Japan and the United States are celebrating milestones in their relationship. Half a century ago in 1960, the two nations signed the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. The treaty extended Japan's security relations with the United States following World War II. And Japan's first diplomatic mission to the United States took place 150 years ago.
In the years before the American Civil War, 77 samurai crossed the sea on the Kanrin Maru as Japan's first diplomatic mission to the United States.
"This was the first official diplomatic mission that any Japanese government had dispatched to a government outside of East Asia," said Ronald Toby.
Ronald Toby is a professor of East Asian languages and culture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"This was the first successful trans-Pacific voyage that was intended as such," he said. "There had been Japanese castaways in California. But this was the first time that someone sailed from Japan to the west coast of the United States on purpose."
Professor Toby spoke recently at a program hosted by the Library of Congress to commemorate the Japanese mission. Japan's Ambassador to the United States, Ichiro Fujisaki, says that mission set the groundwork for Japanese diplomats today.
"150 years ago, when these first ambassadors came, it must have been a great surprise, even a shock, to see this western civilization, culture for the first time," said Ambassador Fujisaki. "But they really received it in a very gracious manner. And we, Japanese diplomats, always think that we have to learn a lot from them."
The Japanese group arrived in Washington to exchange the ratifications of the 1858 U.S.-Japan treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation. But their visit took them across the United States, and as Professor Toby says, the Japanese soaked in American culture and took it home.
"They observed all sorts of things, Americans standing up in Congress and shouting each other," said Professor Toby. "That is one of the practices of legislative democracy that Japan has gotten very good at."
The samurai took notes and made sketches of everything they saw. And they noted interesting differences between themselves and U.S. officials.
"They remarked at the complete absence of bodyguards," he said. "By the 1850's and 60's, shoguns almost never even left Edo Castle. But anytime a samurai of rank went out from his mansion or his castle, he was enveloped in an escort of armed men. The diary remarks of the absence of security around the [U.S.] president, and the absence of even a policeman at the gate of the White House, something that no longer is a part of the Washington scene."
The visit of the 77 samurai captivated the American people and the press. Large crowds turned out to see them, fascinated by their traditional clothing, top-knot hairstyle, and prominent samurai swords. As professor Toby notes, U.S. newspapers were filled with stories about the Asian visitors.
"They were fascinated by everything," said Toby. "They would go to shops and buy things. And some American newspapers would remark on their sense of compulsion to bargain. But others would remark that the Japanese would be paying too much for junk. From top to bottom, the 77 were passionate to learn everything they could in every waking minute about whatever they could. They had specific missions about the monetary system and about the military system and about the governmental system. But beyond that, it was just this passionate curiosity at everything around them."
The speakers at the Library of Congress noted the Japanese mission in 1860 began the next 150 years of cultural exchange. That deep relationship is also credited with helping to quickly overcome a most painful divide during World War II. The rich connection between Japan and the United States will be celebrated again in 2012, which will mark the centennial of Japan's gift of the now famous cherry trees to Washington.