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Letter from the Emperor of Japan

International Diplomacy / Nation Building

On January 20, 1881 His Majesty David La‘amea Kalākaua (1836-1891) departed Honolulu Harbor aboard the steamship City of Sydney on a nine-month diplomatic mission around the world. This voyage was one part of a strategic plan to achieve greater recognition throughout the world for the Kingdom of Hawai‘i as a legitimate and sovereign nation-state. The King felt this work was essential, not only in order to resist outside challenges to the nation’s sovereignty, but also to reverse Kānaka Maoli loss of power within the Kingdom. Many of the American business interests who had backed Kalākaua in his election victory over Queen Emma were now quickly moving towards greater control of the government. The King also witnessed the loss of sovereignty by Native peoples in New Zealand, the Marquesas and elsewhere, highlighting growing imperialism in the Pacific. Kalākaua saw a formal procession of state visits from the King himself, along with the signing of treaties and conventions, as powerful steps in protecting his nation’s sovereignty.

Kalākaua’s grand vision seemed to be manifest clearly on a major stop in Japan. His diaries, and those of the delegation with him, speak of arriving in Yokohama to a scene of great pomp and circumstance that included a salute from fifteen warships of the Royal Navy of Japan. As the ship carrying Kalākaua touched the landing, the Emperor of Japan had his military play Hawai‘i Pono‘ī, the anthem the King himself penned seven years prior. At a luncheon at the Imperial Palace on March 14, the Japanese Emperor conferred on Kalākaua the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Chrysanthemum, the highest honor in the Japanese Empire.

In a later audience with the Emperor Meiji, Kalākaua proposed an Asiatic Federation to link the two countries, along with others, in mutual support that would attempt to balance British and American dominance. The King sought to further tie the two Nations through a proposed future marriage of the Princess Ka‘iulani and the Japanese Prince Komatsu. Neither of these efforts came to fruition, but indeed a much closer relationship between the two nations was evidenced by the signing of an immigration agreement and also in later letters from the Emperor to Kalākaua.

Although Kalākaua’s visit to Japan was one of the trip’s highlights, it was certainly not seen as the only success. On this first circumnavigation of the globe by any monarch, the King of Hawai’i met with leaders of nations that included China, India, Egypt, Italy, Germany, Wales, Belgium, Portugal, Spain and others. This journey, along with the later proposed Polynesian federation and the completion of ‘Iolani Palace were, for Kalākaua, testimonies of nationhood and statements to be heard by both haole and kanaka alike.

Collection: Monarchy Collection
Call Number: MS MC Kalākaua Box 1.2