The first French military mission to Japan (1867–68) allied itself with the fifteenth and last Tokugawa shogun, Yoshinobu (徳川慶喜 1837-1913, r. 1866-67) against the ruling government of Emperor Meiji during the Boshin War (Boshin Sensô, 戊辰戦争 1868-1869). The shogunate arranged assistance from the Second French Empire for the construction of the Yokosuka arsenal, as well as the dispatch of a French military mission to modernize its armies. In response, the French attempted to to reorganize the shogunate army and train a core elite force. Ultimately, however, the French advisers were forced to escape to a French ship stationed in Hakodate Bay, whereupon they made it back to Yokohama and then to France. Despite Japanese Imperial requests for punishment of the advisers, they were popular in France and were not held accountable for their actions.
The second French military mission (1872–1880) represented a reversal of political sympathies at a time when France had just lost some of its military prestige upon suffering defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (July 1870 to January 1871). The mission was composed of nine officers, fourteen non-commissioned officers, a music director, a veterinarian, and two craftsmen. The mission's task was to help reorganize the Imperial Japanese Army and establish the first draft law, which was enacted in January 1873. The French mission was primarily active at the Ueno Military School for non-commissioned officers. Schools and military units were set up under the direction of the mission. These facilities included the first academy to train and educate officers as well as noncommissioned officers; a shooting school, using French rifles; an arsenal for gun and munition manufacture, equipped with French machinery, which employed 2,500 workers; artillery batteries in the suburbs of Tokyo; a gunpowder factory; and the Military Academy for Army officers in Ichigaya, inaugurated in 1875. Also, starting in 1874, the mission was in charge of building Japan's coastal defenses.
In 1868 Thomas Blake Glover (1838-1911), a Scottish merchant, was responsible for bringing the first steam locomotive to Japan, which he demonstrated on an eight-mile track in Nagasaki. Soon after, the imperial government of Japan decided to build a railway from the major port of Yokohama to Tokyo using British financing and 300 British and European technical advisors. These foreign experts were contracted with the understanding that they would educate Japanese co-workers so that Japan could become self-sufficient in railway construction, at which time the contractors were expected to leave the country. On September 12, 1872 (October 14 on the Gregorian calendar), the first railway opened, between Shinbashi (later Shiodome) and Yokohama (present-day Sakuragichô). Kobe and Osaka were linked by rail in 1874; Kyoto-Osaka followed three years later, in 1877. Even so, these trains all had foreign origins, and it was not until 1893 that the first commercial steam locomotive was made in Japan. By the end of the Meiji era in 1912, Japan had an impressive national railway system connecting most major cities on all four major islands.
Kunikazu's woodblock print is an extremely rare print. A design by an Osaka artist working in Yokohama-style featuring a steam train and French military personal is virtually unique, and so far we have not been able to locate another impression. Aside from the general interest among the Japanese for all things foreign, this scene would have complemented the cultural imperative for promoting technological and scientific advancement and enlightenment embodied by the newly restored imperial rule of Emperor Meiji (1868-1912). Note, for example, that despite the foreign presence and origin of the train, a majestic red Rising Sun, Japan's national symbol, radiates warmth and regeneration for the prosperity of its people. Nevertheless, the foreign presence is paramount in this design. A woman wearing western clothes stands between two of the train-cars, and a grouping of foreign settlement buildings can be seen at the extreme left, situated along the coast.
Anomalies have crept into the composition. It is curious that Kunikazu did not indicate the rails upon which the train would be propelled. The drawing of the train is amusingly quaint — it seems more like a lineup of carriages on wagon wheels to be pulled by horses than a steam-powered train guided by spoked steel wheels. Moreover, the cusped clouds separating the French military equestrians from the steam train are drawn in a traditional Japanese manner, mimicking the kumogata (cloud forms: 雲形) used in Yamato-e (native Japanese painting: 大和絵) and later arts, including ukiyo-e, to enclose poems, amke separate two or more analogous images, introduce different time-frames, depict multiple views, and so on. In other words, Kunikazu's print depicts two distinct but related scenes. It is possible that the French mission advisors are not intended to be viewed as literally riding past the train, but are to be seen as being connected associatively as representatives of technological achievement from the West, and thus they are complementary to the steam locomotive. Regardless, Kunikazu's rendering of the train is not entirely unique in its naiveté. Utagawa Yoshitora (歌川芳虎 act. c. 1850-1882), Utagawa Kuniteru II (歌川國輝 1830-1874), Shôsai Ikkei (昇齋一景 act. c. 1870s), and even Tsukioka Yoshitoshi struggled with realistic depictions of steam locomotives, some of which looked rather like toy trains than the real thing.
- Ericson, Steven: "Importing Locomotives in Meiji Japan: International Business and Technology Transfer in the Railroad Industry," in: Osiris, 1998, Vol. 13, Beyond Joseph Needham: Science, Technology, and Medicine in East and Southeast Asia (1998), pp. 129-153.
- Kakudo, Yoshiko: Nagasaki and Yokohama Prints from the Richard Gump Collection. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and Kodansha: 1981, pp. 22-28, nos. 14-17.
- Yonemura, Ann: Yokohama: Prints from Nineteenth-Century Japan. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1990, pp. 182-185, and plate nos. 79-81.