Hawaiian king meets Japanese emperor

Emperor Meiji. Portrait by Eduardo Chiossone.

Emperor Meiji. Portrait by Eduardo Chiossone.

This is the fifth installment in a series about King David Kalakaua of Hawaii. It focuses on a particular episode of his 1881 trip around the world.

By October 1880, the brouhaha over Celso Moreno had subsided. The Italian adventurer’s secret commission was canceled and the latest set of cabinet ministers installed. Newspaper editors in Honolulu moved on to fresh topics. King Kalakaua began talking of journeying around the world. On January 11, 1881, the king and his cabinet discussed the details. He would be accompanied by Charles H. Judd as chamberlain and William N. Armstrong in the dual capacity of minister of state and commissioner of immigration. One of the purposes of the trip was said to be encouragement of population movements to Hawaii.

In truth, the trip had several purposes, some never clearly articulated. Kalakaua told his native subjects that his goal was to recuperate his health and “recuperate his people” by the introduction of foreign immigrants. Regarding his health, the past year had no doubt been stressful. As for the health of his people, their numbers had been reduced from close to 300,000 at the time of Captain Cook’s “discovery” of the islands to around 30,000 by 1878.* Foreign diseases such as measles, smallpox, and leprosy had ravaged the kingdom. Kalakaua believed the population needed replenishment.

But there were other goals. The king told a group of foreign residents he was going to study methods of government in other nations which might help settle “questions arising out of our peculiar situation.”  The king’s motives were derided by some as idle curiosity, a pretext for enjoying himself. It was no secret that he thrived on celebrations and banquets, receptions and ceremonies. He loved the glitter and gold braid of royal pomp. But throughout his life he displayed a genuine interest in other cultures, from Buddhist temples to Viennese ballrooms. William Armstrong, in his book about the journey, threw in one more motive. The king, he said, wanted the glory of being the first sovereign ever to “put a girdle around the earth.”

Armstrong’s work, Around the World with a King, is the only firsthand account of the trip. He’d known Kalakaua since boyhood, when they attended the royal school that educated members of the native nobility and children of white members of the cabinet. He was fond of the king but had no respect for native Hawaiian culture, seeing it as barbaric. In other words, Armstrong was a man of his times. Like other whites on the islands, he believed the natives were backward and ignorant.

William Armstrong, after a dinner given by Kalakaua.

William Armstrong, after a dinner given by Kalakaua.

Armstrong wrote, “[Kalakaua’s] kingdom was recognized as civilized by all nations, and he was a monarch in good and regular standing among his royal brethren. This was due to the unselfish labor of the American missionaries and their allies, who had created the framework of an institutional government…. But the King being Polynesian, neither he nor his native subjects fully understood the nature of Anglo-Saxon government, and if they had been allowed to have their own way, political conditions would have quickly fallen into those which are found in the South American republics or among even less-civilized people…. The King’s mind was naturally filled with the crude ideas, the superstitions, the absolutism of a Polynesian chief, though his experience had modified their exaggerated forms; and, where experience was lacking, a vague fear of the white men’s superior intelligence took its place.”**

To be fair to Armstrong, once having baldly stated his prejudices, he did not spend his whole book dwelling on the supposed inferiority of native Hawaiians. He had a couple of ongoing humorous themes. One was the incongruity of the ruler of a tiny island kingdom meeting on equal footing with emperors and monarchs of much larger territories. This played out in such details as the emperor of Japan politely inquiring, “And how large is your majesty’s army?” Another theme was the perpetual drunkenness of a member of the royal party—not a native Hawaiian, but the king’s personal valet, a German baron who had come down in the world due to his sprees. And another was the attempt to include traditional Hawaiian garb in the king’s ceremonial wardrobe—should the multicolored feather cloak be worn atop the European-style military uniform?

The tour begins

The king’s global circumnavigation was to proceed in a westward direction, but he started off with a quick jaunt to San Francisco before heading across the Pacific to Japan. It was just as well he did, because the Japanese consul there alerted officials in Tokyo to the impending visit. Kalakaua’s idea had been to travel incognito, to spare himself embarrassment in case any nation didn’t care to recognize the miniscule Hawaiian kingdom. But officials in Japan decided to receive the king with full honors.

Yokohama street scene, c. 1880. No attribution given.

Yokohama street scene, c. 1880.

