Robert W. Irwin

“Robert W. Irwin: Between Philadelphia and Meiji”
Masako Hamada (Villanova University)

In 1860 the Tokugawa shogunate sent a 96-member diplomatic mission to the United States, which paraded down the streets of Philadelphia. Robert Walker Irwin (1844-1925), a fifth-generation descendant of Benjamin Franklin and teenager at the time, observed the parade with fascination.  Six years later, at age 22, he headed for Japan to open a Pacific Mail Steamship service to Yokohama. While in Japan, Irwin met many future leaders of Meiji Japan, and he helped establish the predecessor of the current Mitsui Trading Company.  Later, as the Kingdom of Hawaii’s Minister to Japan, Irwin negotiated the 1886 immigration treaty that brought hundreds of Japanese laborers to Hawaii.

Irwin is known in Japan as the “father of Japanese Immigration to Hawaii,” and because of his many contributions to Japan, he was awarded both the Order of the Rising Sun and the Order of the Sacred Treasure by the Japanese Government. Irwin’s marriage to Iki Takechi was the first marriage between a Japanese and American citizen. The couple had six children, and one of their daughters, Sophia Arabella, established the Irwin Training School for Kindergarten Teachers and an adjoining kindergarten in Tokyo. The school celebrated its centennial anniversary in October, 2016.

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