place that is new and different. They catch the traveler when things still are surprising and interesting, when “a faint air of the exotic clings to the project.”1 And that makes them gripping. And fun. Whether it is the British globetrotter Isabella Bird telling us in 1878 that she has “now ridden, or rather sat, upon seventy-six horses, all horrible,”2 or the teacher Howard Swan proclaiming in 1902 that Japan’s street vendors “are all artists, often unconsciously so,”3 the immediacy of the observations draws us in as readers and brings learning to life.

Before examining some of the best of the Meiji-era (1868–1912) travel accounts, a word is needed about the overall use of travel writings in the classroom. Vividness notwithstanding, these accounts are not perfect teaching tools. Indeed, teachers need to be aware of several potential pitfalls when bringing travel writings into the classroom. One of the most important of these lies in the fact that few travelers are experts in the country they are visiting, at least when they write their early reports. That makes them prone to errors, of both fact and interpretation. The nineteenth-century traveler-teacher William Elliot Griffis, for example, misled Americans into thinking Japanese commonly referred to their emperor as the mikado by titling his influential 1876 book on Japan The Mikado’s Empire, while the traveler Bayard Taylor sentimentally, but inaccurately, told his readers that the legendary Tokyo rickshaw puller was “always cheerful, always, in my experience, honest, and easily satisfied,” the most “temperate class” in all the world—this, despite the fact that rickshaw pullers were among the poorest, most often-abused residents of Tokyo’s flop houses, a group whose crime rates were vastly higher than those of average city dwellers.4

One reason for such mistakes lies in the visitor’s lack of expertise. People tend to “believe” their own eyes, as well as comments of local residents, and if they do not have access to authoritative information, they may pass on inaccuracies. Even more frequently, the mistakes spring from inborn prejudices and attitudes that travelers bring with them to a place as distinctive as Japan. People who go “knowing” that Mt. Fuji is the world’s highest mountain (it is not), that all Japanese are polite (they are not), and that geisha are prostitutes (none are, by definition), all too often find what they are looking for, and those “findings” make their way into the travel accounts. As literary analysts like Joseph Henning and Charles Wordell have made clear (following the Orientalist theories of Edward Said), popular American writers often revealed more about American prejudices than about the actual nature of Meiji society. They created what Wordell calls a “‘Japan passive, America active’ scenario.”5 Henning shows that many of the travelers to Japan in that era brought with them deeply ingrained notions about the superiority of both Christianity and the Anglo-Saxon race. When Japanese actions or attitudes did not fit their categories, they altered their reporting, with some going so far as to prove Anglo-Saxon racial superiority by describing the obviously-talented Japanese of the late-Meiji years as people with “white blood” or “Aryans to all intents and purposes.”6

The most worrisome aspect of such errors, particularly for teachers, probably lies in the fact that travelers sound so accurate. We tend to believe eyewitnesses. Few statements carry more weight than the assertion, “I was there.” So we want to believe them. As the historians Conal Furay and Michael Salevouris warn (and Henning and Wordell illustrate), however, “primary sources are notoriously fickle,”7 with the result that teachers and scholars need to use them with great caution, remaining alert for biases, distortions, and errors

None of that negates the fact that travel accounts remain one of the most effective tools for teaching Japan’s Meiji era. As Richard Marius and Melvin Page note, such accounts “give us a sense of intimacy with bygone times and people we have not known.”8 They include vivid images—as in Swan’s description of Tokyo streets as a “sea of low grey roofs intermingled with green shrubs and trees; dusty streets of toiling shopkeepers, all slowly active in the broling [sic] sun.”9 They are personal: Bird engaging in spats with her bright, arrogant Japanese guide, or German physician Edwin Baelz telling an ailing Prince Iwakura Tomomi that “your condition is hopeless.”10 And they have a special eye for the unique and the human. It is one thing to hear a scholarly discussion of the impact of cholera on Meiji society; it is another—far more effective—to hear the zoologist Edward Morse describe his little traveling party sitting in “our boat for an hour with hungry stomachs and tired bodies” because the innkeeper at their destination has just died of cholera, or to hear Morse’s pronouncement: “here was a city of a hundred thousand people—apparently dead, as the cholera was raging.”11 These readings may need context, which the teacher must provide, but they do not require much stimulation of interest. And they tell us far more about life and customs than we find in more academic accounts. Taught well, most of them have rich things to say about values too: about how both the Japanese and the visitors saw the world—and why they saw it that way.

