Early Encounters: The First Japanese Embassy to the United States, 1860

First Encounters: The First Japanese Embassy to the United States, 1860 is a graphic novel that tells the story of the first Japanese diplomatic mission to leave Japan after over two centuries of isolation under the Tokugawa Shogunate. On a mid-March day in 1860, the Kanrin Maru, a steamship manned by a Japanese crew, sailed through the Golden Gate after more than a month at sea. It was a remarkable event. Not only was it the first Japanese vessel to make a Pacific crossing, but many Japanese had gotten their first glimpse of a steamship only seven years earlier. Astonished then at the sight of a ship that could move without wind in its sails, the Japanese now proudly demonstrated that they could navigate such a vessel themselves.
Year of Publication
Number of Pages
Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education
Place Published
Stanford, CA
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Curriculum Unit
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Using the Graphic Novel to Connect Japan with American History

Field of Interest/Specialty: Art & Social Studies
Posted On: 07/07/2014

Using the increasing popular graphic novel format, this brief SPICE unit engages students with the story of how Commodore Perry’s 1853 expedition led to the first Japanese embassy. These diplomats traveled across the Pacific aboard the Kanrin Maru to establish trade and diplomatic relations between the two countries seven short years later. Seen as a major turning point in Japanese history, this significant step marked the first time Japanese officials had traveled outside of their country in over two centuries.
The integration of both primary and secondary sources such as diary entries, newspaper and magazine articles, scholarly books, personal sketches and photographs used to create this graphic novel demonstrates the creative potential of quality research. While simple timelines and charts comparing the cultural differences between the American and Japanese of the time or outlines mapping the causes and effects of this trip can be made, a menu of more complex products is provided from which students may choose a format to demonstrate their understanding of these important events. Themes of technology, imperialism, minority roles, class distinction, rules of etiquette, societal expectations and the costs/benefits of change over time are presented.
As the graphic novel itself is set up with a historical background page, two pages identifying and describing main characters, and a glossary of terms, work on this unit can be used as a cross-curricular art, computer, Language Arts, and Social Studies activity or as a supplement to other classroom lessons. It could also be used by students almost entirely independent of teacher instruction. While other suggested resources that support additional research are identified, the unit itself is rather short and can be incorporated into a simple one-day lesson.