Japan and the 1867 Paris Exposition

The panelists at the “Japan and the 1867 Paris Exposition” symposium at Maison franco-japonaise in Tokyo, 19 November 2017


One hundred and fifty years ago, Japan was undergoing a period of major transformation. In October 1867, Japan saw the return of political power to the Emperor by the Tokugawa Shogunate, and a new Meiji government was established in 1868. At that time, Shibusawa Eiichi had been dispatched to the 1867 Paris Exposition. When he returned to Japan in November 1868, he worked hard on the modernization of Japan as if driven by a passion.

What happened to Shibusawa while he was at the  1867 Paris Exposition?

On 19 November 2017, the Symposium: “Japan and the 1867 Paris Exposition” was held at Maison franco-japonaise in Tokyo. Professor Kashima Shigeru at Meiji University delivered the keynote speech, whereafter discussions were held between Associate Professor Kusumi Shinya at Daito Bunka University, Full-Time Teacher Teramoto Noriko at Atomi University, Professor Kuni Takeyuki at Tokyo Metropolitan University, Associate Professor Machida Akihiro at Kanda University of International Studies and Curator Sekine Hitoshi at Shibusawa Memorial Museum held discussions. Director Saito Yoichi at Tojo Historical Museum in Matsudo, Professor Julia Yongue at Hosei University and Professor Watanabe Yasushi at Keio University. The following outlines these discussions and the points made in the comments.



The mission to the Paris Universal Exposition of 1867 was the last one after missions sent by the Tokugawa government to Western countries several times in the closing days of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The mission to the Paris Universal Exposition, which was organized as a mission based on the shoguns instead of vassals of the shoguns in the Tokugawa (Edo) period (1603–1867), included the message that shoguns represented Japanese diplomacy. Tokugawa Akitake, who was on a mission to the Paris Universal Exposition on behalf of the shoguns and was the brother of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the 15th shogun of the Tokugawas, did not take the stage of politics and diplomacy because of the return of political power to the Emperor by the Tokugawa Shogunate, which occurred during his stay in Paris. However, Akitake handed over the knowledge and information that he had obtained in Europe to the Emperor. The people who had accompanied him led Japan in the areas of industry, law, the military and diplomacy. At the same time, the exchanges that Akitake had developed in Europe lasted for the years that followed and laid the foundations for the relationship between Japan and France. Even in the period of trade friction with Western countries, the exchanges within the private sectors and between individuals and the private sector endured.

The truth is that the Satsuma and Nabeshima domains in Kyushu participated in the Paris Universal Exposition. This experience caused the Japan boom in Europe due to the introduction of Japanese products instead of the appeal of the Meiji government, including the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair. The method of introducing national prestige and expanding human networks that characterized universal expositions originating in the eighteenth century has lasted until today. The Paris Universal Exposition of 1867 laid the foundations for this in a modern sense.

It goes without saying that the duty of Shibusawa, who accompanied Akitake, was to engage in the work of general affairs and accounting. But many studies revealed that this experience had an impact on Shibusawa’s activities in business circles or for social contributions.

Meiji University Professor Kashima Shigeru delivers the keynote address

The Influence of the Principles of Saint-Simon

Although The Shibusawa Eiichi denki shiryo (Shibusawa Eiichi Biographical Materials) of Shibusawa contain no description, it is thought that during his stay in France, Shibusawa was influenced by the principles of Saint-Simon of abolishing the privileged classes and emphasizing the industrial and social systems where industrialists, including capitalists, play a leading role. In fact, French people who attended the party of Shibusawa included devotees of the principles of Saint-Simon, including Lieutenant Léopold Villette, who taught the French language. Michel Chevalier, a devotee of the principles of Saint-Simon, led the Paris Universal Exposition.

Professor Kashima Shigeru at Meiji University, who made a keynote speech at the symposium, pointed out that the idea of the Paris Universal Exposition according to devotees of the principles of Saint-Simon emphasized the significance of “displaying everything including artificial items and producing competitions” and of promoting a free market economy by collecting items from around the world and displaying them. Professor Kashima said that it was indispensable for Japan in the Far East to participate in the Paris Universal Exposition in the sense that the event was attended by people “from all over the world.”