One of the most important reasons for using travel literature to teach about the Meiji era is that so much of it is available. This was a remarkable period in Japan’s modern development: a time when the nation was moving at breakneck speed from premodern isolation to national power and international engagement, when new inventions and institutions appeared, particularly in the cities, almost weekly. It was also a time when Westerners came by the thousands to witness (and assist in) the changes. There were diplomats; there were journalists; there were missionaries, teachers, painters, eccentrics, authors, scientists, actors, sailors, actresses, and just-plain-wanderers. While some—like Bird—came purely to observe and report, others—like Griffis, Morse, and Swan—came to teach but ended up writing about the new world they were finding. The result was a plethora of first-hand accounts, hundreds of books and articles by writers both famous and obscure, all attempting to explain and interpret the Meiji experience.

While it would burden this article unduly to review the travel literature in detail, a few standouts need to be noted. Even before the start of the era, the American businessman-journalist Francis Hall kept a lively, opinionated, and insightful journal, available as Japan Through American Eyes, with excellent notes prepared by F. G. Notehelfer.12 The best of the pure travel accounts probably is Bird’s Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, based on letters to her sister during a seven-month sojourn in 1878; the work stands out for its focus on the rural regions (especially in the north) little visited by foreigners. More scholarly in tone but no less personal and vivid is Morse’s two-volume Japan Day by Day, which covers his observations and experiences in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Once one reaches the 1890s, there is no work like that of Lafcadio Hearn (Koizumi Yakumo, in Japanese), the man who more than any other turned generations of Americans toward the Japanese archipelago with his endless “glimpses of an unfamiliar Japan.”13 Others who left important observations include Griffis, Baelz, the historian Henry Adams, educators Alice Mabel Bacon and Basil Hall Chamberlain, the painter John La Farge, astronomer Percival Lowell, railroad engineer Edmund Holtham, and diplomats such as Rutherford B. Alcock and Ernest Satow.14

Another group of works, less voluminous and less known in the West, but at least as fruitful for classroom use, consists of Japanese travelers’ reports on their visits to the United States and Europe. These people came eastward (and sometimes westward) by the hundreds in the late 1800s. Beginning with Fukuzawa Yukichi’s three volume Conditions in the West (Seiyō jijō), publications in this genre were as popular in Japan then as they are useful today in helping us understand those Eastern visitors who often thought the Westerners so exotic and so odd. Among the most useful writings are the meticulous, opinionated diaries kept by official scribes on government missions, as we shall see below. But the memoirs and accounts of individuals who traveled on their own—Etsubo Sugimoto’s Daughter of the Samurai, Tsuga Umeko’s Attic Letters, Uchimura Kanzō’s How I Became a Christian—provide some of the richest accounts of this era. And Peter Duus’s short and wonderfully accessible Japanese Discovery of America pulls together much of the best of early-Meiji (and late-Tokugawa era) writings by Japanese travelers.15

What, then, does one do with literature of this sort? What does it teach, and how does one use it with students? To answer these questions, it is helpful to turn to two sets of early-Meiji writings, one by an early American journalist in Tokyo, the other by members of the pivotal Iwakura Mission, which traveled throughout the Western world in the early 1870s.

Photo of Edward H. House
Edward H. House as young New York journalist. Courtesy of Meiji Shimbun Zasshi Bunko, University of Tokyo.

