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‘Farcical situations’ and culture clashes – when Japan met modern Europe in 1862

In 1862, the celebrated Japanese author, publisher and educator Fukuzawa Yukichi was one of 40 men who travelled as part of the first Japanese embassy to Europe, where he served as a translator. The landmark trip followed a diplomatic mission to the United States in 1860, which Yukichi also joined. These envoys took place in the wake of centuries of strict isolationism enforced by Japan’s feudal military government, the Tokugawa shogunate, between the 1630s and the 1850s, making its members some of the first Japanese people in generations to experience a culture outside of their own.

The result, according to Yukichi, who wrote about the trip in vivid detail in his Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa (1897), was a combination of ‘farcical’ cultural misunderstandings, eye-opening glimpses into the greater world, and tense moments of geopolitical diplomacy and posturing. Featuring readings from a 1934 English translation of his autobiography, this video tracks Yukichi’s experiences during stops in Paris, where he was awed by the grandeur of the Hotel du Louvre; London, where he was bewildered by the sloppiness of representative government; Amsterdam, where the nature of land ownership in Holland caused confusion; and Russia, where he translated a tense negotiation on the disputed Sakhalin Island. The excerpts make for an utterly fascinating historical document, offering a snapshot of the times in each of the countries represented, and providing a window into the mind of Yukichi, who would later become a leading voice against Japanese isolationism.

5 January 2021

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