‘Free-and-Easy,’ ‘Japaneasy’: British Perceptions and the 1885 Japanese Village
Examining press reviews and accounts of the Japanese Village in London from newspapers and periodicals in 1885.
By Dr. Wendy S. Williams
Associate Professor of Professional Practice in Honors
Texas Christian University
Although writers in 1885 were fairly confident that they “knew” the Japanese culture, they had only a superficial understanding of it, and they often depicted Japanese people as simple, coarse, and inferior. These writings largely reflect British feelings of superiority, enchantment, and confusion regarding Japan, a quickly progressing country that was not easy to classify.
By the late-nineteenth century, Britain was flooded with Japanese arts and crafts. Paintings, pottery, china, kimonos, fans, screens, silks, and swords decorated the drawing rooms of increasing numbers of middle- and upper-class homes. The “Japan craze,” prompted initially by Japan’s opening to the West in 1853 and subsequently by international exhibitions of Japanese arts, was in full force in Europe and the United States. Yet Victorians, so enamored with Japanese commodities, remained mostly ignorant about the people who made the bric-à-brac that filled their homes. On 10 January 1885, Tannaker Buhicrosan opened the Japanese Native Village, a spectacle that promised to bring “every-day life as in Japan” to London (Cortazzi 22). An 1885 poster for the Village stated that it was “erected and peopled exclusively by natives of Japan … amongst whom are skilled artificers and workers who will illustrate the manners, customs, and art industries of their country, clad in their national and picturesque costumes” (22). Around 100 Japanese artisans and entertainers, including 26 women and children, were recruited from Japan to perform their way of life for the British public. The exhibition proved a huge success, attracting 250,000 visitors in less than four months—from opening day until 1 May 1885, when the Village burned to the ground (39).
The Japanese Village demonstrated and contributed to the fascination with all things Japanese in Victorian Britain. However, as Hugh Cortazzi explains, the Village was not the direct cause of the late-nineteenth century image of Japan as a “quaint and exotic land of geisha, Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms, rickshaws and paper houses”; rather, the exhibition “reinforced a false and misleading image” of Japan (xii). British responses to the Japanese Village illustrate these mostly false perceptions. This essay examines press reviews and accounts of the Village from newspapers and periodicals in 1885 to show that although writers were fairly confident that they “knew” the Japanese culture, they had only a superficial understanding of it, and they often depicted Japanese people as simple, coarse, and inferior. These writings largely reflect British feelings of superiority, enchantment, and confusion regarding Japan, a quickly progressing country that was not easy to classify.
Even a brief look at the historical background helps explain why the British depicted the Japanese as the simple, inferior “other.” In 1853-1854, American Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to end its long isolation policy from the West, which ultimately led to the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the restoration of Emperor Meiji to power in 1868. The Meiji period brought rapid modernization to Japan. The British perception of the Japanese during this same period, however, was a less developed caricature, as Anna Jackson explains:
The “opening” of Japan occurred at a time when the concept of “race” as the determining force in the development of human history was becoming increasingly crucial. The pseudo-scientific racism that evolved in the second half of the nineteenth century strengthened the Englishman’s sense of superiority and justified his imperialist policies around the world. It was also part of the whole network of discourses through which Western bourgeois society sought to define itself. Meaning is dependent on difference and nations acquire their sense of identity by locating themselves in relation to others. In their encounters with other cultures, those in the West stood in a position of dominance which influenced what they saw and how they saw it. The way “the rest” were represented by the West produced knowledge which constituted power over those who were “known.” (251)
Britain’s knowledge of Japan, argues Toshio Yokoyama, was largely produced by three groups of British authors—those who lived in Japan, those who visited Japan for short periods of time, and those who had never been to Japan—all of whom created and/or reinforced notions of Japan as a singular, happy, primitive land (172-73). Yokoyama suggests that descriptions of Japan as unreal and fanciful indicated “the deep anxiety in British intellectuals’ minds” (175). Jackson also views Britain’s reaction to modern Japan as fraught with national anxiety: “There seemed to be an anxiety that unpleasant aspects of contemporary industrial Britain might be suggested by descriptions of the ‘New Japan’. Instead, writers sought the ‘Old Japan’ of the interior that was idealized as a paradise, a dreamlike ‘wonderland’ peopled by ‘chubby children and rosy maidens’”. Jackson further explains: “The lives of these supposedly simple, innocent, primitive Japanese people could be viewed with escapist longing by those coming to terms with the complexities of life in the industrialized West. This admiration for the simplicity and purity of Japanese life was, however, entirely dependent on the unshakeable belief in the ultimate superiority of Western civilization” (250). The British allayed their fears of Japanese assertiveness by situating Japan in the remote past and distancing themselves by describing the people in otherworldly terms. The British were both fearful of and enchanted by the descriptions of the fairytale world of Japan.
