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Photo of the leading members of the Iwakura-mission, Unknown photographer, 1872 in London


Around the time Griffis had left Fukui and began teaching in Tokyo, the new Japanese government sent the Iwakura Mission, or Iwakura Embassy, a Japanese diplomatic expedition that took place from 1871 to 1873. At this time, the Japanese were infuriated by the audacity of the Westerners who had exploited their country, declaring their entitlement to Japanese ports, tariffs, and the privilege of extraterritoriality. However, after Guido Verbeck‘s “Brief Sketch” and letter exchange with Mori Arinori, the Japanese were inspired to organize the Iwakura Embassy. The main purpose of this mission was to help the Japanese understand the political, military, and educational systems of the United States and Europe in order to redo the Unequal Treaties and thus re-establish themselves among the Western powers. While roughly 50 members of the Iwakura Mission visited the United States (U.S.), United Kingdom, France, and Germany, this narrative will particularly be focusing on the relationship between the Iwakura Mission and Rutgers-Japan. For example, Iwakura Tomomi, the leader of the Iwakura Mission had two sons who were studying at Rutgers. In addition, Hatakeyama Yoshinari, who was Rutgers’ graduating class of 1871, joined the mission and later worked for the Japanese Government Departments of the Interior, Education and Foreign Affairs. And finally, the Iwakura Mission in the U.S. also resulted in the successful and significant recruitment of Professor David Murray for Japan’s Ministry of Education. All in all, throughout this narrative of the Iwakura Mission, we will be covering the major events that took place while the Iwakura Mission members were in the United States with a focus on the movements of Iwakura Tomomi, Mori Arinori, David Murray, Tanaka Fujimaro, and other major Rutgers-Japan figures.

Image Gallery





Context and Important People

Townsend Harris. Painting by James Boyle [courtesy City College, City University of New York]

Townsend Harris
Though not directly relevant to the Iwakura mission itself, Townsend Harris was a key American diplomat who served as the first Consul General in Japan shortly after Perry’s arrival.  From 1856 to 1861, he represented America in the formation of a treaty to open Japan’s ports and influenced Japan’s first embassy to America in 1860 (Miyoshi 17-18). However, these treaties would be regarded as “unfair” and renegotiating them would later become one of the three primary goals for the Iwakura Mission in 1872  (Nish, 12). Griffis knew Harris personally and highly respected him, even writing a book about Harris’s journals, Townsend Harris: First American Envoy in Japan, noting how he laid the foundation for Japan’s advancement in Westernization as well as American and Japanese relations (Griffis v-ix).  Harris would eventually be succeeded by Robert Pruyn, a Rutgers alumni (Class of 1869), who would have to stand against the Shogunate and protect American interests during its Civil War (Lee, 124).


Verbeck of Japan: A Citizen of No Country, by William Elliot Griffis, pg. 89
Verbeck of Japan: A Citizen of No Country, by William Elliot Griffis, pg. 90

Official Acknowledgment of the Mikado’s Ambassadors, Iwakura and Okubo

This is a letter from the ambassadors of the Iwakura mission sent in the same year as they left, thanking John Ferris for his efforts in educating the Japanese students that came to America earlier and thereby advancing Japan as a whole.  In the years prior to the mission, Ferris was responsible for welcoming many Japanese students to New Brunswick, including Iwakura’s own two sons. Ferris also worked with Guido Verbeck, an extremely influential missionary in Japan and friend of Griffis who sent students to America, persuaded Griffis to teach in Japan, and strongly advocated for the Iwakura mission through writings like the “Brief Sketch” in 1869, albeit indirectly as Verbeck simply encouraged the Japanese to personally experience other civilizations (Duke, 80).  Due to Verbeck’s influence, Japan later recognized the gap between its civilization and enlightenment in comparison to other western foreign nations and this realization served as a strong motivator to carry out the Iwakura Mission.


Iwakura Name Card – Fukui Database Griffis Document Collection – Callsign: MF6-38

Iwakura Tomomi Name Card

Iwakura Tomomi was one of the most important and influential Japanese statesmen who helped bring about the Meiji Restoration, a political revolution that ended the Edo period, leading to the Iwakura mission just a few years later (National Diet Library, 2013).  As seen from his name card, he was the Udaijin, or minister of the right, and served as a key advisor to the emperor as part of the Daijo-kan, or great Council of State (National Diet Library, 2013). Though initially anti-foreigner, Iwakura had always been a radical political figure, which is highlighted in his decision to send his two sons to study at Rutgers in America (1870) as a means and demonstration of wanting to modernize Japan, later visiting them as a part of the Iwakura mission (Duke, 78-79).  Before the mission, he also collaborated with Griffis and Verbeck to not only keep in contact with his sons but also develop meaningful relationships that would later help build modern Japan (Griffis, 527).