The journalist was Edward H. House, one of America’s most colorful nineteenth-century journalists. Following an early career at the New York Tribune, which gave him a central role in creating the national reputations of both John Brown and Mark Twain, he made his way to Japan in the summer of 1870, little more than two years after the new Meiji government had taken power from the centuries-old Tokugawa regime. Within weeks of arrival, he had climbed Mt. Fuji, commenced the study of language, begun sending off articles to the Tribune, and fallen in love with a people who had fascinated him for a decade. The next decade immersed him deeply in the dual worlds of journalism and politics, sending him to Taiwan as a member of modern Japan’s first foreign military expedition, making him editor of the Tokio Times, Tokyo’s first English-language newspaper, and turning him into an outspoken proponent of Japanese issues. When he died in 1901, he had lived for the better part of three decades in Tokyo, producing endless articles and books demanding fairer treatment of Japan by the imperialist world. He spent most of that time in bed, or in a wheelchair, stricken by a debilitating, excruciating case of gout. House also helped introduce Western-style orchestral music to Japan’s court musicians.16

The writings that matter most to us here were published in House’s early Japan years, when he was writing less about politics (his later passion) and more about the varied features of Japanese life that tend to interest visitors early in a stay. His inadequate Tribune wages forced him during his initial Tokyo years to supplement his salary by teaching English and to write pieces on Japanese culture for journals like Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly. In 1881, some of his writings were combined to produce Japanese Episodes, one of the earliest travel books from Japan.17 Reading them, one finds a Japan that is far more alive, far more varied, and far more human than that of the textbooks. Two of the pieces, “To Fuziyama and Back” and “A Japanese Statesman at Home,” illustrate what travel writings can offer students.

Photo of five Japanese men with traditional costumes
Five members of the first Japanese mission to the United States posed for this formal photo by the famed photographer Matthew Brady in 1860. The center official is thought to be Morita Okataro; the others are unknown. Courtesy Matthew Brady Collection, U.S. National Archives.

The first, reflecting the English-language spelling of Mt. Fuji used widely in the 1870s, takes eighty-five pages to describe House’s participation in a small, all-male excursion up Japan’s most famous peak just “a few days after my arrival in that land” (70). In prose always witty and sometimes wordy, House gives us three things not found in most secondary works. First, the piece is full of the interest-inspiring freshness described above; it is rich with human insights and experiences: his irritation at having to get up before sunrise to see dawn on the mountainside when “the very mountain-top seemed floated from its foundation” (112), his envy of the “elastic endurance” (101) of female climbers who were better fit than anyone in his party, a mountain-side breakfast of “rice, eggs, potatoes, potted ham and beef, green corn, tea, and beer” (119), and his terror when porters used a single-rope suspension bridge to transport him across a deep chasm: “From the rope a straw basket was swung, in which we were separately hauled across, with a speed that showed long experience on the part of the natives, and a complete disregard for our want of familiarity with the process . . . . It was more entertaining to remember than it was to go through” (88).

Second, “To Fuziyama” describes Japan’s natural settings with a precision that transports students to the very scene. Third, and most important, it provides insights into the dynamics of Japanese society in ways that are unusually concrete and provocative. When House’s company reached a village frequented by Westerners, he discussed his conviction that “when foreigners plant themselves, or circulate, upon the soil of Japan, demoralization and disaster spring up.” It was a Saturday evening, and he found the European and American tourists “thwacking” Japanese workers, “flinging the female servants about, and handling them with revolting grossness” (149–51). Professing himself disgusted, he shows a side of imperialism all too often overlooked in standard accounts. By contrast, his portrait of skillful, compassionate craftsmen and porters goes far to undercut stereotypes of “backward” Japanese being assisted by “progressive” Westerners. Describing the guides on the descent from the peak, he recalls his experience with mountain-climbing guides on four continents, portraying some as patronizing, some as cringing, some as greedy—whereas “a Japanese wants to help you because you are tired . . . . Therefore, it is a satisfaction to cling to him. Especially as he is clean” (120).

