top of page

An Ohio Yankee in Emperor Meiji's Court.

A brief overview of the Japanese stopover detailed in The Papers of U.S. Grant. Volume 29.

Studying the source documents of Ulysses S. Grant has yielded a treasure trove of historical revelations that bear striking relevance to periods outside of the one Grant lived.

Previous blog entries have noted how a study of Grant's critical insights during his Generalcy and Presidency illuminate essential truths about America's internal struggle with the fundamentals of the Constitution, rights of Black Americans, domestic insurgency, and Federal intervention. Grant's challenges and responses to these issues provide lessons relevant even today.

This week we are discussing Grant's visit to Japan and what lessons it can bring us today. Lessons not only dealing with Japan's early Westernization period, but for America's historical paradigm shifts on views on Japan, Asia, Colonialism, and the future relations between Japan and America.


During 1878-1879 Grant became the first American President, current or former, to travel around the world. It was a unique moment for American history. Grant was engaging in what today would be called "Tier II" or unofficial private citizen diplomacy, which was unusual at the time for Americans. For readers unfamiliar with Grant, his story reads like a monomyth. Something more out of legend than a dry history. Grant, in some ways, was the First American Ceasar, many would argue the only real American Ceasar, far eclipsing Douglas MacArthur in skill, insight, and gravitas. Only George Washington achieved close to Grant's dramatic rise and achievements, and Dwight D. Eisenhower perhaps a distant third. Grant's global odyssey pushed his influence well outside the borders of the United States, a nation he had saved 15 years earlier, long before America's global reach would follow. It was only natural that this remarkable man would be the first.

As the collection of letters detail, there are many surprising changes in American attitude and posture that morphed over the years since Grant toured the globe. One position is the American attitude on Colonialism in Asia. In 1879 the anti-colonial feeling among Republicans was intense, especially with Grant. We can see from Grant's warnings to Asian leaders and even the Japanese Emperor, that his views on colonialism mirrored his views on the Confederacy and it's use of Blacks as slaves. Colonialism, warned Grant, and foreign loans, were simply other mechanisms to impose a form of the plantation economy.

However, in just 20 years, the policies of America would begin to mirror those of the European nations and the US was engaging in Colonialism with the acquisition through force of arms of Peurto Rico, the Phillippines, and eventually Hawaii, Guam, etc. But through Grant's letters and speeches, we can see his clear principles, founded in the Constitution of the United States, as a firm rationale to resist colonial policies in Asia and particularly against Japan, Siam, and the Manchu Kingdom.

Some of the letters from the trip are more tragically symbolic; Grant and his wife planted two "peace trees" in Nagasaki to promote harmony between the two nations. Seventy years later, after the Atomic Bomb exploded there.

Volume 29 of The Paper's of Ulysses S. Grant has proven to be a little known gold mine into both the mind of Grant and the world as it existed in 1879. They recount how Grant was fully immersing himself to understand the world that America was increasingly interacting with to study and understand it. Far from being an aloof observer, Grant was keenly interested in understanding not only the leaders of the foreign stopovers but seeing how the common people lived, especially with the education of the youth.

By 1879, he had traveled to almost every nation in Europe, Greece, the Middle East, British occupied India, Manchurian Empire (modern-day China), Siam (modern-day Thailand), and his last stop; Japan. Initially, he planned only a few weeks, but the surprises he discovered and his growing enchantment with the people and land led him to extend his stay to months.

Japan had captivated Grant in a way that no other nation did. The Japanese people and the countryside had seemingly impressed the unimpressible former President, his wife, and many in his entourage. The impressive surprises that Grant wrote about in observing the success of Japan are unexpected from a man that was not prone to poetic descriptions. In every other nation he had visited, Grant wrote there was nothing outside the US to make one jealous. Japan was the exception to the rule. Indeed, Japan was the only nation that Grant noted he wished to return to.

