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The Iwakura Embassy: When samurai came to Saltaire

Members of the Iwakura Mission

1872 saw something unique in Saltaire. The village welcomed a group of Japanese dignitaries, the Iwakura Embassy. And 2023 sees, for the first time, the publication of a comprehensive history of this remarkable event.

Working together, the Saltaire History Club and the Saltaire Collection researched the visit. They have just written up the results as a paper entitled 1872: When samurai came to Saltaire.

The Iwakura Embassy’s visit was remarkable because only a few years before Japan had been closed to most foreign contacts. Remarkable also because the Iwakura dignitaries were very senior indeed. Their leader, Iwakura Tomomi, was Japan’s Foreign Secretary. Remarkable, because the ambassadors travelled the world for over 20 months. They visited North America and much of Europe, and met the US President, Queen Victoria and Chancellor Bismarck of a newly-unified Germany. Remarkable because they had chosen to visit still-incomplete Saltaire, in their quest to discover how Japan might catch up with the newly-industrialised and prosperous ‘Western Civilisation’.

Today, Japan has the world’s third largest economy. In 1872, it was just emerging from 800 years of feudalism.

The Iwakura Embassy’s journey was a key step on Japan’s road to modernisation. Saltaire was part of that!