In addition to travel writing, international exhibitions featuring Japanese art also increased awareness of the Japanese culture and eventually led to a massive market for factory-based export ware. By 1885, Britons were already familiar with an image of Japan via scenes on Japanese pottery, fans, and screens that cluttered British homes. The 1885 London Japanese Village simply offered the chance to witness that depicted culture firsthand. Village promoters promised an authentic Japanese experience. Tannaker Buhicrosan, organizer of the Village, remarked at the opening ceremony that “he had taken care to bring fair representatives of real Japan life” (“Japanese Village,” The Era). Sir Rutherford Alcock, first minister to Japan, inaugurated the exhibition, stating: “Such a living representation of these interesting people as they were in their own homes could not fail to excite a degree of popular attention which, he trusted, would repay the promoters for their labour, time, and capital it must have required to bring it together” (“Japanese Village,” The Standard). Otake Buhicrosan, Tannaker’s wife, wrote in her 1885 guidebook Japan, Past and Present, which was written to promote the rebuilt Japanese Village, that: “every characteristic of the country will be fully and accurately demonstrated at various times of the day” (iv). Reporters repeatedly noted the supposed authenticity of the Japanese experience afforded by the Village. According to the British Architect, “The whole conveys a vivid picture of Japanese life and manner” (“Japanese Village”). The Manchester Guardian correspondent averred, “Here we find a village transplanted with strict fidelity in every particular from the Land of the Rising Sun” (“Japanese Village”), and a writer from The Saturday Review similarly stated, “practically they have, as it were, transplanted a village from the sunny slopes of Fusiyama, with all of its life and industries, to Humphrey’s Hall, Knightsbridge. … Indeed the whole village forms of the life in the Far East” (“Japanese Village”). A Bristol Mercury reporter described the “genuine natives of Japan” and “the whole scene, quaintly Oriental and almost bewildering at the first view in such as no stay-at-home Englishman has ever before had within his reach” (“Japanese Village”). Another writer proclaimed that she had been to Japan itself: “I have paid a highly interesting visit to a foreign country this morning, without the aid of that ‘magic carpet’ or ‘wishing ring’ which, in fairy stories, is considered necessary in order to accomplish such an undertaking” (“A Peep”). Village organizers and attendees commented at length on the authenticity of the Village and its ability to make known the Japanese people to the British spectators. A writer from The Ladies’ Treasury described the “throngs of people” that “crowded daily to see the industrial employment of a strange-looking people, hitherto unknown to the multitude, excepting through pictures or books of travel” (“Japanese Village” 324). François Cellier, conductor of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company at the time of The Mikado, and collaborator Cunningham Bridgeman wrote that “it was not until the native colony was formed at Knightsbridge that the Japanese and the English began to know each other” (187). Such responses to the Japanese Village reveal a need to truly understand the “strange” people of Japan.
Japanese Village attendees equated Japanese people with scenes and objects. The Times reporter described the Japanese people as a part of a scene: the “curious exhibition” of “interesting strangers, who, in their loose, flowing national costumes form not the least picturesque element in the scene from the Far East” (“Japanese Village”). A great many reports included the words “picturesque” and “quaint” to describe the Village, indicating a tendency to associate Japanese people with pictures and to put them in the “quaint” past. Japanese people in London complained that the exhibit did not represent true Japan but rather was an exhibit depicting cultural backwardness. Poor actors of low socio-economic status were hired to play the roles of artists and create a Western image of “Japanese-ness.” Further, Yoshihiro Kurata argues, the Japanese Village buildings were small and made of humble materials, creating a quaint, unthreatening image of Japan (qtd. in Scholtz 73-74, 78). This “safe, miniaturized” and “manageable” Japan, according to Amelia Scholtz, contrasted with the vast international expositions with their grand displays, allowing British spectators to have a sense of mastery over the Japanese culture (74). Scholtz contrasts the indignant Japanese responses to the Village with the enthusiastic reactions of the British and argues that the exhibition offered “not simply a vision of a village, but the totality of Japanese life. In its unqualified simplicity, the advertisers’ label, ‘Japan in London,’ purported to offer the spectator a whole country, rather than merely a collection of edited highlights” (75).