The evening with a “Japanese Statesman at Home” affords a different set of lessons—and pedagogical strengths. It narrates the evening House and a friend spent dining at the home of Hirosawa Saneomi, an imperial councilor who would be assassinated by political extremists only three months later. This piece excels at describing the lifestyle and physical surroundings of Japan’s elite: their attire, geisha dances, stone floors “polished like mirrors” (175), small gardens, old paintings, and pottery scattered throughout the mansion, chopsticks joined at one end, and the formal meals, which this evening consisted of thirteen courses of chowder-like soups, raw fish (which House did not like), vegetables, sweet jellies, seaweed, chicken and prawns, exotic herbs, and endless beers and wines.

One of the most interesting—and provocative—features of the “Statesman” piece is its reflection on several Meiji customs, in particular the Japanese approach to child-rearing. House found Japanese parents “extravagantly affectionate and considerate,” given to “tender indulgence” and “reciprocal respect.” Never, he said, had he seen a child “punished with violence.” And he liked what he saw. “It has seemed to me that the early admission of children to intimate and confidential association with their parents, and the frank interchange of ideas and feelings in which they are encouraged, give an ease and an early development which act with equal good for all” (181). It is an approach to child-rearing that will challenge many students’ attitudes about discipline, as well as their images of Japanese customs. The discussions that result should make not only for greater understanding of Japan, but for livelier classrooms.

Then there are the Japanese observations of the nineteenth-century West, which are likely to raise a different set of issues for students. Like the Westerners’ observations, they will provide a great deal of concrete material about material life, customs, and practices. But since the Japanese travelers were encountering our culture, they are likely to provoke thought about values as often as they present pictures of practices. While writers such as House and Morse approached Japan from an outsider’s— and thus a thought-provoking—perspective, they made roughly the same value assumptions as student readers will. But the Japanese brought different core values with them on their journeys; they saw Americans and Europeans through Japanese eyes. The results can be startling.

Photo of three Japanese men with traditional costumes
Three members of the first official Japanese mission to the United States
posed for this formal photo in 1860 by the famed photographer Matthew Brady. The man on the right is thought to be embassy physician Kawasaki Domin; the others are unknown. Courtesy of Matthew Brady
Collection, U.S. National Archives.

That certainly is the case when one reads the observations of members of the 1871–73 Iwakura mission, in which the prince led four dozen men on an eighteen-month excursion through the United States and Europe. The mission itself was remarkable. Deciding they needed to know more about the West and to make Western leaders aware of Japanese progress, the fledgling Meiji government selected its highest officials to go on the trip and had the emperor himself deliver the mission’s charge. The travelers spoke to the California legislature, got snowbound in Salt Lake City, negotiated unsuccessfully for better treaties in Washington, studied the parliament in London, had dinner with Bismarck in Berlin, and visited places as far-flung as Jerusalem and Cairo. All the while, a caretaker government kept order back in Tokyo.

Fortunately, the mission had a meticulous record-keeper in Kume Kunitake, Iwakura’s private secretary. He wrote down not just what people saw, but what they thought: what was strange, what was remarkable, what was worth emulating, and what might be dangerous to Japan’s value system. While the English translation of his entire five-volume diary may be too costly for most schools or teachers, a set of excerpts from this diary and Kume’s later memories of the mission—prepared and annotated by Peter Duus of Stanford University—make clear just how useful such records can be in the classroom.18

First, there are the curiosities, ordinary things that take on wholly new meanings in the viewing of outsiders. The travelers were not as often amazed as their predecessors had been a dozen years earlier, when members of an earlier mission commented on the oddity of ballroom dancing, “reddish hair” that “reminds us of canine eyes,” the strangeness of congressmen “gesticulating wildly” when speaking in Congress, and the “barbarian” custom of displaying dead human bodies (mummies) in museums (156–59). Nonetheless, they still found much that was curious and unusual in America of the 1870s. They decided that Americans cared little about lineage and breeding, since they accepted immigrants who “generally come from the ignorant and lazy masses of various countries.” They were puzzled by legal penalties and taxes for smoking or drinking. It amazed them that most shops were closed on Sundays (a practice that may surprise today’s students too). And they were surprised that Americans were so eager to export their political system abroad (169–72).

