2016 | 29 | 177-197
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Girls on a Mission – Photographs of Japanese Girls in Late Nineteenth Century America: The Example of the Iwakura Mission (1871)

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This article presents the changing image of Japanese women during the late nineteenth century in both Japan and America. It focuses on two photographs of the five girls who accompanied the Iwakura Mission to America in 1871 showing how the Japanese government encouraged a Westernised image of Japanese women for political reasons. However, I demonstrate that, despite the role the girls played in bringing a “modern” vision of Japanese women to America, exotic representations could not be erased so easily. Ten years after the images were taken, the Japanese government itself modified its position and reverted to more traditional discourses.
Physical description
  • University of the West of England
  • * Film and Media and Cultural Studies, University of the West of England, Bristol, England (
  • I would like to thank Jamie Tokuno for her careful reading and comments to this article.
  • See: Barbara Rose, Tsuda Umeko and Women’s Education in Japan, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
  • I would like to thank Nakada Yuki from the Tsuda College for allowing me to reproduce here the two photographs.
  • For a more general definition of the concept of tradition see Eric Hobsbawm, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Sand in, At Home… p. 192, gives the example of the Japanese home.
  • One of the Meiji government’s slogan resume well this concept: ‘Japanese spirit, Western Skills’ (Wakon Yōsai).
  • Chris Reyns-Chikuma, Images du Japon en France et ailleurs– Entre japonisme et multiculturalisme, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2005; Helen Burnham, ‘Introduction – The Allure of Japan’ in Looking East – Western Artists and the Allure of Japan, Helen Burnham (ed.), Boston: MFA Publication and Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 2014, p. 13.
  • John Berger, Understanding a Photograph, London: Penguin Books, 1967, p. 20.
  • Stuart Hall, ‘The Work of Representation’ in Representation – Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Stuart Hall (ed.), London: Sage; The Open University, p. 9.
  • Ibid., p. 5.
  • Ibid., p. 15.
  • Ibid., pp.1–5
  • Marius Jansen, ‘Japan in the early 19th century’ in The Cambridge History of Japan, Hall John (ed.), Vol. 5, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988–1999, pp. 50–115 and ‘Rangaku and Westernization’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, 1984, p. 541– 553 as well as C. R. Boxer, ‘When the Twain First Met: Europeans Conceptions and Misconceptions of Japan, 16th–18th centuries’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, 1984, pp. 531–540, are only a few researches that show how the ‘isolation’ of Japan was relative and that relationships existed between Japan and the West prior to the Meiji Restoration- through Dutch merchants.
  • For a consideration of colonial photography in terms of spectacle, see Jane Lydon, ‘Behold the Tears: Photography as Colonial Witness’, History of Photography, Vol. 34, No. 3, 2010, pp. 234–250.
  • The Unequal Treaties refer to commercial treaties signed by Western powers with Japan and other Asian countries. The treaties were signed with the United States in 1854, followed by England the same year and then France, Russia and the Netherlands in 1858. For more detail on the Unequal Treaties in Japan see, Michael Auslin, Negotiating with Imperialism: The Unequal Treaties and the Culture of Japanese Diplomacy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • This slogan was launched by the Ministry of Education in 1871, the same year as the Iwakura Mission departed from Japan. Pierre-François Souyri, Nouvelle Histoire du Japan, Paris: Perrin, 2010, pp. 456–457.
  • Jordan Sand, ‘At Home in the Meiji Period: Inventing Japanese Domesticity’ in Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan, Steven Vlastos (ed.), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, pp. 191–207.
  • Jones Mark, Children as Treasures: Childhood and the Middle Class in Early Twentieth Century Japan, Harvard: Harvard University Asia Center, 2010, p. 85.
  • ‘Institute a conversation or [tea] gathering at home every evening for an hour or two after supper, bring the family together, and console one another with mutual love and kindness after the day’s labors. Tell one another amusing anecdotes of things you have seen and heard during the day, tell old tales of educational value, or read light and interesting passages from a newspaper or magazine; gaze at the baby’s endearing face and smile together, or listen to the innocent voices of the children recounting the subjects they studied or the moral lessons they learned at school.’ (1894), quoted in Sand, At Home…, p. 195.
  • Quoted in Hirakawa Sukehiro, ‘Japan’s Turn to the West’ in The Cambridge History of Japan, Hall John (ed.), Vol. 5, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988–1999, p. 461.
