Gen. U.S. Grant in Japan, 1879

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 318-319:

Grant was depicted in numerous woodblock prints that commemorated his visits to the horse races, exhibitions of calisthenics by schoolchildren, the great waterfall at Nikkō, and the theater. In August he presented a curtain to the Shintomi Theater to express his gratitude for the kabuki play he had attended there on July 16. The play (in one act with two scenes) was by the outstanding dramatist of the time, Kawatake Mokuami, and was called A Military Account of the Later Three-Year War in Ōshū. Although it ostensibly depicted how the eleventh-century general Minamoto Yoshiie put down a revolt in the Ōshū region, the play was intended to represent the triumphs of General Grant himself. At the first performance, seventy-two geishas danced, wearing kimonos derived from the American flag—red and white stripes for the body and left arm, and stars on a blue background for the right arm. [The book includes a woodblock-print image of the dancers.]

Grant was otherwise immortalized by a quasi-biography called Guranto-shi den Yamato bunshō (Biography of Mr. Grant: Japanese Documents) by the popular novelist Kanagaki Robun. The covers of the little booklets in which the work was printed from woodblocks show the seventy-two geishas as well as Mr. and Mrs. Grant, both holding fans.

Perhaps Grant’s most important contribution to the arts came as the result of watching a program of nō plays at the residence of Iwakura Tomomi. Just at a time when Iwakura had decided to support the revival of nō, Grant arrived in Japan and indicated to Iwakura that he would like to see Japan’s classical arts. This was hardly typical of Grant. In Europe he had been invited to the opera frequently and thought of it as “a constant threat.” When invited to the opera in Madrid by the United States minister, the poet John Russell Lowell, “After five minutes he claimed that the only noise he could distinguish from any other was the bugle call and asked Mrs. Lowell, ‘Haven’t we had enough of this?’”

Grant’s reactions to nō were quite different. He is reported to have been profoundly moved by the program consisting of Hōshō Kurō in Mochizuki, Kongō Taiichirō in Tsuchigumo, and Miyake Shōichi in the kyōgen Tsurigitsune. Afterward he said to Iwakura, “It is easy for a noble and elegant art like this one, being influenced by the times, to lose its dignity and fall into a decline. You should treasure it and preserve it.”

These words, coming from a foreign dignitary, were not ignored. Iwakura realized more than ever the necessity of saving nō and, enlisting the support of former daimyos and members of the nobility, took active steps to ensure its survival. On August 14 a special performance at his residence was attended by the emperor, the prime minister, four councillors, and other dignitaries. The revival of nō was definitely under way. General Grant took leave of the emperor at a ceremony held in the palace on August 30. Grant expressed his gratitude for the kind and joyful reception he had received everywhere. He had noticed that in Japan there were neither extremely rich nor extremely poor people, a praiseworthy situation that he had not observed elsewhere during his journey. The country was blessed with fertile soil; large areas of undeveloped land; many mines that had yet to be exploited; good harbors where huge, almost limitless catches of fish were unloaded; and, above all, an industrious, contented, and thrifty people. Nothing was wanting in Japan’s plan to achieve wealth and strength. He urged the Japanese not to let foreigners interfere in their internal government, so as to enable the country to amass wealth and not be forced to depend on other countries. He concluded by saying that his wishes for the complete independence and prosperity of Japan were not his alone but were shared by the entire American people. He ardently hoped that the emperor and the people would enjoy the blessings of Heaven.

The emperor thanked Grant in a brief speech. According to Young, he read it in a clear, pleasant voice, quite a contrast from the inaudible whispers of his first encounters with foreigners. Here is how Young described his last impressions of the emperor: “The emperor is not what you would call a graceful man, and his manners are those of an anxious person not precisely at his ease—wishing to please and make no mistake. But in this farewell audience he seemed more easy and natural than when we had seen him before.”

Grant’s visit had been an immense success in all respects save one: it did not enable him to get reelected as president. But he would not forget Japan, and the Japanese, from the emperor down, would remember this unaffected man who behaved so little like a hero.

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Filed under art, economics, Japan, military, nationalism, U.S.

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