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Goin’ Japanesque!

Five Interesting Stories of Samurais Who Crossed the Ocean to the West

It is said that Portuguese who landed on the island of Tanegashima, part of the present Kagoshima Prefecture, were the first westerners arriving at Japan. The western powers, which had entered upon the Age of Discovery, were continuously expanding their spheres of influence throughout the whole globe at the time. In the course of time, many westerners including merchants and missionaries started to reach Japan and left enormous impacts on the history and culture of Japan.

But did you know that some Japanese samurais back then also crossed the ocean the other way round and visited the West? Here we are introducing to you five interesting examples of such samurais.


1. Tensho Envoy


In 1582, Tensho envoy was dispatched to Europe under the order of “Christian Daimyo” lords in the Kyushu Area for the purpose of enhancing the Christian missionary activities in Japan.

Four young emissaries, respectively named Mancio Ito, Miguel Chijiwa, Martinho Hara and Julião Nakaura, visited Europe on behalf of the Christian Daimyo lords. Christian Dimyo lords refer to the Japanese feudal lords who had converted to Christianity.

Back then, some feudal lords in Kyushu and other areas had accepted Christianity at their own will and were zealously committed to missionary works. Sorin Otomo, Harunobu Arima and Sumitada Omura, who were the most prominent and powerful among such Christian Daimyo lords, organized the envoy. The envoy was allowed an audience first in Spain with King Philip II, then in Rome with Pope Gregory XIII and his successor Pope Sixtus V.

Unfortunately, through a series of anti-Christianity policies including the banning of Christianity by Hideyoshi Toyotomi and the national isolation policy by the Tokugawa Shogunate, Christianity came to be excluded from Japan and many of the emissaries had to suffer tragic deaths after returning home to Japan. But the effort by the envoy and the Christian Daimyo lords was not in vain. It laid the base of Christianity, especially in the Kyushu Area, and the religious flame has been kept alight tenaciously until today.


2. Keicho Envoy


Keicho Envoy was dispatched in 1613 under the order of Masamune Date, the warlord who dominated the northeast part of Japan. Led by Tsunenaga Hasekura, one of Date’s vassals, the envoy toured around Europe and had an audience with King Philip III of Spain and Pope Paul V.

Masamune Date is said to have intended to solidify his ambition for the supreme power in Japan and organized the envoy to earn support from the western powers while the power base of the newly established Tokugawa Shogunate was still considered fragile. Masamune Date is also well known for the filmmaker George Lucas designing the dark black armor of Darth Vader inspired by the armor worn by Masamune.

There is another famous story about this envoy that when the envoy visited Coria del Río in the suburb of Seville, Spain, part of the emissaries remained there and a few hundreds of its descendants with the surnam Japón (meaning “Japan” in Spanish) still live there.

The Japanese government closed its door to the outside world in 1633, sometime after the dispatch of the envoy. But through the long period of few hundred years after that when there was barely any communication between Japan and the western countries, the bloodline of samurai was kept alive in a corner of Spain.


3. 1860 Japanese Envoy to US


Fukuzawa Yukichi

In 1860, the Japanese envoys were sent from the Tokugawa Shogunate to the United States for the purpose of exchanging ratifications for the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between Japan and US.

The envoys first had an audience with the 15th president James Buchanan in Washington D.C., exchanged ratifications for the treaty and visited several cities around the US. A large scale parade was held for the envoys in New York and the press at the time reported the parade as an important event to establish the friendship between Japan and US.

Among those aboard the Kanrinmaru, the vessel which escorted the US ship carrying the envoys, was Kaishu Katsu, who led the bloodless capitulation of the Edo Castle at the time of the Meiji Restoration and later contributed to the foundation of the modern Japanese navy, and Yukichi Fukuzawa, the notable intellectual and educator who advocated the westernization of the Japanese society and whose portrait is today printed on 10,000 Yen bills.

These men are said to have been shocked to see the huge technological gap between Japan and US, which had already gone through the industrial revolution. Their experience is said to have had a big influence on the westernization policies of the Meiji government.


4. Ikeda Mission


Ikeda Mission refers to the envoy dispatched to Europe in 1864 by the Tokugawa Shogunate under the order of the Imperial Court for the purpose of negotiating with France about the Japanese policy to shut down trade through Yokohama Port.

But the negotiation broke down as the relationship between Japan and western countries had already been seriously deteriorated after a series of incidents including the armed clash between the Choshu Clan and the allies of fours western powers (UK, Netherland, France and US), the Namamugi Incident in which a British national was killed by a samurai of the Satsuma Clan, and the successive armed conflict between the Satsuma Clan and UK.

What made this fruitless mission famous was a photograph, which was taken in Egypt on their way to Europe. The photo, in which many samurais are gathered in front of a Sphinx statue has such a great impact that you may as well believe it is a fake montage.


5. The International Exposition of 1867; the Second World’s Fair Held in Paris


photo by flickr

The International Exposition Paris held in 1867 was the first world’s fair in which Japan participated. Japan did not participate as a single country but as several separate groups; the Edo Shogunate, the Satuma Clan and the Saga Clan from the Kyushu Area of Japan.

As it was held just one year before Boshin War, in which both of the clans played a vital role in overthrowing the Edo Shogunate, the expo served as a kid of preliminary campaign for both the shogunate and the clans to seek for the support from the western powers and foresee the future of Japan.

The exhibitions by the Japanese participants in the expo soon triggered the boom of Japanese culture in Europe, what is to be known as Japonism. “La Japonaise” by Claude Monet and “Portrait of Emile Zola” by Édouard Manet are among the well-known examples of the cultural movement.

Also, three geisha girls; each named Osato, Okane and Osumi, who were dispatched by the Edo Shogunate, gained an enormous reputation from the audience at the expo and became a precursor to today’s world wide iconic status of Japanese geisha.


Now we have seen through some important moments in the history of exchanges that Japan and its samurais had with the West. Even for people outside of Japan, samurai never was a fantasy in an unreal remote world. Beside what we have seen here, there have also been many other examples where Japanese samurais set their feet on the lands of Europe and America, sometimes as emissaries and at other times as students.

With some research, you might perhaps be able to find a trace of samurai even in your own home town. Why not give it a try?

Related Articles:
4 Actually Existing Japanese Swords with Interesting Stories

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About the author

I am a Japanese male whose reasons to live are studying Japanese history and watching sports. I currently live outside of Japan, but would like to share the realizations I have had about Japan from spending my days living outside of the country.

View all articles by Keisuke