Japan and Britain after 1859: Creating Cultural Bridges

Japan and Britain after 1859: Creating Cultural Bridges

Japan and Britain after 1859: Creating Cultural Bridges

Japan and Britain after 1859: Creating Cultural Bridges

Excerpt

In the 1850s it was with a sense of increasing importance that the Japanese Samurai unsheathed their swords, and, brandishing them with a flourish, cried 'revere the Emperor and expel the barbarian'. But the samurai sword was no match for the armoured ships of the 'barbarians'. Nor, despite the primacy of the American, Commander Matthew Perry, was it, at that time, the Americans that the Japanese had to fear. It was the British, whose commercial supremacy then dominated the world, who were the real threat. Britain, being an island nation, situated off the west coast of Europe - as Japan was to be found off the east coast of Asia - became a model and a challenge. Establishing cultural bridges became an urgent priority.

The young Samurai hot heads, still carrying their two swords - now modestly sheathed - set out from Japan to explore the West. They were mortified by the industrial power they saw in Britain and in Europe. The embarrassment of appearing in the West in their wonderful, impractical, voluminous clothes led at once to an appreciation of the need to know how to dress. What was a Japanese man to do with 'shirts, studs and wash hand basins'?

In Vienna, in 1873, the Iwakura Mission, the most influential delegation of new Japanese leaders ever sent overseas, was bowled over by the great Exposition. The exhibition movement of the nineteenth century, initiated by Britain in 1851, although disguised as cultural bridge building, was about trade and commercial prosperity. The Japanese were shocked. Japan had no overseas trade, nor any modern industry. With the courage of desperation they determined that they, the Japanese, would take on the Great Exhibition and create their own cultural bridges with the West. Far from retreating, the Japanese embraced these great Western competitive showcases.

True to their resolve, at the great exhibitions throughout the developed world, the Japanese, with flare and pizzazz, bombarded the West with their culture. They erected Eastern pavilions and adorned them with the most exquisite Japanese furniture, faience and frivolities. As a result the Japanese corner of any exhibition was besieged by visitors, enchanted by this strange exoticism.

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