Even more important—and more useful for classroom discussions—were the ambassadors’ discussions of big issues such as government, religion, and gender. They were struck by the poor quality of decision-making in Congress, a fact that they attributed to a democratic system in which “not all the gentlemen elected . . . are endowed with the highest intelligence and talent” (173). Their analysis of the weaknesses of democracy, as well as the Americans’ blindness to those weaknesses, should provoke lively discussion, particularly in a time in which democracy and the American role in the world are subject to so much debate.

The comments on religion are provocative too. Coming from a system in which the upper reaches of society were dominated by Confucian rationalism, the ambassadors found many aspects of Christianity surprising, even puzzling. They were impressed by the zeal with which people pursued their faith: the way many carried a Bible (Kume called it a “sutra”) in public, the “earnestness of practice,” and the way Christians gave money “for the translation of the scriptures” (175–78). The Americans’ theological beliefs—“tales from Heaven and criminals raised from the dead”—on the other hand, seemed like “the delirious ravings of madness . . . . In all European and American cities, pictures of crucified criminals, profuse and with ruby-red blood, are hung everywhere on building walls and rooms . . . . If this is not bizarre, then what is?” (176).

And even more puzzling was the way American women acted. They entered official buildings; they danced publicly with men and spoke openly in their presence. Moreover, husbands “served” their wives, offering them seats at tables, walking arm-in-arm with them on the street, carrying their things, and dusting off their clothes (174). Kume made no secret of how he regarded such behavior. Of course it was different (“Orient and . . . Occident differ from one another, as though they are the opposite of one another” 170), but it was more: it was immoral. He describes male politeness toward women with words and phrases such as “henpecked,” “extremely indecent,” “vulgar,” and “unseemly and disgraceful” (181–82). He quotes one of the mission leaders, Kido Takayoshi, as fearing that Western gender practices would undermine Confucian morality: “The Way of Loyalty and Filial Piety will be in peril as civilization advances” (183).

Reading these accounts may cause discomfort for students of the sort who once told me, “I don’t want to think; I just want to regurgitate.” But the discomfort will be valuable. When one reads an astute American traveler such as House, one discovers Japanese society in a new and fresh light: its natural beauty, its daily customs, and its major modernizing policies. When one reads the Japanese travelers, on the other hand, one also learns about one’s self. Reading the work of someone who questions the efficacy of democracy raises issues that move us beyond political platitudes. Hearing an observer describe Christian practices with the very phrases American missionaries have often used to portray “heathen superstitions” forces us to reexamine both our own religious attitudes and the nature of Japanese belief systems. And reading Japanese questions about gender roles gives us new understandings of what Confucianism meant by the “natural way.”

At the same time, hearing Japanese draw harsh or simplistic conclusions about Americans ought to help students see how important it is for them to read the Westerners’ accounts of Japan more carefully than they otherwise might have. When American visitors described Japanese society as violent, or pagan, or given to general nudity, were they being any less biased or unfair than Japanese who saw Christianity as bizarre and American women as immoral? Might these American observers have been telling us (as Wordell and Henning have suggested) more about their own stereotypes and prejudices than about Meiji Japan’s complex reality? Getting students to make this kind of correlation will be challenging, but it can be exciting.

Travel accounts need, in a word, to be handled carefully and sensitively, even as they are presented with verve and gusto. They, more than other written educational materials, have the potential to make the students forget they are doing something “worthwhile,” even as they increase knowledge and understanding—not a bad combination.


