Samurai at the Smithsonian, First Japanese Visitors to Western Museum in the U. S

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  • This article concerns the 1860 Japanese Man'en Gannen Mission sent to the United States to ratify the Japan-U.S. Treaty of Amity and Commerce, and describes the visit of some mission members to the Smithsonian Institution. The mission, consisting of three ambassadors and 74 other officials and support staff, arrived in Washington, D.C. on May 14 for a 25-day stay. As the first official Japanese visitors to the U.S., they exchanged treaty documents, attended executive functions, and visited places of interest. Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, in a letter written to President James Buchanan, had suggested the Smithsonian visit, and Henry worked with those organizing the mission's activities to make the arrangements. Henry's strong sense of superiority about American civilization and institutions is reflected in his contacts with those individuals.
  • Eager to demonstrate his latest scientific experiments to the ambassadors, Henry performed his galvanic battery experiment in the Castle's Apparatus Room. The ambassadors, along with other members of the mission, also toured the museum areas. The author comments that the Smithsonian visit was the first on record by Japanese to a Western museum, as during the period of its self-imposed isolation until Commodore Perry's visit in 1853, Japan only had contact with China and the Netherlands. To explain what previous exhibition experiences may have influenced the attitude of the Japanese toward their Smithsonian visit, descriptions of early Japanese traditional exhibitions are offered by the author. Diary entries made by mission members were reviewed to interpret how they understood their visit to the Smithsonian and its museum.


  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Buchanan, James
  • Japan-U.S. Treaty of Amity and Commerce
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)
  • United States National Museum


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Twelve figures, 3 tables and an extensive Notes section accompany the article.

Contained within

Cultures and Institutions of Natural History: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Science (Book)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Art
  • Antiquities
  • Diplomacy
  • Secretaries
  • Science
  • Anthropology
  • Museums
  • Experiments
  • Electric apparatus and appliances
  • Smithsonian influence
  • Education
  • Scientific apparatus and instruments
  • Exhibitions
  • Museums--Educational aspects
  • Science--Experiments
  • Art objects
  • Anthropology--Asian


  • Japan
  • Japanese

Physical description

pgs. 161-182

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