Samurai Discover Lithuania

The first Japanese in Lithuania

Although both Japan and Lithuania existed as individual states since the Middle Ages, there is no evidence that the Great Duchy of Lithuania and Japan had any contacts with each other. In 1601, under the authority of the Tokugawa Shoguns, Japan became isolated from the world and generally stopped interacting with the European countries. For a long time, knowledge of the outside world was limited. Dutch merchants were the only Europeans to spread the knowledge about the outside world in Japan by bringing (in some cases illegally) various books or by using rare opportunities to talk with the locals. That is how the name Lithuania reached Japan and was mentioned there for the first time in 1792.

(the page from Y. Fukuzawa diary where Kaunas is mentioned in 1862; Y. Fukuzawa Research Centre / Kristijonas Jakubsonas)

The visits of the Japanese to the territory of Lithuania began to be documented in the second half of the 19th century when Lithuania no longer existed as an independent state and was a part of the Russian Empire. At that time, Japan was opening to the world at a slow pace. The Japanese government arranged the first mission to Europe in 1862, and the delegation visited many countries, including Lithuania. Of course, Lithuania was not the main goal, but rather a convenient stopping point on the way between Berlin and St. Petersburg. Later, the famous Iwakura mission passed through Lithuania, and finally, the eccentric Major Fukushima visited Lithuania on horseback.

These Japanese visits to Lithuania were interrupted in 1904 when the Russia-Japan war broke out.

The first mention of Lithuania in Japan

The first mentioning of Lithuania in Japan most likely happened in the book Hokusa Bunryaku. It is a book about Russia written by Hoshu Katsuragawa on the commandment of Shogun in 1792.

One of the maps in the book depicts the territory of Russia and marks its neighboring state Ritsuwania, i. e. Lithuania. At the time, it was still independent, surviving the last days of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Porinia, i. e. Poland was depicted to the west of Lithuania. Soon the name Lithuania disappeared not only in Japanese publications but also from all maps for more than a century.

(Lithuania in a map from 1792; National Archives in Japan / Digital Archive)

Bunkyu Mission

The first known interaction in history between Lithuanians and Japanese took place in 1862 when Japan arranged the first mission to Europe, known as the Bunkyu mission. Over 30 Japanese intellectuals were selected to participate in the mission. After a challenging journey across the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, the group eventually reached Europe. They visited France, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, and Portugal. Many Japanese, wearing traditional kimonos and samurai swords, aroused great interest in all European countries.

(members of the mission; Nadaro / Y. Fukuzawa Research Centre)

On the 18th of September 1862, when traveling from St. Petersburg to Berlin, the mission visited Kaunas. It was a short but significant episode in the history of Lithuania-Japan ties. The Japanese intellectuals spent a few hours here and later described the insights in their blogs and memoirs.

(Japanese delegation meeting Napoleon III in France; Gustave Janet / Collections du château de Versailles)

Since the 17th century, Japan was an isolated country with practically no contact with the outside world. However, in the middle of the 19th century, Western ships appearing on its shores began to pressure the government to open its borders. Facing one of the most challenging dilemmas in its history, Japan decided to learn more about the West. As a result, several missions were organized. In 1860, the first mission was sent to the United States, and in 1862 the second one to Europe.

Although the immediate goal of the Bunkyu mission was to meet with the monarchs of the great states and negotiate for better conditions for the opening to the world, exploring European countries and learning about their achievements were of equal importance for the Japanese. Thus, the arrangement of the mission at the same time as the World's Fair in London was not a coincidence. Here Japanese could learn about the latest Western achievements.

The mission lasted over a year. Here you can see route that the delegation traveled.

Yukichi Fukuzawa was only 29 at the time of the mission. He worked as a translator in the delegation, as he was one of the few people in Japan who could speak Dutch and English. He recorded all the events in detail.

Fukuzawa is the most remembered of all the participants of the Bunkyu Mission in Japan. After returning to Japan, he became one of the country's most influential leaders in modernization, actively promoting new ways of thinking and founding the first Western university (Keio University). In Japan, he is so famous that his face is on the 10,000 yen banknote (the design was used from 1984 until 2024).

(Y. Fukuzawa in Europe; Nadaro / Japan's Diplomatic Archive)

(the page from Y. Fukuzawa diary where Kaunas is mentioned in 1862; Y. Fukuzawa Research Centre / Kristijonas Jakubsonas)

On the morning of September 17th, the delegates boarded the train to St. Petersburg. After a 22-hour trip, the Japanese arrived at Kaunas station at 7 am the next day. Here they had breakfast and spent a few hours walking around the city. Fukuzawa was impressed by the railway bridge built a few years ago (which is still in Kaunas today). Another member of the delegation, Wataru Ichikawa, mentioned Kaunas train tunnel and having breakfast at the hotel in his memoirs.