1. Donald Richie, The Honorable Visitors (New York: ICG Muse, 2001), 11.

2. Isabella Bird, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle and Company, 1973), 164.

3. Howard Swan, “Flashes from the East,” Taiyo 8, no. 7 (May 1902), 6.

4. Bayard Taylor, Japan in Our Day (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1893; originally published 1881), 274–75. Data on crime comes from “Tokyo shimin to jinrikisha” (Tokyo citizens and the rickshaw), Taiyō 8, no. 5 (May 5, 1902), 31–2.

5. Charles B. Wordell, Japan’s Image in America: Popular Writing about Japan, 1800–1941 (Kyoto: Yamaguchi Publishing House, 1998), xxviii; Said’s classic work is Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979).

6. See Joseph Henning, Outposts of Civilization (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 160. William Elliot Griffis ascribed “white blood” to the Japanese and Arthur May Knapp called them “Aryans.”

7. Conal Furay and Michael Salevouris, The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide (Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1988), 189.

8. Richard Marius and Melvin Page, A Short Guide to Writing about History. 5th ed. (New York: Pearson, Longman, 2005), 93.

9. Swan, 5.

10. “Early in 1883.” Erwin Baelz, Awakening Japan: The Diary of a German Doctor (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1974), 68.

11. Edward S. Morse, Japan Day by Day II (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1917), 264.

12. F. G. Noltehelfer, ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).

13. Hearn’s key works include Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1976); Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation (New York: Macmillan, 1904); In Ghostly Japan (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1971); and Kwaidan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922). A useful compilation of his writings is in Louis Allen and Jean Wilson, eds., Lafcadio Hearn: Japan’s Great Interpreter: A New Anthology of His Writings: 1897–1904 (Kent: Japan Library, 1992), especially the extracts from his letters, 259–81.

14. Use of primary sources can be greatly facilitated by the many secondary works that treat these writers’ lives and views. Among the best published in recent years are Henning and Wordell, both cited above; Donald Richie, The Honorable Visitors (New York: ICG Muse, 2001); Christopher Benfey, The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan (New York: Random House, 2003); Christine Guth, Longfellow’s Tattoos: Tourism, Collecting, and Japan (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004). Classics such as Harold W. Williams, Foreigners in Mikado Land (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1963) and Robert Rosenstone, Mirror in the Shrine: American Encounters with Meiji Japan (Harvard University, 1988) also are helpful, as is Ardith W. Burks, ed., The Modernizers: Overseas Students, Foreign Employees, and Meiji Japan (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985). Studies of most individual travelers and foreign writers are too numerous to be listed here.

15. See Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto, A Daughter of the Samurai (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1966); Yoshio Furuki, ed., The Attic Letters: Ume Tsuda’s Correspondence to Her American Mother (New York: Weatherhill, 1991); Uchimura Kanzō, How I Became a Christian, Volume I of The Complete Works of Kanzō Uchimura, 7 vols. (Tokyo: Kyobunkwan, 1973). Also: Peter Duus, The Japanese Discovery of America: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997). A British complement to Duus is Andrew Cobbing, The Japanese Discovery of Victorian Britain: Early Travel Encounters in the Far West (Richmond, Surrey: Japan Library, 1988).

16. House’s life is recounted in my A Yankee in Meiji Japan: The Crusading Journalist Edward H. House (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

17. Edward H. House, Japanese Episodes (James R. Osgood, 1881; reissued by Global Oriental Classic Reprints, 2006). Page references for the material considered here are indicated in parentheses in the text.

18. The complete work is The Iwakura Embassy, 1871–1873: A True Account of the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary’s Journal of Observation Through the United States of America and Europe. Comp. by Kume Kunitake (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002, $815). The excerpts are in Duus, Japanese Discovery of America, 168–84; his sections on the 1860 Bakufu mission (145–67) and “America as ‘Civilization’” (185–204) also are excellent. Page references for the material considered here are indicated in parentheses in the text.