Iwakura Mission

Ichiro Suzuki In 1868, two and a half centuries of Tokugawa Shoguns’ rule in Japan was brought to an end, as the last Shogun returned the authority to rule the country to the Emperor. Under the Meiji Emperor, a new government was formed by enlightened relatively young samurais who aspired to bring modernity to the country that was under feudalism. This revolution is called Meiji Restoration. Though enlightened and very well educated by the standard of those times, young revolutionaries were clueless about how to run a modern country under what kind of institutions. In an attempt to emulate the countries that already took off in the modern age and went through industrial revolution, the Meiji government sent a large delegation of over 100 men to an around-the-world grand tour between 1871 and 1873. (Five girls also crossed the Pacific with the delegation for the purpose of studying the U.S.) The delegation took roughly half of high ranking officials away from the new government for two years, an unthinkable program by the standards not only of today but also of any other time in history. The delegation was called Iwakura Mission, after a 46 year old leader of the tour named Tomomi Iwakura, who was not a samurai but a man of noble origin. Iwakura Mission first visited the post Civil War United States, umder General Ulysses Grant as the 18th President. After eight months in the U.S., they sailed to Europe and spent lots of time in Great Britain that was leading the global economy, visiting steel mills, factories, shipyard in Scotland. They went over to the continent to visit a dozen countries, including Prussia (Germany) that had just crushed France under Napoleon III in a short war. Eventually, the mission found their comfort in Prussia that was up and coming onto the global stage under strong leadership of King Wilhelm I and Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck. Prussia’s constitutional monarchy would have a strong fit with the Japan they were going to build, the mission thought. The Meiji Japan this would import a variety of systems from Prussia, including the Constitution, government structure, the Army (though not the Navy), education and medical systems, etc. The mission’s objective, bold and even absurd it was viewed originally, was largely fulfilled. 150 years after Iwakura Mission, Japan’s Ministry of Economic, Trade and Industries have recently unveiled a plan to send 1,000 entrepreneurs over to Silicon Valley. America’s buoyant tech sector and entrepreneurship are envies of the world. Japan in particular has been looking at Silicon Valley with jealous eyes since the country was once so proud of its tech sector, which became an also-ran in the digital age. There have been no shortage of debates on why Japan’s tech sector has fallen behind so dramatically over the past generation. However, organizing a government-sponsored tour of Silicon Valley is absurdly over-the-top. This shows a cause of the malaise in Japan tech rather than a solution. Bright and hard-working bureaucrats came up with what they think as a solution after long, long hours in the office, while utterly being out of touch with what is really taking place on the field. Differences between Silicon Valley and aspirants elsewhere have already been too well documented. Unlike 150 years ago, bus tours of young entrepreneurs are not going to help them find something they already don’t know. 150 years ago, the audacity of Iwakura Mission bore fruit because those young men on the tour built a new country from scratch, based on what they saw and learned on the grand tour, on a land where the old structure was thoroughly demolished. There were no old guards or vested interests standing in the way of the road ahead for the new government, (though there was a major counter-revolutionary uprising a few years after the mission came back to Tokyo.) In years that immediately followed the end of World War II, entrepreneurship exploded in Japan once again. The country’s major cities were literally flattened by intense bombings by B-29 bombers. General MacArthur’s occupation forces drove out militarists, old guards and structures that made them rule Japan through the end of the war. Aggressive entrepreneurs were free to paint whatever pictures they wanted on fresh new canvasses. Several years that followed the end of the war apparently were the most vibrant period in the 20th century Japan. This time it’s different from those times that allowed entrepreneurship explosions. The system that brought prosperity to Japan after WWII still remains in place firmly albeit evident signs of decaying. Entrepreneurs are finding little comfort in this suffocating environment in the 21st century Japan. On top of it those who have an ambition to change the world often do not fit to the mold of the decaying system, being an outcast quite possibly. They might get onto the bus tour, but only with scornful eyes.


About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.