On June 22, 1879, Japan landed in Nagasaki. Grant wrote, "At the request of Governor Utsumi Tadakatsu Mrs. Grant and I each planted a tree in the Nagasaki park. I hope that both trees may prosper, grow large, live long, and in their growth, prosperity, and long life be emblematic of the future of Japan." (1)

Letters from Governor Utsumi Tadakatsu to Grant on August 23 and December 15 updated the status of the friendship trees: "The tree, which you planted in the public garden of this port, has met with good success and is growing more and more luxuriant. The monument for the same is now being prepared and it is my desire to be able to erect it shortly and to maintain it together with the tree." and later, "It gives me great pleasure to inform you that the Banyan tree planted by Mrs. Grant and yourself is growing fast and is in a most flourishing condition. The monument is erected near the middle of the group of trees, with the inscription engraved, after your autograph, and especial care will be taken that the monument may endure for myriads of years." (2)

On June 26, Grant departed Nagasaki and sailed north to Hyogo Bay, anchoring there on June 30. However, due to a Cholera epidemic, he remained on board the USS Richmond. When the US Ambassador asked Grant to intercede for him and allow special privileges to break the quarantine, Grant refused, stating that he would in no way violate Japan's rules for public health. Grant himself had lived through many previous outbreaks and was inimitably familiar with how much more deadly they were than armies and war.

On July 1, Grant arrived in Shizuoka and was met by the Tokyo Citizens Committee at the hall of the Kobu Dai Gakko on July 8. John Russell Young, traveling with the Grant entourage as a writer dedicated to chronicling the global two-year odyssey, mirrored Grant's observations of admiration for Japan's natural and human beauty and advancement.(3)

The Japanese reciprocated Grant's admiration, perhaps in part to a similar experience between America and Japan at that time. While Grant had saved America during the Civil War and occupied the office of the President for eight years afterward, putting down smaller rebellions and expanding the economy and prestige of the nation, Japan by 1879 had only recently put down the rebellion led by Saigo Takamori, and discontent was still in evidence in Japan. America might have represented what was possible for Japan to achieve after a rebellious division, and Grant was the leader that made America whole again, both as General and President.

This perspective is illustrated in a July 16 performance at the Shintomiza theater. Shibusawa Eichi and Fukushi Gen'ichiro invited Grant and his entourage to watch a unique arrangement that highlighted Grant's achievements by comparing it to the suppression of the 11th Century revolts…the Saigo revolt being too recent and sensitive an issue. Grant presented the theater owner, Mr. Morita Kanya, with a curtain and received antique Japanese saddles in return.

The cooperative mood of the time was also illustrated by the development of Japan's first frontier in Hokkaido. Kuroda Kiyotaka wrote to Grant describing the evolution of Hokkaido with cooperation from American General Horace Capron under the new Ministry of Colonization. (5) It is interesting to note that Americans were debating on creating a canal in Central America, speculation that Grant was asked to weigh in on and perhaps lead. While in Japan, letters reached Grant informing him of the latest developments in the plan. Eventually, the Panama Canal would solidify America as a Pacific power, but ironically bring it into direct competition and conflict with Japan. The story of how the US went from partner to competitor of the Japanese takes a few decades, but, ironically, here the seeds are sown even as cooperation and mutual admiration was at its high watermark of Grant's visit. (6)

Perhaps the most striking contrast in the late 19th Century vs. early 20th Century posture of the US towards Japan comes from examining the dialogue between Grant and Emperor Meiji.

On August 10 at Hama Rikiu, Emperor Meiji, according to Young, Chernow, and other historians, rose from his regal Dias and approached Grant to shake his hand in the style of Americans, something never done before. Emperor Meiji's unprecedented action was a clear demonstration of the investment Japan was willing to make in parting with their tradition to be seen as Western, and by extension, "modern." Grant, for his part, was remarkably frank with the Emperor and spoke to him honestly and as a friend.

The transcripts of Grant and Emperor Meijis discussion are valuable for noting the views of Grant's when compared to later American leaders. In some ways his views are significantly ahead of their time and transcended the more venal ideas developing in Eastern academic halls. This contrast with later American leaders such as Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt is especially stark. But in 1879, Grant's perspectives were of an older and traditional American mindset, and that comes through in his discussion with the Emperor of Japan.