Much to the Hawaiians’ surprise, as their steamer entered Yokohama harbor, Japanese and foreign warships fired 21-gun salutes. A contingent of naval officers and imperial commissioners in full uniform boarded the ship to greet them, politely ignoring the travelers’ casual dress, and the visitors were taken ashore. As they approached the landing, they saw crowds thronging the docks and lines of troops in formation, and the emperor’s military band burst out with the Hawaiian anthem, “Hawaii Pono’i.” This moved the visitors to tears. They proceeded to one of the emperor’s several palaces, noting that the houses along the way were decorated with crossed Hawaiian and Japanese flags.

The emperor was to receive them the next day in Tokyo. During his reign he was called Emperor Mutsuhito, but he is better known as Emperor Meiji, the man on the throne during a period of intensive progress, when Japan transformed itself from an isolated society with feudal customs into a modern, industrialized nation. Armstrong described his own nervousness about meeting the emperor, as he was “an untutored American… denied the priceless blessings of royal associations [he is being humorous]…. The King directed me to stand at his right, and closely watch the conduct of the Prime Minister of Japan [for proper protocol]…. As I was about to wear a sword for the first time, he warned me against allowing it to get between my legs.”***

As they journeyed to Tokyo the next day, they found once again that buildings everywhere had been decorated with the two nations’ flags. In keeping with royal etiquette, the emperor greeted them at the threshold of his palace. He was tall for a Japanese of the time, but Kalakaua towered over him. Meiji shook hands with Kalakaua in western style, which the Hawaiians considered a special honor. They walked to an inner chamber, where the empress greeted Kalakaua with a slight nod, and the monarchs chatted for twenty minutes. The visitors were offered refreshments but declined because they’d heard they shouldn’t eat in the emperor’s presence.

Throne hall of Meiji-era palace.

Throne hall of Meiji-era palace.

They were escorted to a building reserved to accommodate foreign dignitaries, where they found Robert, the valet, lying drunk and asleep in the king’s bedchamber, wearing the ceremonial feather cloak and a top hat. They removed their heavy uniforms and prepared to join Robert in having a rest, but received sudden warning that the emperor would return their visit within an hour, in accordance with court etiquette. They hastily dressed just in time to meet the emperor again. He was followed by a string of imperial princes, twenty high-ranking officials, and John Bingham, the American minister.

The next days were filled with state banquets, special theatrical entertainments, and visits to surrounding sights. The king had planned to stay just three days, but his hosts had scheduled ten days of festivities, to culminate with a grand ball. This was the first visit to Japan by a foreign monarch—former President Grant had visited two years earlier, but he was not a head of state at that time, and not royalty—so the imperial court felt it important to give the visitors full honors. For them, it was a symbol of opening Japan to foreign influences.

Early in the visit Kalakaua took a notable step, advising the Japanese foreign minister, Inoue Kaaru, that he intended to abrogate the extraterritoriality clause in the treaty between Japan and Hawaii. Such clauses were customary in Japan’s treaties with western nations, denying Japanese sovereignty over a number of its own seaports. These “treaty ports” were placed under the jurisdiction of foreign consuls who could rule over matters concerning Japanese citizens. The Meiji government naturally applauded the Hawaiian king’s decision.

Noting that the European powers would be horrified by Kalakaua’s action, Armstrong wrote, “I rather enjoyed the fun of throwing fire into the dried grass of the international prairie—a fire which would soon force the uneasy diplomats who represented the Great Powers to scurry about to extinguish it.”# As it turned out, intense opposition by European governments later forced Hawaii to reverse this step, and extraterritoriality remained a feature of Japan’s treaties for seventeen more years.

Nevertheless, Kalakaua’s gesture made him the toast of the town, and his hosts lavished even more attention on their Hawaiian guests. The festivities continued with a performance of classic Japanese drama. The visitors found it inscrutable but observed with interest the nobility in the audience, who varied in their dress between kimonos and the latest Paris fashions. They also attended a review of the troops. The emperor and the king rode side by side on horses that had trappings of gold cloth. Armstrong noted, “The King was a superb horseman, for he was trained in his early days to the use of the lariat in the capture of wild cattle.”##

One morning, the king mysteriously departed the guest quarters in the company of the emperor’s chamberlain, leaving Armstrong and Judd behind. This annoyed Armstrong, as he saw himself and Judd as babysitters for a wayward monarch. Kalakaua kept tight-lipped about his meeting with the emperor, so his advisors did not learn of what transpired until they returned to Hawaii.  A Japanese account records that Kalakaua introduced three topics.###

1. He proposed a league of Asian nations as a counterweight to the European powers. He spoke of Asian countries as oppressed by Europe, and suggested that Meiji head the league. Kalakaua further suggested that Meiji attend the exposition planned for 1883 in New York (it was never held) and meet there with Asian and European rulers.

