Untitled - NY alderman and Japanese visit

May 26, 1860

John McLenan

Untitled - NY alderman and Japanese visit

New York City, Celebrations/Honors; New York City, Government/Politics; U.S. Foreign Policy; U.S. Tours by Foreign Dignitaries;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

Japan; New York City;

Alderman Toole, who is to have charge of the Japanese in New York finds, on reading Lord Elgin's book, that in case any thing goes wrong with the reception, Japanese etiquette requires him to perform the Happy Dispatch, i.e., rip his bowels open. He acquaints Mrs. Toole and the family generally with the fact, and declares his intention of doing his duty at all hazards.

In 1860, Japanese diplomats visited the United States for the first time, touring Washington, D. C., Philadelphia, and New York City. Their trip received extensive coverage in the American press, including Harper's Weekly.  This cartoon depicts a fictional domestic scene related to the upcoming reception of the Japanese delegation in New York City, organized by the Board of Aldermen and City Council.  Here, Alderman Toole explains to his family that if the event is a failure, he will accept his responsibility and mimic the Japanese custom of ritual disembowelment (hara-kiri or seppuku).

In July 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his U.S. Naval fleet into Japan's Edo Bay in order to compel the Japanese, at the request of President Milliard Fillmore, to open their ports to trade with the United States.  Japanese rulers preferred to continue their strict policy of seclusion from foreign powers, which they had followed for two centuries.  In February 1854, Perry returned with a larger American fleet, and Japanese officials reluctantly signed a treaty opening a few ports to U.S. ships for refuge and supply, but not trade.  Within a few months, Great Britain, Russian, and the Netherlands extracted similar agreements from Japan.

In the winter of 1856-1857, the American counsel in Japan, Townsend Harris, negotiated a treaty in which the Japanese agreed to open designated ports to trade with the United States, lower their tariffs, and establish consular courts to try Westerners.  The Japanese hoped the treaty would prevent a replication of the situation in China, where the British and the French were engaged in a war against China to gain further trade concessions.  Soon after, Japan agreed to similar accords with Britain, France, Russia, and the Netherlands.  The comment in the cartoon caption about "Lord Elgin's book" refers to Narrative of the Earl of Elgin's Mission to China and Japan, written by Laurence Oliphant, the private secretary to James Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, the British commander who captured Peking in 1860.

Japanese signatories to the U.S. treaty, who hoped to become foreign ambassadors, had insisted on an article stipulating that the exchange of ratifications take place in Washington, D. C.  Most Japanese, however, were very resentful of the Western trade treaties, which helped undermine the stature of the ruling Tokugawa house (which finally fell in 1868).  In 1859, there were several attacks on foreigners in the treaty ports, and the original negotiators were excluded from the 1860 diplomatic mission to the U.S.

Those Japanese chosen to lead the delegation were cautious bureaucrats with little diplomatic experience or interest in other cultures, thus limiting the scope and understanding of their information gathering.  Shimmi Masaoki, a Chinese scholar, headed a mission of 77 members, which included diplomats, inspectors, finance officials, physicians, and interpreters, a large number of whom kept diaries of the trip.  The ranking members of the delegation desired merely to do their duty and return home.  They refused to visit Boston and Niagara Falls, and only traveled to Philadelphia and New York City because those stops had already been arranged.

After sailing to San Francisco and taking a train across Panama, the Japanese mission arrived in Washington, D. C., on May 14, 1860.  Congress adjourned for the event, a crowd of 5,000 greeted met them as they docked, and another 20,000 cheered along the route to the Willard Hotel, including boys who broke through the line to shake their hands.  In Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City, they were also greeted by enthusiastic mobs.  The American press assumed that the Japanese were seeking enlightenment from the United States. The Japanese, however, were baffled by and disdainful of many aspects of American culture, and offended by its informality.  

Some of the younger members of the Japanese delegation were much less reserved than their superiors.  While the ranking members soberly observed the National Mint in Philadelphia, a group of junior members watched a balloon launch.  The delegation's youngest member, an apprentice interpreter named Tateishi Onojiro, became an instant celebrity, whom the press nicknamed "Tommy."  Outgoing and handsome, he expressed an interest in taking an American wife and settling in the United States.  He became wildly popular with Americans, particularly among (white) women, with whom he attained the status of a sex symbol (which generated some negative commentary because of the interracial aspect).

The reception in New York City did result in trouble, as this cartoon, perhaps innocently, anticipated.  A scandal arose when the press reported that the Board of Aldermen and City Council were selling tickets to the Japanese ball and pocketing a substantial 33% commission, while the city was being billed $105,000 to cover expenses.  Harper's Weekly also complained that the guests included political cronies of the city officials, but not those who best represented the city (presumably business and society leaders).  The Alderman Toole of this cartoon refers to Alderman Francis Boole, the Tammany Democrat who organized the festivities and needed "to perform the 'Happy Dispatch,'" according to Harper's.

The Japanese left New York Harbor on June 29, sailing via the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and reaching Yokohama on November 9, 1860.  Their reception was low-key, and no official honors or promotions were bestowed on the mission leaders.  The information they had gathered, some of it inaccurate, consisted mainly of details about ships and public buildings, with little commentary about American industry or society.

Robert C. Kennedy

Untitled - NY alderman and Japanese visit
February 22, 2024

Home | About | Contact || Access | Features 

Website design 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to