Ito Hirobumi as President of Rikken Seiyu Kai (Friends of Constitutional Government) Ito Hirobumi Memorial Hall at Yamato-Cho, Yamaguchi Prefecture




Itō Hirobumi

Ito was near the top of the Iwakura Mission, serving as one of four vice-ambassadors under Iwakura Tomomi. He was one of the main proponents for the reformation of Japanese education, which was another one of the three primary goals of the mission (Collcutt, Martin, et al, 194). However, he was a bit overly aggressive in negotiations and essentially failed to compromise with Hamilton Fish, who as the Secretary of State at the time. Asides from being unable to find a common ground, Hirobumi also did not have the power to sign those treaties: only the Emperor can do so (Nish, 22).  Nevertheless, he still became an important politician after the mission.  During the mission, Hirobumi gains the trust of Toshimichi Okubo, a statesmen who fought alongside Iwakura during the Meiji Restoration; this relationship proves to be a pivotal moment years later in his promotion to Home Minister in 1878 after taking Okubo’s position and eventually Prime Minister in 1885 (National Diet Library, 2013).

Portrait of Mori Arinori, 1871, Not Attributed, from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Portrait of Mori Arinori, 1871, Not Attributed, from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Mori Arinori

Mori Arinori was one of several students who had illegally left Satsuma as a teenager to study in London in 1865. Hatakeyama Yoshinari, who left as a student and would eventually work with Murray and Tanaka Fujimaro to modernize Japan’s education system, visited the Brotherhood of the New Life, with Mori which is an American Utopian society lead by Thomas Lake Harris (Van Sant, 80). While Hatakeyama (’71) and other colonists left the colony to attend Rutgers, Mori returned to Japan and became a critical member of the embassy, serving as a translator and medium between the two nations (Duke, 83). Before the mission, Mori had built relationships with the American elites, impressing them with his bilingual skills and deeper understanding of the cultural differences between Japan and America (Nish, 26). These connections allowed the young Mori to successfully introduce his senior Japanese government officials to President Grant and organize the meeting between Murray and Kido Takayoshi (Duke, 83). Asides from Murray and Takayoshi, Mori was also an important figure. especially in modernizing Japan’s education. After meeting Ito Hirobumi in Paris years later, Hirobumi was sincerely impressed by Mori’s global views on education and thus, appointed him as the first Minister of Education (Morikawa, 5).

Nichi-Bei Bunka Kōshō Shi 3, Shūkyō-Kyōiku Hen (The history of cultural exchange between Japan and United States, Vol. 3), Yōyōsha, 1956.
David Murray from William E. Griffis Collection



David Murray

David Murray was a professor of Mathematics at Rutgers and played a dominant role in the modernization of Japanese education after the Iwakura mission. With the recommendations of Ferris and Verbeck, Murray taught several Japanese students, including Iwakura’s sons and Hatakeyama who would later work with Murray in Japan. (Duke, 78). Murray’s earnest and thoughtful reply to Mori Arinori’s letter also led to his interview with Kido Takayoshi during the Iwakura mission, which would win him a position in the Ministry of Education as an advisor to administrator Tanaka Fujimaro  (Duke, 95). From the beginning of the summer of 1873 to 1879, Murray worked diligently and published various reports about his current opinions on Japanese education as well as his recommendations to improve it (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, 2009).

Shishaku Tanaka Fujimaro Den (A life of Viscount Fujimaro Tanaka), Kōsaijuku, 1934.
Shishaku Tanaka Fujimaro Den (A life of Viscount Fujimaro Tanaka), Kōsaijuku, 1934.


Tanaka Fujimaro

Tanaka Fujimaro was a low ranking samurai and a mere member of Japan’s Ministry of Education who lacked expertise in both education and foreign languages. Yet despite his lack of qualifications, after the end of the Iwakura Mission, Tanaka was chosen to manage Japan’s first public school system and became the next administrator of the Ministry of Education (Duke, 77). Throughout the Iwakura mission, Tanaka was extremely interested in the education systems of each country, noting its strengths and weaknesses before eventually deciding that America’s would fit Japan’s needs best (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, 2009). These experiences overseas heavily influenced Tanaka’s reforms to the Japanese educational system as well as his relationships with Murray and Hatakeyama, who served as Tanaka’s advisors (Duke, 130). Together, the three modernized Japanese education by creating and guiding elementary schools throughout the nation, inspired by Western educational systems and the knowledge obtained from the Iwakura Mission.

Timeline of the Iwakura Mission

By Jin Sebastian (’23), Emily Sun (’22)