After Shibusawa, who had a strong sense of business although he was born into a farmer’s family, became a vassal for the Hitotsubashi family of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, he embarked on many reforms and his skills were highly rated. When Yoshinobu was asked to display items at the Paris Universal Exposition and dispatched his brother Akitake to France, he appointed Shibusawa as an accountant. Later Yoshinobu said, “There was a strong possibility that I would die amidst the great confusion in the closing days of the Tokugawa Shogunate. If that happened, I would entrust everything to Akitake. Accordingly, I needed to make Akitake go to France with Eiichi and learn foreign thoughts.” Shibusawa Eiichi was just 27 years old at that time.

Shibusawa, who accompanied Akitake, learned many things. Shibusawa, who was extremely shocked to learn that a private company was handling the construction of the Suez Canal on his way to France, got to know a stock system for investigating the matter. After arriving in Paris, Shibusawa learned about railway and corporate bonds from Paul Flury-Hérard. Flury-Hérard, who was a banker and merchant, used to be the French Ambassador to Japan, and remained in Japan until the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. While a Japanese mission including Shibusawa was in France, Flury-Hérard attended them. Flury-Hérard had strong connections with the French Foreign Ministry and Société Générale S.A., a leading bank. Paulin Talabot, who  was one of the primary founders of the bank, was a devotee of the principles of Saint-Simon just like Lieutenant Villette, who taught Shibusawa French during his stay in Paris.

Professor Kashima pointed out, “It was not the case that because Shibusawa Eiichi was a great person, he just created the economy. He undertook a study tour of facilities accepting abandoned children and hospitals for people without relatives in Paris. He probably he thought that he would have to introduce systems for not removing the disadvantaged so that the society could be managed properly. In fact, Shibusawa later founded Tokyo Yoikuin (an orphanage and old people’s home).”

Shibusawa, who returned to Japan and founded a financial and trading company, was persuaded by Okuma Shigenobu in 1869 to serve the Meiji government as a vassal of the shoguns in the Tokugawa period.

Professor Kashima said, “You could say that Shibusawa built almost all of the foundations of today’s Japan. He made one achievement after another after returning from France and becoming free. He forcibly deprived the peers and descendants of samurais of privileged fiefs in the Meiji Restoration and issued bonds with low interest for a limited period of time. But it was obvious that there was a shortage of paper, and Shibusawa had made preparations for founding a paper-making company (now Oji Holdings Corporation). That is, notes in later years. In addition, Shibusawa enacted a bank ordinance and founded the First National Bank. He also founded Imperial Hotel and Tokyo Kaikan for sociable activities. He also established a shoe-making company so that people could wear shoes. In this way, Shibusawa was involved in founding around 500 companies.”

Contemporary illustration of the site of the 1867 Paris Exposition


Shibusawa, who accompanied Akitake when he was dispatched to the Paris Universal Exposition of 1867, returned to Japan with Akitake in December 1868 following the receipt of notification of the return of political power to the Emperor by the Tokugawa Shogunate during his stay in France.

In January 1869, Shibusawa, who went to Yoshinobu, who was transferred to Shizuoka, opened Shizuoka Commercial Company, a financial and trading company, and became the representative of this company. As Professor Kashima pointed out, in November 1869, Shibusawa served the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Ministry of Finance within the Meiji government and became comprehensively involved in laying the foundations for a modern state as the chief of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, such as the construction of a money system, the formulation of a national bank ordinance, a modern postal system, the building of railway trains, the popularization of stock companies and the construction of organizations, including the Ministry of Finance.

In 1873 Shibusawa left the Ministry of Finance, opened the First National Bank and founded a paper-making company, which marked the beginning of the private-sector-based activities on which he focused. This was just five years after Shibusawa had returned to Japan from France.


SANO Kentaro is a freelance writer.


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