Mori Arinori: Japanese Statesman

This post was written with the help of researcher Sakae Kuniyoshi, who teaches at Shirayuri College in Japan. Ms. Kuniyoshi first brought Mori’s relationship with Henry to our attention and provided us with valuable research for the post.

Portrait of Mori Arinori, Courtesy of the National Diet Library, Japan.In 1868, the Meiji government came into power in Japan with promises to modernize Japan politically, socially, culturally, technologically, and educationally. One of its efforts to push modernization included the establishment of an international relationship with the United States. Thus, in 1871, at the young age of twenty-five, Mori Arinori (1847-1889) traveled to America as the first Charge d'Affaires from the Meiji government. His trip included a visit to the Smithsonian where he established a close relationship with Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry.

Letter from Mori to Henry, March 2, 1872, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 26, Box 39,Born in Kagoshima, Japan, in 1847, Mori was the son of a samurai. As a boy, he studied at both the samurai clan school and at Kaiseijo, a western studies school. Later, the clan sent him, along with eleven other students, to Great Britain to study at the University College London. While studying English and western ideologies in London, Mori became acquainted with Laurence Oliphant, a member of parliament who spent time in Japan. Oliphant also belonged to Thomas Lake Harris' utopian religious community and convinced Mori and several of his fellow Japanese students to travel to America to study at Lake's spiritualist commune in Amenia, New York. The students abandoned their studies and traveled to America, where they stayed for about ten months. However, when Mori received news of the Meiji revolution, he returned to Japan to fulfill his obligations to his country. He wrote that he "should be exceedingly glad and fully satisfied if we could be worthy to become even the very smallest prey for the sake of the restoration of the kingdom." (Harris-Oliphant Papers, Butler Library, Columbia University)

Letter from Henry to Mori, March 7, 1872, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7001, Box 12Mori rose in the Meiji government, where his ideals of secular education, broader international relations, and religious freedoms were embraced by Meiji Enlightenment thinkers. When he traveled to the United States in 1872, he became the first Japanese diplomat in residence in the country and set out to learn about American institutions to help Japan develop a western-style educational system. While in America, Mori met with government officials, advocates, and businessmen. Traveling to San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Washington, DC, he quickly became engaged in influential circles around the country.

In DC, Mori met such noted figures as Charles Sumner and Dorothea Dix. Through these meetings, Mori met the first Smithsonian Secretary, Joseph Henry, and the two established a close relationship. Through their letters, the two discuss many issues that Mori hoped to work on for Japan. They discuss issues surrounding the implementation of a new educational system in Japan, as well as Mori's desire to promote English as a primary language in Japan. The most important topic the two discussed was the issue of the Japanese Shimonoseki Indemnity. The indemnity, paid by Japan in 1864 for damages done to an American steamer during the military engagements at Shimonoseki, was seen as inflated and unpopular by some Americans. Many believed a portion of the payment should be returned to Japan.  Henry thought that the money the United States paid back to the Japanese government could be used to help Mori’s goal to establish an educational institution in Japan. He proposed this to Congress in an 1872 letter. However, the notion was set aside and the money was not repaid until 1883. Mori and Henry continued their relationship over the years, and Henry even proofread a chapter in one of Mori's publications.

Draft of Henry's Letter to Congress Regarding the Japanese Indemnity Fund, 1872, Smithsonian InstituIn 1873, Mori left the United States and returned to Japan after visiting Europe. Fueled by his experiences abroad, Mori began establishing Japan's first commercial college, Shoho Koshujo (now known as Hitotsubashi University). He continued to serve the Meiji government as an ambassador, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, and eventually an official in the Education Ministry. With the Education Ministry, Mori helped enact changes to the Japanese educational system, including co-educational schooling. However, as with all change, Mori's ideologies were not always popular. Some thought his push for English language education was an attempt to undermine Japanese dialects. Others found his religious ideas to be an assault on Shintoism. Henry warned him about such change "No change of such magnitude as that in which you are engaged however, can ever be accomplished without the exercise of much sagacity, prudence and labor..." Sadly, in 1889, an ultranationalist stabbed Mori, because he felt Mori desecrated a Shrine when he allegedly did not take his shoes off upon entering. Mori succumbed to the stab wound a day after the incident. Although not all of his programs were popular, Mori's work helped usher in modernism to Japan and established lasting ties between that nation and the Smithsonian Institution.

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