At the time of the Japanese visit, Lithuania was a part of the Russian Empire. Nevertheless, visitors noted that the climate and people here were different from those in St. Petersburg. The guests were astonished by the East European plains, grazing cows and sheep. On the same day, they took a train West to Berlin. In his blog, Fukuzawa mentioned the border towns of Verkhbolova (now Kybartai) and Eitkūnai (now Chernševskaya).

After returning to the homeland after an enduring mission, the Japanese brought back a completely different understanding of European countries. The delegates reported the progress of Western civilization, technology, railways, industry, well-governed societies, and beautifully landscaped cities. This fascination with the West prompted Japan to take over the new civilization model as soon as possible. Under the slogan "Western Technology-Japanese Spirit," the country accelerated modernization following the Western model. After a few decades became the most modern Asian state, which had already challenged the Russian Empire and initiated a war against it.

Subsequent missions

Iwakura mission (1873)
Visits of the mission to Lithuania

Eleven years after the first Japanese mission, on the 29th of March, 1873, another significant Japanese delegation visited the territory of present-day Lithuania. It was Iwakura’s mission when the Japanese visited America and Europe. The delegates passed Lithuania twice – at the end of March on the way to St. Petersburg and then on the same route back to Berlin. During the second visit on the 15th of April, the mission stopped in Vilnius, the current capital of Lithuania.

(the page from Iwakura Mission book that mentions arrival to Lithuania; National Diet Library)

The nature of the mission

(members of the mission)

The mission started on the 12th of November, 1871. The delegates visited the United States, later Great Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland. The ship, which sailed from Marseilles, finally reached Yokohama in September 1873. In total, the mission lasted for 21 months.

The mission was led by Tomomi Iwakura, one of the most influential people in Japan at the time. The mission sought to encourage Western countries to review unequal treaties with Japan but did not succeed to achieve this goal. Nevertheless, a great deal of information was collected, which significantly contributed to the modernization of Japan. Some students stayed in the West to study, and after returning to Japan, brought new knowledge and applied it to the modernization of the country.

Kume Kunitake

Kunitake Kume (1839-1931) was the chronicler of the Iwakura mission and the personal secretary of the ambassador. He was continuously gathering material and taking notes. All information was published in 1878 as the five-volume work called "A True Account of the Ambassador Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary’s Journey of Observation Through the United States of America and Europe". Insights on the trip around the Russian Empire, and thus Lithuania, were included in the fourth volume. After this trip, Kunitake became a well-known scientist who taught at the universities of Tokyo and Waseda.

March 29. Good weather
On this day, at four o’clock in the afternoon, we enjoyed a farewell meal at Eydtkuhnen Station with the three Germans who had been in attendance upon us. We reached Russian territory after our train had traveled two miles. The signs displayed on the walls of the station buildings were all in Russian script, and everything around us looked dramatically different. The station was called Wierzbolów.

– K. Kume, Book IV, Chapter 63

Yasumasa Fukushima (1892)

Another Japanese visit to Lithuania took place... on horseback. At the end of February 1892, Major Yasumasa Fukushima (1852-1919) arrived in Kaunas. After finishing his work as a Japanese military attaché in Berlin, he decided to return from Prussia to his distant homeland by horseback riding. After overcoming the roads in Poland during a harsh winter, he arrived in Kaunas on the 24th of February and spent a few days here. Later he rode to St. Petersburg via Ukmergė (Vilkmergė) and Daugavpils (Dinaburg).

(Y. Fukushima around 1892; Historia wojskowa)

Fukushima described his entire journey in "Lonely Journey on a Horse". Several pages in this book were devoted to Lithuania. Of course, the visitor was mostly interested in military fortifications and described Kaunas as a fortress with many soldiers. He paid a lot of attention to the bridge in Kaunas, which, at that time, connected Poland and Russia. The two countries used different calendars which resulted in a 13-day difference between the two sides. As a result, it can be said that it took 13 days for the Major to cross the bridge. Later he described it as the strangest thing in the world.

(cover of "Lonely journey on a horse"; National Diet Library)

Y. Fukushima left Berlin on the 11th of February 1892 and reached Tokyo on the 29th of June 1893. The journey from Berlin to Japan took him 504 days and lasted 14,000 km. Along the way, he visited such places as Kaunas, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Irkutsk, Vladivostok, Manchuria, and Mongolia. During the trip, Fukushima observed the locals, the infrastructure built by Russia, and the Siberian railway, which was under construction at the time. It is considered that the goal of his trip was reconnaissance, as Japan was already preparing for war with the Russian Empire.

(Y. Fukushima)

На самомь дѣлѣ интересную картину представляль этот въѣздь. Толпа любопытныхь прибывала сь каждою минутою и уже около краснаго собора (Николаевскаго) трудно было ѣхать по улицѣ.

In fact, this walk [into the city] was an interesting sight. The crowd of curious people grew every minute, and it became difficult to get out to the street next to the red (Nicholas) cathedral.

Newspaper "News of Kaunas Gubernija", 4 March 1892




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