  • For a detailed account of the Iwakura mission, see Ian Nish (ed.), The Iwakura Mission in America and Europe – A New Assessment, Richmond: Japan Library, 1998; Kume Kunitake (ed.), The Iwakura Embassy, 1871–1873: A True Account of the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary’s Journey of Observation Through the United States of America and Europe, Matudo: Japan Documents, 2002.
  • I refer to Edward Said’s concept of the Other as a subject to continuous interpretation. Edward Said, Orientalism – Western Conceptions of the Orient, London: Penguin Books, 1978.
  • For a detailed account of precedent missions during the Tokugawa period (1903–1867), see: Sukehiro, ‘Japan’s Turn...’.
  • Ibid., p. 432–498.
  • See: Nish, The Iwakura Mission….
  • Ibid., p. 12; Sukehiro, “Japan’s Turn…’, p. 463.
  • The Meiji government faced a wave of political rebellions, which led to a period of conservatism, criticising the influence of the West and women’s education. For more details, see Rose, Tsuda Umeko…, pp. 49–50.
  • Ibid., p. 11.
  • J. E. Thomas, Modern Japan –A Social History since 1868, London: Longman, 1996, p. 193–194.
  • In 1882, Tsuda has interiorized the mission that was assigned to her: ‘I feel I must be of use, not because I know much, but because I am a Japanese woman with an education’ in Rose, Tsuda Umeko…, p. 35.
  • See Jones, Children as Treasures…, p. 4.
  • In 1902 the Minister of Education, Kikuchi Dairoku affirmed ‘In our country, the women’s job is to marry and become a good wife, wise mother’ quoted in Jones, Children as Treasures…, p. 12.
  • See Rose, Tsuda Umeko…, for a full account on the experience of the five girls, and especially Tsuda, in America as well as her ulterior involvement in women’s education in Japan.
  • Rudyard Kipling, Kipling’s Japan: Collected Writings, Hugh Cortazzi and George Webb (eds.), London: Athlone, 1988, p. 54.
  • Darren Swanson, ‘Them and Us: Perceptions of the Japanese Among the Foreign Community – Race Theory and Race Relations in Post-Extraterritorial Japan’, Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1., 2012, n.p.
  • Toshio Watanabe, ‘The Western Image of Japanese Art in the Late Edo Period’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, 1984, pp. 667–684; Oliver Impey, ‘Japanese Export Art of the Edo Period and its Influence on European Art’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, 1984, pp. 685–697.
  • Jean-Pierre Lehmann, ‘Old and New Japonisme: The Tokugawa Legacy and Modern European Images of Japan’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, 1984, p. 762.
  • Quoted in Jean-Pierre Lehmann, The Image of Japan- From Feudal Isolation to World Power, 1850–1905, London: Allen and Unwin, 1978, p. 45.
  • See: Jean-Pierre Lehmann, ‘Mutual Images’ in Japan and Western Europe: Conflict and Cooperation, Loukas Tsoukalis and Maureen While (eds.), London: Pinter, 1982.
  • Lehmann, ‘Mutual Images’…, p. 46.
  • Anne Wilkes Tucker, ‘Introduction’ in The History of Japanese Photography, Anne Wilkes Tucker (ed.), New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, p. 7.
  • Ibidem.
  • Claude Estèbe mentions an 1866 photograph of Ueno Hikoma depicting two women sitting in the tatami floor in front of two chairs. See: ‘Les Premiers Ateliers de Photographie Japonais, 1859–1872’, Etudes Photographiques, Vol. 19, 2006.
  • Rose, Tsuda Umeko…, p. 17
  • The Meiji Restoration abolished the four class hereditary system to create a new meritocratic society. See Elise Tipton, Modern Japan – A Social and Political History, London: Routledge, 2008, p. 46; Jones, Children as Treasures…, p. 13.
  • Rose, Tsuda Umeko…, p. 12.
  • Anonymous, ‘Japanese Embassy – Gossips about the Young Ladies Accompanying Them – Impressions Made by the Men’, New York Times, 20 February 1872: (accessed 15.07.2016).
  • Anonymous, ‘Japanese Embassy…’.
  • Ibidem.
  • Ibidem.
  • Rose, Tsuda Umeko…, p. 19.
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