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Remembering Ulysses S. Grant's visit to Japan

After a stressful eight years as the 18th president of the United States, in the difficult reconstruction period following the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant (1822- 1885) sought a quieter life as a private citizen and planned a vacation to England with his wife and one of his sons to meet his daughter Nellie. But this voyage mushroomed into an unprecedented journey.

The Grants embarked on a two-year world adventure on May 17, 1877, touring Europe, the Middle East and Asia. They were welcomed at every place they visited. They received a most enthusiastic welcome in China and in Japan.

In China, they were greeted by huge crowds and dined on delicacies such as plover eggs and shark fins. Grant expressed sympathy for the bigotry the Chinese faced throughout the world, stating “I am not prepared to justify the treatment the Chinese have received at the hands of the foreigner.” Chinese General Li Hung Chang was so impressed with Grant that he asked him to carry a message to the Japanese government regarding a territorial dispute over Ryukyu (Okinawa). Grant’s desire to see disputes settled peacefully persuaded him to serve as an unofficial diplomat between the two nations.

Hama Rikyu and the meeting

This year marks the 125th anniversary of Grant’s visit to Japan. Grant and his family arrived at Nagasaki, Japan on June 7, 1879. He expressed that he thought was Japan “beautiful beyond description.” They were given a hearty reception wherever they went and were treated like a general making a triumphal entrance. Since his name was well known throughout the world, the Japanese government thought it was fitting that Japan should accord him a special reception, excelling that given to other foreign guests.

Grant, after traveling in Japan and seeing conditions for himself, aided by his experience as president and as a general during the Civil War, was able to give the Emperor advice which was of great value in the administration of Japan during that period. Grant and Emperor Meiji (26 years old at that time) met at Hama Detached Palace in Tokyo on Aug. 10 and Grant’s advice was received with great confidence.

For instance, he gave his viewpoint regarding the foreign policy of Europe, the danger of foreign loans, universal suffrage, the affairs of the Ryukyu Islands (a territorial dispute with China), the taxes of the people, the revision of unfair treaties to Japan, national education and the engagement of the services of foreign teachers. The Emperor replied, “I have paid close attention to what you have said and shall consider it. I thank you for your kindness.”

Zojoji Temple, planting a tree

On July 15, 1879, the Grants visited the Tokugawa’s family temple Zojoji Temple at Shiba in Tokyo and planted a cedar tree which has grown to a giant tree today. After Ieyasu Tokugawa started to rule the Kanto region (eastern Japan), he accorded cordial protection to Zojoji as the family temple of the Tokugawa family. In parallel to the expansion of the Edo Castle, a large-scale construction project was also commenced for Zojoji and an unparalleled grand cathedral was built. The cathedral, temples and the mausoleum of the Tokugawa family were burnt down by air raids during World War II. However, its cathedral and other structures have been rebuilt. Located in its precincts are the tombs of six Tokugawa Shoguns and their wives and children.

Grand party at Ueno

While the Grants were in Tokyo, on Aug. 25, 1879, the citizens of Tokyo held a fete for them at Ueno Park, which His Majesty was pleased to attend. It was an eventful day, the celebration beginning at 2 p.m. and continuing until 10 p.m. There was fencing, feats of horsemanship, archery and great feasting — and in the evening, displays of fireworks. During the day the Grants were each asked to plant a tree and he planted a hinoki, Lawson Cypress, and she, a gyokuran, Bull Bay (Magnolia grandiflora) at Ueno Park.

Seiyoken Menu

The menu at the party for the Grants at the residence of the Minister of the Right Tomomi Iwakura on July 8, 1879 is kept at Ueno Seiyoken Restaurant — the oldest large-scale western-style restaurant built in Japan. It was as follows: Potage Consommé (soup); Chaud-froid Cottelette Mouton (mutton); Bouchée a la béchamel (white sauce chicken); Filet Chateaubriand (beef); Caille au riz (quail); Asperges Beurre Fondu (asparagus); Punch (liquored sherbet); Dindonneau Truff Jambon salada (turkey and ham salad); Glacée (ice cream); Charlette Parisienne (cake); Gâteau (cake); and fruits.

During his stay in Japan, Grant visited all parts of the country including his trip to Nikko. The railways were not as developed as they are today, so these trips meant journeying on foot, horseback or rickshaw. Grant and his family sailed from Yokohama on Sept. 3, 1879.

Monument at Ueno

Fifty years later in August 1929, Viscount Shibusawa and Baron Masuda who were the members of the original reception committee to welcome the Grants, erected a monument near the spot where the Grants planted trees so that the history of the trees were not forgotten. They wished to have a memorial of Grant’s visit to keep his memory fresh in the minds of the Japanese people, as do the trees that are always green.

In this anniversary year his memory will be honored with special ceremonies on May 28.


If you go:

This year marks the 125th anniversary of Grant’s visit to Japan. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government, U.S. Embassy, Ueno Sightseeing Association, Taito Ward, Mizuho Bank Ltd. and Shibusawa Eiichi Memorial Foundation will have a memorial ceremony at 11 a.m., May 28 at the site of the Grant memorial monument in Ueno Park.

Grant memorial: Ueno Koen Park in Tokyo, three-minute walk from Ueno Koen Exit of JR Ueno Station; Ueno Koen, Taito-ku, Tokyo; 03-3828-5644

Hama Rikyu (Detached Palace): 10-minute walk from JR Shinbashi Station, seven-minute walk from Tsukiji-shijo Station of Toei-Oedo Subway; 1-1 Hama Rikyu Teien, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 300 yen (plus 500 yen for tea at the teahouse); 03-3541-0200

Zojoji Temple: Five-minute walk from JR Yamanote Line’s Hamamatsucho Station; 4-7-35 Shibakoen, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-3432-1431


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