The Iwakura Mission or Iwakura Embassy (岩倉使節団, Iwakura Shisetsudan) was a Japanese diplomatic journey around the world, initiated in 1871 by the oligarchs of the Meiji era. Although it was not the only such "mission", it is the most well-known and possibly most important for the modernization of Japan after a long period of isolation from the West. It was first proposed by the influential Dutch missionary and engineer Guido Verbeck and was probably based on the model of the Grand Embassy of Peter I.
The Iwakura mission followed several such missions previously sent by the Shogunate, such as the Japanese Embassy to the United States (1860), the First Japanese Embassy to Europe (1862), and the Second Japanese Embassy to Europe (1863).
The mission was named after and headed by Iwakura Tomomi in the role of extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassador, assisted by four vice-ambassadors, three of whom (Okubo Toshimichi, Kido Takayoshi, and Ito Hirobumi) were also ministers in the Japanese government. The historian Kume Kunitake was the official diarist, keeping a detailed log of all events and impressions. Also included were a number of administrators and scholars, totaling 48 people.
In addition to the mission staff, about 60 students were brought along. Several of them were left behind to complete their education in the foreign countries, including five young women who stayed in the U.S.A. to study, including the then 7-year old Tsuda Umeko who founded, in 1900 after returning to Japan, the renowned school now called the Tsuda College.
Kaneko Kentaro was left in the U.S. too as a student and later met Theodore Roosevelt in university. They became friends and their relationship resulted later in Roosevelt's mediation at the end of Russo-Japanese War and the Treaty of Portsmouth.
Makino Nobuaki, a student member of the mission was to 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 Restoration.
Nakae Chomin, who was a member of the mission staff and the Ministry of Justice, stayed in France to study the French legal system with the radical republican Emile Acollas. Later he became a journalist, thinker and translator and introduced French thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Japan.
On December 23, 1871 the mission sailed from Yokohama, bound for San Francisco. From there it continued to Washington, D.C., then to Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, Prussia, Denmark, Sweden, Bavaria, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland. On the return journey, Egypt, Aden, Ceylon, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, and Shanghai were also visited, although much more briefly. The mission returned home September 13, 1873, almost two years after setting out.
In Newcastle upon Tyne they arrived on October 21 staying in the Royal Station Hotel where they met the industrialist Sir William Armstrong. It had been ten years since the Bakufu mission had visited the town.
They visited the Elswick Engine and Ordnance Works with Captain Andrew Noble and George Rendell, inspected the hydraulic engines and the boring and turning departments and examined the construction of Armstrong and Gatling guns. They also visited the Gosforth Colliery, descending into the mine itself. Further visits were made to Bolkcow and Vaughan Iron Works in Middlesbrough and iron-ore mines in Cleveland. The Newcastle and Gateshead Chamber of Commerce arranged a river trip on the Tyne, taking in the New Tyne Bridge, the Tharsis Sulphur and Copper Company Hebburn and the Jarrow Chemical Works.
The purposes of the mission were twofold:
Of these two goals, the first one failed universally, prolonging the mission by almost a year, but also impressing the importance of the second goal on its members. The attempts to negotiate new treaties under better conditions with the foreign governments led them to go beyond the mandates set by the Japanese government, which caused friction between the mission and the government. The failures and their prolonged stay became useless at this point, which put Okubo and Kido on bad terms politically. On the other hand, members were impressed by modernization in America and Europe, which made them take initiatives to modernize Japan later.