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The Mikado, Guranto Shogun, and the Rhapsody of US-Japanese Relations in Early Meiji

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Relations between the United States and Japan, relatively close compared to Japan’s relations with European powers during the Meiji era (1868–1912), reached their pinnacle with the three month visit of General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–85) to Tokyo and its environs during the summer of 1879. Although only a private mission, the Japanese accorded Grant an exuberant welcome and readily sought his advice on a variety of issues that impacted their modernization program. Grant played a key role in bringing Japan and China to the negotiating table rather than fighting a war over the Ryukyu Islands in 1880, in persuading Tokyo not to assume burdensome foreign debts and to move cautiously toward popular participation in politics, and, inadvertently, in starting a revival of the Noh theatre. The General’s quiet unassuming manner, his warnings about the dangers of European imperialism, and his ability to portray the United States as the only non-imperialist power in the West brought a wave of positive feelings for the US amongst many Japanese. (note 1) Grant, whose presidency is often rated as an embarrassing failure, proved himself an outstanding goodwill ambassador to Japan as well as to many of the other countries he visited.

GRANT’S WORLD TOUR

Ten weeks after leaving the White House, General Grant, his wife Julia, and their son Jesse embarked on a twenty-eight month world tour. Leaving Philadelphia on the warship Indiana on May 17, 1877, the Grant family first visited Britain and then experienced Europe, the Mediterranean, Egypt and the Suez Canal, India, Southeast Asia, and finally China and Japan before receiving a hero’s welcome in San Francisco on September 20, 1879. Grant met with an endless stream of kings and queens, political and societal leaders, and the intellectual elite of every nation visited, but he took special delight with the time spent meeting the thousands of common people who came out in droves to encounter him at every stage of his journey. Fortunately for posterity, John Russell Young (1840–99), a young reporter for the New York Herald, covered the entire trip and wrote a brilliant book, Around the World with General Grant. (note 2)

 

NOTES

1. Grant sought to differentiate the United States from other European powers. In a letter written to an old friend in the US, Grant asserted that America was a different, simpler country than Europe. “We are the only first class power that is not compelled to grind the laborers to the last degree to pay the interest on [military] debts and to support large armies and navies . . . . I have seen nothing that would want to make me live outside the United States.” See John Russell Young, Around the World with General Grant. Abridged, edited, and introduced by Michael Fellman (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), xvi.

2. The Fellman edition of Young’s book serves as the reference for this study. Later, Young was American Minister to China and Librarian of Congress.