On unfavorably bias Western press reports regarding Japan and other Asian countries:

"I have found but few newspapers or periodicals that are capable or willing to reason things upon common footing between the Asiatics, and European and American. . . All the western officials, except very few, are the same. Whatever is their interest, they advocate it without regard to the right of China or Japan. Sometimes my blood boils to see this unfairness and selfishness." (7)

Grant, the General the led the Army which freed the slaves, and the President that fought the Democratic KKK street armies attempts to re-instate it, noted that Japan should avoid a type of slavery to the West by taking loans. Grant noted a nation that takes loans from the West "becomes enslaved to the principal. Indeed none can feel more humiliated than he!" and nations such as Egypt, Spain, and Turkey were now helpless to other nations that had loaned them money in their desperation to modernize. Grant also noted how other colonial governments would try to create friction between Japan and China so as to gain control via war loans:

"You are doubtless aware that some nations are very desirous to loan money to weaker nations whereby they might establish their supremacy and exercise undue influence over them. They lend money to gain political power. They are ever seeking the opportunity to loan. They would be glad, therefore, to see Japan and China the only nations in Asia that are even partially free from foreign rule or dictation, at war with each other so that they might loan them their own terms and dictate to them the internal policy which they should pursue."

Grant then went on to bring up the subject of the Loo Choo islands (Okinawa) that Prince Kung of the Manchurian Empire (present-day China) had requested Grants intercession with Japan. Grant noted the issue itself was one that only those versed in the historical realities of the islands and relationships should comment and advise on. His only wish was that war be avoided if at all possible, as this would serve only foreign interests. Grant went so far as to present this view to Emperor Meiji by saying,

". . . so far as you can avoid it, the intervention of a foreign power. European powers have no interests in Asia, so far I can judge from their diplomacy, that do not involve the humiliation and subjugation of the Asiatic people. Their diplomacy is always selfish, and a quarrel between China and Japan would be regarded by them as a quarrel that might ensue to their own advantage."

How different in the coming decades when America gave up the initial anti-colonial attitudes and true racial equality. Grant and his "Stalwart Republicans" from the Civil War years and it's immediate aftermath had struggled for over a decade to free black Americans, enable them by the Constitutional amendments to have equal rights under the law, and achieve the right to vote, represent all Americans black and white in government, etc. Now Grant was carrying this principle that he had fought for decades to Asia and Japan. It is tragic that in only a few years, inheritors of the KKK legacy that Grant fought against would be in power and turn the racial animus once reserved for blacks upon the Japanese.

On the development of Japan's future parliamentary Diet system:

"In all civilized countries there are generally political parties; their existence is very useful for checking each other from misrule; but parties trying to destroy the existing government are, of course, very mischievous. I dare say there are also parties here. There may also be leading men who might be called in our country, demagogues. They must find some pretext against government to secure followers. If I mistake not, the theme now so popularly advocated by the press and some of the people of this country seem to be that of Elective Assembly.

I do not know whether the proper time for it has come or not. But such assemblies are very good for all countries in due time. . . No government, monarchical or republican, is as strong as the government that rests on the people, and enables those in authority to know what the people wish and what is best for them. . . therefore the government ought to hold out to the people this idea, and educate them to the fact that in due time such assembly shall be established for them. The people shall know that it is coming and they should be educating themselves for the responsibility. . . Consequently, in establishing such assembly too great caution can not be taken. It is exceedingly dangerous to launch out too suddenly. You do not want to see anarchy as the result of any premature creation of an assembly. Nor should too much be expected from an assembly. The surest way would be the slowest, approaching the result step by step, carefully educating the people as you go on."

Grant goes on to essentially recommending a form of Genroin (later Genro), established in 1875.

"It seems to me that the first step should be an advisory assembly, a council of the leading men in Japan, with the power to debate but not to legislate. This power would give the members confidence and knowledge, and teach them the nature of responsibility that had assumed. Above all, the best assurance for suffrage and representation is in the education of the people, and Japan has done in that wonderfully."

