A grainy photograph taken in 1864 shows a group of Japanese samurai standing in front of the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt. This jolting image messes with our sense of history – the traditional Japanese clothes, the ancient Egyptian monument, and the European camera just don’t seem to add up. As unexpected as this combination may be, the 159-year-old photograph highlights a pivotal moment in the history of Japan and the globalized world.
The image depicts the Second Japanese Embassy to Europe, also called the “Ikeda Mission.” Under the order of the Tokugawa shogunate, the military dictators who ruled feudal Japan, local governor Ikeda Nagaoki was sent off to Europe in 1864 in a bid to resolve a burning disagreement over the port of Yokohama.
Alongside the 27-year-old was a delegation of 36 men. As we can see in images of the men taken in Paris, many were armed with two swords – an honor that was reserved for samurai, the educated warrior class of Japan who wielded significant political power at the time.
The second half of the 19th century was a time when Japan was at an existential crossroads. European colonizers had taken control of huge swathes of Asia, as well as Africa and the Americas. To hold them at bay, Japan had been acting on a strict isolationist policy called sakoku since the 17th century that attempted to cut off the island from outsiders in a push to preserve their culture. As part of this policy, Christianity was strictly forbidden and they only traded with the Chinese and the Dutch.
The proud island of Japan had managed to stay relatively untouched by the relentless force of colonialism, but it became increasingly clear that change was knocking at their front door.
Around 1853, US Commodore Matthew Perry arrived on the shores of Yokohama with a fleet of American warships and demanded that Japan open up its ports for international trade. Reluctantly, they agreed, and the coastal settlement of Yokohama quickly became a hub of foreign trade.
Japan was understandably uneasy about the growing influence outsiders had on their country and anti-foreign sentiment became inflamed. In 1863, Emperor Kōmei promoted the edict: "Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians." As part of the push to take back control, Ikeda was ordered to travel to France and demand an end to the open-port status of Yokohama. Onboard a French warship, Ikeda and his crew set sail, making stops in Shanghai, India, and Cairo.
When making their pitstop in Egypt, they took the time to visit the Great Pyramids of Giza. It is here, at the foot of the Sphinx, where the delegation had their picture taken by photographer Antonio Beato.
After traveling through Egypt by train, the expedition set sail through the Mediterranean and eventually arrived in France. Ikeda met with the French, but their demands to close the port of Yokohama were outright rejected and the mission crumbled in total failure.
Japan was eventually forced to let go and concede. In 1868, the Japanese kick-started the Meiji Restoration. Following the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the island opened its doors to Westernization, sparking rapid modernization, industrialization, and urbanization. Amid intense social change, Japan didn’t lose its identity. Still paying attention to their tradition and culture, Japan rose to become an imperial powerhouse that started to rival the West.
Perhaps they didn’t know it at the time, but when the Ikeda Mission stood at the foot of the Sphinx in 1864 they were standing on the precipice of Japan’s contemporary history, with the world's pre-modern past behind them and the uncertain modern future ahead.
Correction: 19/01/2023: This article originally stated " the voyage went through the Suez Canal," but this wasn't opened until 1869. The expedition actually traveled through Egypt by land. The article has been amended to reflect this.