The Japanese statesman Tomomi Iwakura (1825-1883) played a key role in bringing about the Meiji restoration of 1868 and is best known as the leader of a mission of government leaders to the West.
Tomomi Iwakura was born into the family of a lower-ranking court noble on Sept. 15, 1825, in Kyoto. Adopted into the Iwakura family in 1837, he began his career as a court chamberlain. In the late 1850s he rose to prominence as a leader of the antiforeign element at the court, helping to resist efforts of the bakufu (military government) to secure imperial approval for the commercial treaty negotiated with the United States. In spite of his relatively low rank, Iwakura became a personal confidant and adviser of Emperor Komei because of his devotion to the cause of restoring the Emperor to power. Iwakura favored a moderate policy of "union between court and bakufu," advocating in 1861 a marriage between Princess Kazunomiya, the Emperor's sister, and the incumbent shogun, lemochi Tokugawa.
By the mid-1860s Iwakura had become impatient with the failure of the bakufu to cooperate honestly with the court and began to establish contacts with loyalist samurai from the Satsuma domain. He urged the Emperor to rescind the powers of the shogun and call an assembly of the domain lords, hoping for a unified national regime, under the Emperor, capable of resisting foreign pressure and undertaking internal reform. In December 1867, cooperating with Toshimichi Okubo, Iwakura helped engineer the overthrow of the shogun and the formal restoration of full executive authority to the Meiji emperor.
Iwakura occupied a leading role in the new imperial government. During 1872-1873 he headed a diplomatic mission to the Western nations, composed of men like Okubo, Koin Kido, and Hirobumi Ito, as well as a host of lesser officials and technical experts. The mission intended to renegotiate the "unequal treaties" and to investigate conditions in the West at firsthand. It was unsuccessful in achieving its first purpose, but it did leave the leaders of the new government with a concrete appreciation of Western military and economic strength.
After returning to Japan Iwakura led the opposition to an expedition against Korea proposed by Takamori Saigo and others. Together with Okubo, he argued that the country was too weak to undertake a foreign military expedition and that priority should be given to internal consolidation. Although his views triumphed, he was seriously wounded by would-be assassins in January 1876 for his role in the decision.
After Okubo's death in 1878, Iwakura became the most authoritative senior figure in the government until his death on July 20, 1883. Iwakura was highly conservative in outlook; his most important achievement was to advocate the establishment of a new constitutional order on the Prussian model: the promulgation of a constitution by the emperor, the vesting of most state powers in the imperial institution, and the assignment of a weak role to the popularly elected legislature.
Robert A. Wilson, Genesis of the Meiji Government in Japan (1957), discusses Iwakura and his leadership role in overthrowing the ruling Tokugawa family. Rachel F. Wall, Japan's Century (1964), offers a brief but good historical background, including the era of Iwakura's activities. For a fuller historical discussion see John K. Fairbank and others, East Asia: The Modern Transformation (1965).