Yet Japan, that mysterious island nation, remained aloof from the Western world. Aside from the Dutch, who maintained a trading post in Nagasaki, westerners were forbidden to set foot on Japanese soil. The Japanese aristocracy was afraid that European culture, specifically Christianity, would “contaminate” their way of life and threaten their autonomy.
By the mid-nineteenth century, America (now a two-coast power) was looking for more trading partners in the Pacific. President Millard Fillmore decided to use a bit of gunboat diplomacy to shake Japan out of its slumber. In 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy led a fleet of steam-powered warships to Edo harbor (modern day Tokyo). Perry presented the ruling shogun with a proposition: open up to American trade or Edo would be bombarded into oblivion.
The shogun gave in. Samurai swords were no match to American cannons.
In 1868, a group of nobles overthrew the conservative shogunate and “restored” power to the 16 year old Emperor Meiji. This group’s goal was to drag Japan into the modern age. National survival was at stake. If Japan remained stuck in the past, they argued, a Western power could easily conquer and exploit it. Britain and France, for instance, were carving up a prostrate and technologically backwards China into “spheres of influence.” Japan would not be next.
Yet it was traditional Japan, not the newly-industrialized one, which captivated the millions of visitors to the Japanese pavilion, bazaar, and gardens. The American public was starved for novelty, especially in architecture and the decorative arts, which were smothered in the rich gravy of Victorian taste.
Following the Centennial Exposition, America went Japan-crazy. Upper class Bostonians, with their Trascendentalist philosophical leanings and love of nature, were particularly smitten. Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow lived in Japan from 1882 to 1889, collected 40,000 pieces of Japanese art which he donated to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and even converted to Buddhism. The eccentric heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner — known as “Mrs. Jack” — also fell under the Buddhist spell for a while. Her conversion was one of many things she did to flout Proper Bostonian conventions.iii Art critic Okakura Kakuzo, a mutual friend of both Bigelow and Gardner, designed the display of Japanese art at Mrs. Jack’s mansion. Kakuzo also arranged a performance of the ancient tea ceremony at her 1903 housewarming party.iv This house would eventually become the famed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Across the Atlantic, Japanese prints sold by dealers such as Wright had a profound influence on the painters Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh. In 1887, Van Gogh did a self-portrait in the Japanese style, showing himself as he wished to be: “a simple monk…worshipping the eternal Buddha.” vi
In 1958, the Shofuso was carefully shipped to Philadelphia and reconstructed in the new tea garden. It still stands to this day, maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers. During the year, the Shofuso hosts events showcasing Japanese culture to Philadelphians. These include tea ceremonies, bonsai workshops, craft and martial arts classes, and the Sakura Sunday – Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival.
After 134 years, few visual reminders of the great Centennial Exposition remain. But miraculously, the patch of ground where the Shofuso stands continues to host the Centennial’s longest running exhibition.
[i] The Atlantic Monthly, as quoted by Dorothy Gondos Beer, “The Centennial City, 1865-1876,” from Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982), p.470.
[ii] Richard Morris Hunt, as quoted by Dorothy Gondos Beer, “The Centennial City, 1865-1876,” from Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982), p.470.
[iii] Cleveland Amory, The Proper Bostonians (New York, New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1947), p. 130.
[iv] Overview, Isabella Stewart Garnder Museum http://www.gardnermuseum.org/collection/overview.asp Accessed May 6, 2010.
[v] Melanie Birk, editor. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fifty Views of Japan: the 1905 Photo Album (San Francisco, California: Pomegranate Artbooks, 1996), p.105.
[vi] Martin Gayford, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles (New York, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006), p.7.
[vii] History, Shofuso: Japanese House and Garden http://www.shofuso.com/?page_id=11 Accessed May 5, 2010.