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2018-04-03 Back to list

Back to the 1860s. The First Japanese in Kaunas

A Japanese mission stopped in Kaunas on September 18th, 1862, on its way from St. Petersburg to Berlin.

While Chiune Sugihara, the diplomat that issued life visas for Jews escaping the Holocaust, has become the best-known symbol of the connection between Lithuania and Japan (check out our Sugihara route in Kaunas!), the relationship between the two countries started almost 100 years before WW2.


The first steps towards a real relationship could only happen after Sakoku, the isolationist foreign policy of the Japanese Tokugawa shogunate that had been implemented for more than 200 years, ended in the 1850s. The Japanese government then started sending missions abroad to learn about the Western civilisation and investigate new possible connections.

In 1860, a mission visited the US, and in 1862, a 34-men Japanese Embassy to Europe was sent. This is where Lithuania comes into the picture. During the mission, the team visited France, England, the Netherlands, Prussia, and Russia. Back then, Lithuania was part of the Russian empire. They stopped in Kaunas on September 18th, 1862, on their way from St. Petersburg to Berlin.

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First Japanese Embassy to Europe. Nadar, 1862.

It’s known that the mission travelled through the Kaunas railway bridge (which was less than a year old at that time!) and was quite impressed by its structure. They also visited a small café near the railway station.

Railway Bridge in KaunasBy Creative from lt, CC BY-SA 3.0, Nuoroda


How do we know this? After a successful trip to the US, a thinker, writer and journalist Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901), one of the very few English-speaking Japanese at that time, became an official translator of the European mission. After his travels, Fukuzawa published a 10-volume work called “Things Western” (Seiyō Jijō / 西洋事情) and was eventually regarded as the expert on all things western.

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An excerpt from Fukuzawa’s diary - we’ve highlighted Kaunas! The document is archived at the Fukuzawa Memorial Center for Modern Japanese Studies at Keio University.

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Fukuzawa Yukichi. Photograph taken during his trip to Paris in 1862.

10000 Yenes Anverso

Fukuzawa is still a very important person in Japan today, as his portrait is on the 10000 Japanese yen Banknote.

Fukuzawa’s goal in life was to educate the Japanese people in new means of thinking in order to enable Japan to resist European imperialism. Interestingly enough, here comes another Japanese-Lithuanian connection. In the very beginning of the 20th century, Steponas Kairys, a Lithuanian engineer, nationalist and social democrat, was deeply inspired by the Japanese victory at the Ruso-Japanese war and, without ever travelling to Japan, began investigating the reasons of the strength and resistance of the Japanese people. He later published a few books about his research.

Both Fukuzawa and Kairys, as well as Sugihara and a Lithuanian traveller Matas Šalčius, have become the objects of a new documentary movie called “Kaunas. The City of Sugihara and Japan”. The documentary about the Japanese-Lithuanian relationship before WW2 was initiated by The Centre for Asian Studies at the Vytautas Magnus University. Its premiere is scheduled for April 26th and will be held at the Romuva cinema. The movie will then travel to Japan. Here’s a Japanese trailer!

If you can't make it to the premiere, consider visiting the second annual Sugihara Week in Kaunas. It will be held on September 3-9th, 2018. More on Sugihara Week here. 

Centre for Asian Studies, VMU

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