On Wednesday, Japan will change its calendars to the Reiwa Era, according to Japanese tradition when a new emperor ascends to the Japanese Chrysanthemum throne. The previous 30-year Heisei Era began after the passing of the Showa Emperor and end of the “bubble” economy.

The 59-year old Reiwa Emperor may be unaware that the first foreign head of the state who met his great-great-grandfather Emperor Meiji, enthroned during Japan’s 19th-century modernization period, was the Kingdom of Hawaii’s King David Kalakaua.

In hindsight, Emperor Meiji viewed Kalakaua as a model of a Westernized, independent Asia-Pacific nation-state.

Japan was the first stop of the “Merrie Monarch’s” 10-month extraordinary world tour in 1881. But why did King Kalakaua choose Japan?

During the 1603-1868 Tokugawa Era, no Japanese were allowed to travel abroad under “sakoku,” or the 250-year “Closed Country” policy.

In 1868, the first year of the Meiji Emperor’s reign, 153 immigrants known as “Gannenmono” arrived in Honolulu. King Kalakaua must have spoken to these hard-working kanaka kepani pioneers — and led to his policy to promote Japanese emigration to Hawaii to work on sugar plantations.

In July 1881 King Kalakaua, aged 45, met the Meiji Emperor, who was barely 29 years old, several times during a two-week stay in Japan. The Meiji Emperor “pulled all the stops” for the Hawaiian monarch, including a Japanese Imperial Army band playing “Hawaii Pono,” the Kingdom anthem.

Emperor Meiji of Japan admired Hawaii King David Kalakaua. Flickr: Robert Huffstutter

From the Meiji Emperor’s viewpoint, Hawaii was an Asia-Pacific “success story.” When in 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Yokohama Bay to pressure the then-ruling Tokugawa warlord to “open” Japan to Western trade and diplomacy, Japan was exposed as a weak feudal state that was defenseless to resist Western industrialized power.

In contrast, in the 1790s Kamehameha the Great deployed state-of-the-art rifles and cannons in amphibious assaults on Maui and Oahu — creating the unified Kingdom of Hawaii; a century later King Kalakaua represented an independent state, not a feudal fiefdom or a colony.

Western Influence

The king wore Western clothes, traveled in steam-powered ships, and knew about the telegraph, photography, and electricity — all startlingly innovative to Japan, which resembled medieval England.

Japan was largely illiterate with only a few temple schools; King Kamehameha the III launched a Kingdom-wide school program in the 1840s, before many European states.

To catch up with the West, Emperor Meiji explored adopting English as Japan’s official language and accelerated engineering programs, including at now top-ranked Tokyo University. He was impressed that King Kalakaua — dressed in a European-style uniform covered with medals — conversed with his officials, including William N. Armstrong (the kingdom’s attorney general), in fluent English.

(To Emperor Meiji, the fact that Armstrong, a Yale law graduate, and Charles H. Judd, the King’s chamberlain, were the king’s Royal School classmates was unimaginable).

Since King Kalakaua, who studied military tactics under a Prussian officer, was to Emperor Meiji a “modern” monarch leveraging Western language and education to keep his nation free of Western domination, the emperor changed his meeting schedule to listen to King Kalakaua’s several proposals.

Emperor Meiji viewed Kalakaua as a model of a Westernized, independent Asia-Pacific nation-state.

In one meeting, King Kalakaua, strategizing to sustain his kingdom’s independence, “pitched” to Emperor Meiji the idea of a pan-Asia diplomatic and economic “league” aligned against European powers. Unbeknownst to Kalakaua, Japan was considering other options: in a dozen years Japan would wage war with Qing Dynasty China, and annex Korea and Taiwan.

If Emperor Meiji listened to the King, perhaps there would be an early Asia regional economic “market” group that would resist colonial encroachments by all powers, perhaps changing history.

In an oft-quoted story, Kalakaua proposed to Emperor Meiji that his 5-year-old niece Kaiulani become the bride of Prince Sadamaro, a teen-aged student at the Imperial Naval Academy.

Like a chess player, Kalakaua was thinking several moves ahead when a Hawaii-Japan monarchal linkage may bring Japanese warships to defend the Kingdom against a U.S. marine landing. However, although the Emperor wanted rapid modernization, an infusion of Hawaiian (and European) blood into the 1,500-year Imperial family line was a stretch for the homogeneous Japanese state.

Reflecting his interest in tech innovation (he would meet Thomas Edison and discuss electricity generation) Kalakaua mentioned a Hawaii-Japan joint venture for an undersea cable linking Hawaii and Japan. This idea would bear fruit in the early 20th century with the first undersea telegraph cable linking Japan to Hawaii, and in 1964 the first Japan-Hawaii telephone cable operated successfully. Kalakaua was indeed a futuristic thinker.

After a busy week in Tokyo, the king toured Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto and Nagasaki. At an exhibition the King examined industrial machines producing textiles and paper products. He was given engineering textbooks, enjoyed kabuki plays, and visited Buddhist temples.

Clearly, King Kalakaua acquired in-depth insights to a rapidly industrializing non-Western society while keeping ancient traditions — ideas that aligned with his quest to install electric lights at Iolani Palace, simultaneously reviving Hawaiian hula and music.

Of the questions asked by Japanese to the king, one bothered him: “Why didn’t you choose Hawaiians to be Cabinet members and travel companions?”

This latter question was the trigger for the King’s unique program to develop a “Hawaiian” cadre of technocrats (speaking foreign languages) educated abroad for what we would call a “Global M.B.A.”

Robert Wilcox traveled to Italy to learn civil engineering; Prince Jonah Kuhio studied sustainable agriculture in England (and learned Japanese in Tokyo, along with two other kanaka maoli students); others learned marketing and exports in Guangzhou (Canton) in southern China. This innovative program ended in 1887, the year of the “Bayonet Constitution” that severely restricted the king’s powers.

Four years later on a trip to San Francisco King Kalakaua passed away, aged only 54.

As for Emperor Meiji, he died in 1912 (he never traveled abroad), ushering in the Reigns of Taisho, then Showa, Heisei, and now today the Reiwa Era. Emperor Meiji gained much from the idea-rich King Kalakaua in search of global “best practices” — the Emperor’s first foreign head-of-state dialogue.

In a reversal of roles, instead of continuing innovator King Kalakaua’s advisory role for Japan, Hawaii in 2019 looks to other regions for ideas, capital, and tourists – while searching for its mid-Pacific identity. Like King Kalakaua’s experiment, Hawaii should train its own children to create its own bright future.

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