Iwakura Tomomi

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Iwakura Tomomi was a prominent top-level official in the Meiji government. Though most known for leading the Iwakura Mission which traveled the world observing foreign governments, industry, and society in 1871-1873 in order to inform Japan's modernization, Iwakura was also significantly influential in a variety of other decisions and developments of the Meiji period as well.

Born into a Kyoto court noble family,[1] he was named Minister of the Right (Udaijin) in 1871, and left for the United States the same year. He was accompanied on the Mission by many of the most prominent officials and bureaucrats of the time, and met with heads of state in the United States and numerous European countries, as well as touring factories, schools, and a variety of other modern institutions.[2]

In 1879, Iwakura played a prominent role in the reception of Ulysses S. Grant, who visited Japan for about three months in that year.[3]

Iwakura was also active and vocal in the late 1870s and early 1880s in debates and proposals as to national and Imperial memory, and in particular in efforts to maintain Kyoto as a center of traditional culture and symbolic Imperial importance. In discussions as to moving the Imperial capital to Tokyo, Iwakura advocated retaining Kyoto as an imperial capital alongside Tokyo (as well as, potentially, other sites), and establishing imperial mausolea in both cities. Iwakura's passion for the importance of the Imperial institution, and of active representations of connection to the past, extended into numerous proposals for the continuation of Imperial rites in Kyoto, the establishment of branch shrines or altars for the worship of imperial mausolea and other sites from a distance (i.e. from Tokyo), and the enshrinement of Emperor Kammu (founder of Heian-kyô) within the Kyoto Imperial Palace. His suggestions in this vein also included incorporating Tokugawa sites such as Nijô castle under the management of the Kyoto Imperial Palace, completing (re)construction of various buildings within the Edo castle/Tokyo Imperial Palace compound (which had burned down in 1873, and would not be completed until 1889), constructing Western-style lodgings for eminent foreign visitors just outside the palace grounds, and establishing an office in Kyoto for managing the Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples of western Japan.[4]

He was also active in efforts to fund the preservation of the city of Kyoto, which began to fall into decline once the Emperor left the city in 1868, for more purely historical and cultural reasons, citing Kyoto's beauty and customs.[4] Proposals from Iwakura for recovering the history of the Tokugawa shogunate included one in 1878 for the compilation of records of shogunate ritual; the resulting Tokugawa reiten roku was then presented by Iwakura to the Emperor in 1881.[5]

Following his death in 1883, Iwakura's life and career were recorded in a formal set of handscroll paintings commissioned by the Imperial Court and painted by Tanaka Yûbi. They remain in the Imperial Collections today.[6]


  1. Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy, University of California Press (1996), 59.
  2. Conrad Schirokauer, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 171.
  3. Richard Chang, "General Grant's 1879 Visit to Japan." Monumenta Nipponica 24:4 (1969). pp373-392.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Fujitani, 56-58.
  5. Fukai Masaumi, "Tokugawa reiten roku," Kokushi daijiten 国史大辞典, Yoshikawa kobunkan.; Tokugawa Reiten Roku 徳川禮典録, vol 1., Tokyo: Owari Tokugawa Reimeikai (1942), 1-2.
  6. Gallery labels, "The two people who supported Emperor Meiji - Sanjo Sanetomi and Iwakura Tomomi - an account of the late Edo period to the Meiji Restoration in biographical picture scrolls," The Museum of the Imperial Collections, Sannomaru Shôzôkan, September 2014.