Meiji responded with interest and appreciation, but pointed out that the Asian nations were by no means unified in their aims, and that China in particular would be unlikely to join such a league. (In fact, Japan was to crush China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, and to defeat Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, a tremendous humiliation for Czar Nicholas.)

Princess Ka'iulani as a girl.

Princess Ka’iulani as a girl.

2 . Kalakaua proposed that his neice Ka’iulani, then five years old, become the bride of Prince Sadamaro, a 16-year-old student at the naval academy whom he had met and liked. As he intended to name Ka’iulani his successor, the next ruler of Hawaii would consequently have a Japanese husband. His thinking can only be guessed at, but he may have felt this would help ward off U.S. annexation.

Meiji made no immediate answer, but he might have feared that a Hawaiian-Japanese royal marriage would antagonize the U.S. and the Europeans. And the new Japanese embrace of foreign cultures fell short of approving intermarriage between nobles: a prince who married a high-placed German lady was forced to divorce.

Prince Yorohito Higoshifushimi (his later formal name). He fought in the wars against China and Russia.

Prince Yorohito Higoshifushimi (his later formal name). He fought in the wars against China and Russia.

3.  Kalakaua expressed an interest in an undersea cable linking Hawaii and Japan.

In the end, none of the king’s wishes were realized. Meiji conferred with his cabinet but rejected the notion of a league of Asian states. As for the royal marriage, Prince Sadamaro himself wrote to the king in a letter received in Hawaii in 1882, saying he could not marry Princess Ka’iulani, as he had been engaged to a Japanese girl of nobility as a small child. Finally, the cable proposal was turned down for lack of funds and because the American Cyrus Field had made a prior request.

None of the polite refusals of Kalakaua’s brave ideas were received before the royal party’s return to Hawaii. They continued to enjoy the hospitality of the imperial court. Toward the end of the visit, the king expressed a wish to attend a dinner at which only Japanese dishes would be served. His hosts took him at his word and arranged that the visitors should be provided with silk kimonos and sit Japanese-style around the table, cross-legged on the floor. Armstrong found it excruciating to sit in this position for three hours of elaborate courses of food punctuated by performances of traditional dance, but the king was accustomed to sitting cross-legged at native Hawaiian events, and he thoroughly enjoyed the occasion.

On the eve of the proposed grand ball, the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs received a telegram informing him that Czar Alexander II had been assassinated. A state banquet had just begun, and announcement of the czar’s death was postponed for two hours so that official mourning for fellow royalty need not interrupt the dinner. But the grand ball was canceled, and the visit came to an end. Many costly gifts were exchanged; the king invested the emperor with the Grand Cross of the Order of Kamehameha, and the emperor reciprocated with the Grand Order of the Chrysanthemum.

The Hawaiians toured other cities over the next days, visiting Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto, and Nagasaki. Kalakaua especially admired the Buddhist temples. As Armstrong described it, “Their bizarre architecture and gaudy ornaments were more attractive to him than the severe, cold church buildings which the Puritanism of New England had erected in his kingdom. He said such temples would adorn the beautiful valleys of his islands, and suggested to me correspondence with my colleagues in the government on the subject of introducing Buddhism to his people.”+

Pagoda of Buddhist temple in Japan.

Pagoda of Buddhist temple in Japan.

Armstrong joked that Buddhist ideas of reincarnation would make it necessary to introduce tigers, snakes, hippopotami, and other creatures “into which the souls of the believers could enter and be reincarnated.” Yet perhaps Kalakaua felt that Buddhist ideas harmonized in a certain way with the native Hawaiian cosmology—better than the stern teachings of the missionaries.


The king’s voyage lasted ten months. He did not succeed in seeing the rulers of all nations he visited—most notably in xenophobic China—but he set foot in 19 nations. He was well received in Great Britain, which still had a strategic interest in Hawaii. On his return across the U.S., he met with Chester A. Arthur, who had just assumed the presidency following the assassination of Garfield.

#  #  #

King Kalakaua.

King Kalakaua.

* Estimates are given in Michael Dougherty, To Steal a Kingdom:  Probing Hawaiian History. Waimanalo, HI: Island Style Press, 1992, p. 190.

** William N. Armstrong, Around the World with a King.  Cambridge, MA: The University Press, 1904, p. 11.

*** Armstrong, p. 33.

# Armstrong, p. 50.

## Armstrong, p. 56.

### The Meiji tennoki, as reported in Donald Keene, Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002, pp. 347-49.

+ Armstrong, p. 84.



About Jenny

I am an off-trail hiker, a student of history, and author of "Transvaal Citizen," "Murder at the Jumpoff," and "The Twelve Streams of LeConte."
This entry was posted in Hawaiian History, History and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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