Note that many modern writers commenting on Meiji reforms seem to point to any measure by Japan to not fully embrace the US model of a republic as "peculiar" or "holdover of medieval Bakufu mindsets." When in fact, the greatest advocate of Republican Democracy of the largest Democracy of all time was advocating for a slow, gradual implementation lest anarchy and violence set in. Education is essential to and must precede Democracy.

Grant noted that Japan's educational system was on par with the best in the West. This is an accomplishment considering the Ministry of Education was only recently formed in Japan a few months earlier.


Looking through the writings of Grant and those interacting with him in Japan, it is clear to see how this remarkable leader, forged by the Civil War and the violent insurgencies and riots that followed in the pursuit of instituting for ALL CITIZENS the rights guaranteed in the Consitution, was intent on spreading that same Constitutional value of mankind throughout the nations he visited. He saw the Japanese and other Asians he met, as fellow human beings. Grant clearly brought the lessons learned in the Civil War and his presidency to Japan.

SS City of Tokio departing Japan.

1. Simon, John Y., ed. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant Volume 29: October 1, 1879 – September 30, 1880. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008)., p. 173.

2. Ibid., p. 173,174.

3. Young, John Russell. Around the World with General Grant v. 5. New York: American News Corporation, 1879. John Russell Young wrote 5 Volumes on Grant's global odyssey. Volume 5 deals with the Japanese and American West Coast portion of the trip and fills in many details of the Japanese visit separate from Grant's and is a useful augmentation for study. An online version is available here:

4. Simon., p. 177.

5. Ibid., p.188.

6. Ibid., p. 197.

7. Grant noted that of all the papers, only the Tokio Times and Japan Mail treated Asians "as if they too had rights that ought to be respected." Ibid., p 200.

120 views6 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Just found this article. Seems relevant.

Replying to

Moriken: Thanks for bringing this Japan Forward article to my/our attention. I always felt uncomfortable and uncertain about the US claim that it was they who brought democracy to Japan. Seems that the US helped tweak Japan's democracy, and perhaps they can claim credit for that; but US was not the one that established or created democratic institutions in Japan. Democratic institutions existed in JPN before the war! Paul DeVries' article is very enlightening to me. Now I would like to read more from him. Thanks!


AJ: Do you know to what extent Japan military "took over" the JPN government and directed the Japanese people to fight in China and SE Asia. Was there ever a coup d'etat? I frequently hear from anti-Japan types and even those who view Japan as a strong ally today that: "US went to war in response to a military coup d'etat in Japan." Steve Bannon, whom I agree with on a number of issues (esp on the danger of China), runs that JPN narrative whenever the subject of Pearl Harbor comes up. And I find it over simplistic. But I wonder if there is any truth to it. I recall you once explained how Japan actually supported independence movements in…

Replying to

Thx. Very helpful. Rather unexpected to learn of the 16 changes of admin from 1930 to 1941. Difficult to have unity of thought and action with so many political and personnel changes in gov't. And I didn't realize Tojo had his detractors among some generals and w/in the Navy. Tojo is considered all powerful and evil incarnate among some "thought leaders" in that "WW2 in the Pacific" group on FB. Yeah, I checked into that site for the first time in a year and made a couple of posts yesterday. Don't know why. Raises my BP! I might em you a thread from the group just fyi. I appreciate your taking time to think about and answer my question abou…


How fortunate that you found the papers of Ulysses Grant. I really enjoyed your article based on the Grant collection. I am happy to hear that President Grant had admiration and respect for the Japanese people. As a general Grant liberated blacks from slavery and as a president he acted upon his abiding concern and sympathy for the colonized and potentially colonized people -- by offering his insights and good counsel to Emperor Meiji (e.g. -- about avoiding loans from big nations, and about adquately training the Japanese people to take on the responsibilities required in a democracy. If succeeding US politicians (and journalists) had been as clear-headed we might have avoided the Pacific War.

bottom of page