The Iwakura Mission



The Iwakura Mission


Newcastle and Japan have a long history, stretching back to 1862 when 40 Shoganate ships set sail for Europe to improve upon port treaties [1] and visited Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Just shy of 10 years later in December 1971 a two year mission was launched to the USA, Europe, The Middle East and East Asia, this was known as The Iwakura Mission (岩倉使節団) and also happened to visit Newcastle again.

The Iwakura Mission Leaders, Tomomi Iwakura is in the center.

The mission was named after and led by Tomomi Iwakura (岩倉具視) who heldthe position of ‘minister of the right’  [2] and served as the plenipotentiary ambassador for the mission. With him came four vice chancellors, an official diarist, fourty-eight administrators and scholars and 60 students, some of whom were left behind in several countries for education purposes. The aim of the mission was twofold, firstly to renegotiate unequal treaties that had been forced upon Japan by the USA and Europe, secondly to collect information to assist in the modernization of Japan.

After visiting the USA the mission arrived in the UK and arrived in London where they split into smaller groups to visit the cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and finally Newcastle before reconvening in London. On October 21 the party arrived in Newcastle and stayed in The Royal Station Hotel which still operates in the city today. Understandably the arrival of a delegate from the strange and far off land of Japan was more than newsworthy and it was reported by local newspapers;

“The gentlemen were attired in ordinary morning costume and except for their complexion and the oriental cast of their features, they could scarcely be distinguished from their English companions.”(Newcastle Daily Chronicle, October 23, 1872)

While in the city the mission visited Elswick ordinance works, Gosforth mines, Middlesbourough iron works, Cleveland ore mines and the Newcastle chamber of commerce as well as taking in a river tour of the Tyne travelling down at least as far as Hebburn and Jarrow.

Probably their most important visit while staying in Newcastle was the visit to Elswick where they visited Sir William Armstrong’s armament factory;

Tuesday, 22 October 1872,

‘Sir William Armstrong called at the Station Hotel shortly before 10 o’clock in order to accompany the party to the Elswick Engine and Ordnance Works.  The carriage of the mayor had been placed at Iwakura’s disposal and the carriages of Sir William Armstrong and Captain Noble were also used. Joined at the works by Captain Noble and Mr Rendell. Shown through the erecting and fitting departments, the bridge shop and the turning and boring shops. Inspected numerous guns in various conditions.  Watched the forging of a breech piece for a 9” cannon.  Saw a Gatling gun demonstrated.  After ‘a cursory glance’ at the moulding shops and blast furnaces, lunch was taken’. [3]

Illustration of the Armstrong gun manufacturing plant in Elswick

The result of this initial visit forged a relationship between the Japanese government and Sir William Armstrong, who began supplying his trademark ‘Armstrong Gun’ almost immediately to the Japanese, as well as the ‘Armstrong Cannon’ and other armaments. Armstrong went on to supply Japan with many warships which were used in several conflicts, perhaps most famously in the battle of Tsushima (日本海海戦) in 1905, of the Russo-Japanese war, in which it was claimed that every Japanese gun used was manufactured in Elswick by Armstrong (Dougan, David, 1970,  The Great Gun-Maker: The Story of Lord Armstrong. Sandhill Press Ltd).

The Iwakura mission was ultimately a half success as it failed in successfully renegotiating the treaties, but it did succeed in its second objective as the delegates were impressed by the modernization of the USA and Europe and upon their return to Japan began to implement their findings into the Japanese government. For this reason the mission is considered the most important mission relating to the rapid modernization of Japan of the Menji period. Makino Nobuaki, a student who went on the Iwakura mission would later remark in his memoirs “Together with the abolition of the han system, dispatching the Iwakura Mission to America and Europe must be cited as the most important events that built the foundation of our state after the [Menji] Restoration.

In undertaking my research of this article I came across two what I first believed to be drawings, but upon comparison with the records from the rest of the mission appear to be early photographs. The photos reportedly from the Newcastle section of  the Iwakura mission  can be seen below, however I cannot say that they are immediately recognisable as as Newcastle.  You can also view part of Kume Kunitake’s, diarist of the mission’s official diary, in Japanese obviously, from the mission here.

The First of the photographs. The text reportedly reads "Village 'Abossuhoruto' river "Toueto"


The second of the two photograps. The text reportedly reads "Noriyuki ruined "'beikassoru'"


To investigate the photographs yourself, follow this link.


2 comments on “The Iwakura Mission

  1. Pingback: Admiral Togo Pays Thanks To Newcastle Shipyards | Geordie Japan

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