Repeatedly, visitors to the Japanese Village used words that simplified and distanced the Japanese performers from their British spectators. The words “strange,” “merry,” “content,” “little,” “childlike,” “simple-minded,” and “grotesque” appear again and again throughout Village descriptions. Reporters also simplified Japanese work and lifestyle by describing them as “easy”: “free-and-easy system of living” (“Japanese Village,” The Times) and “Japaneasy going manner in which they toiled through their performances” (“Japanese Village,” Fun). One reporter noted, “Life goes very easily in Japan, I fancy. There are few demands made either by society or climate, and living is usually very simple” (“Our Ladies’ Column”). Another curious trend in writers’ descriptions of the Japanese at the Village is the frequent references to the “hands” and “fingers” of the Japanese workers. One writer explained that Japanese hands are “extremely artistic in shape. Their fingers are half pointed and half spatulous, and … they handle their tools or implements of work with the utmost grace” (“Japanese Village,” Ladies’ Treasury 327). Another wrote, “Their long brown hands do not look over clean, and they hold their tools in what seems to be an unhandy fashion, but the effects they produce are true and neat and exquisitely finished. … the silk has been perpetually rolled up and down in the brown hands, a burnt candle end is thrown away and another set up, yet the fingers appear unsoiled” (“Japanese Village,” Illustrated London News). Reporters described the “dark but comely hands of a Japanese maiden” serving tea (“Japanese Village,” Christian Union), the “long, slender fingers” of the workmen (“A Peep”), and the “perfect neatness of their work [that] indicate far more than neat-fingered training, while their bright good-humoured smiles and merry laughter tend to prove that their crafts are less of a toil than a pleasure to them (“Japanese Village,” The Saturday Review). Another explained: “All, I noticed, have small, well-shaped hands; the fingers being lithe and tapering, the nails oval and well trimmed … the Japanese are mostly cleanly people. … So you see they are not very much behind English people, after all” (Holland). A number of British writers conceded that the Japanese were clean people and had therefore progressed toward being civilized. However, by describing the Village residents in terms of their “Japan-easy” lifestyle and by focusing on their hands and work, reporters classified the Japanese as simple laborers living in the past. Josephine Lee asserts that the Japanese Village workers “were framed both as romanticized artisans and representatives of a primitive culture that magically produced rare and beautiful objects. Any glimpse into other dimensions of their working lives were momentary interruptions to the buzz of commerce that surrounded them” (53). By presenting and perceiving the Japanese in this way—as a race of traditional workers who produced commodities for British consumption—Britons could allay any anxieties about a rapidly industrializing country that was growing increasingly powerful.
The 1851 Great Exhibition positioned England as a leader of civilization. England enjoyed its superior status and did not want to view Japan as a successful nation, despite Japan’s rise in power in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Japan became increasingly like Britain, which made it more and more difficult for Britain to define itself “in contrast to the ‘other’ that was Japan” (Jackson 251). Jackson explains, “Its ‘otherness’ was becoming blurred. The Japanese were adopting Western dress, just as the fashionable middle-class British were buying kimonos and fans. … The anxieties this produced led to British commentators retreating into ‘Old Japan’ and stressing the unchanging aspects of the country” (251-52). British responses to the Japanese Native Village in 1885 demonstrated the need to affirm British superiority. A few periodicals satirized the British response to the Japanese Village, revealing an awareness of the essentialism in depictions of the Japanese. However, the majority of reporters and attendees of the Village created a stereotypical image of Japan. Rather than embrace Japan as a powerful, industrializing country not unlike Britain, British writers and citizens relegated Japan to a lesser status by equating its people with the commodities that they produced (and the English consumed) and portraying them as primitive workers.
- William Michael Rossetti describes the “Japanese mania” that reached artistic circles by 1863 (276). Olive Checkland explains that “it was the International Exhibition in London in 1862, at which Rutherford Alcock’s Japanese collection was shown, which first started the craze in ‘things Japanese’” (112).
- Josephine Lee points out that Japanese art circulated in Europe long before Japan opened its doors to the West in 1853: “Even during Japan’s period of isolation, large quantities of Japanese ceramics were shipped to Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and enjoyed great popularity among aristocrats” (3).
- For a discussion of the obsession over and commercialization of Japanese wares in Britain, see chapter fourteen, “Shopping for Japonoiserie,” in Checkland.
- The art industries on display included lacquer work, pottery, metal work, printing, screen painting, wood and ivory carving, lantern making and painting, embroidery, weaving, fan and silk decorating, and cloisonné. Live performances included “geisha” dancing, sumo, kendo (martial art with bamboo swords), kyogen and kabuki (forms of traditional theater). In addition, visitors could drink green tea at the tea-house and watch the priest perform devotions at the Buddhist temple.
- Buhicrosan rebuilt the Village; it reopened in December 1885 and ran until 1887. Multiple other Japanese Villages were built in Europe and in the United States.
- Cortazzi describes the events that fueled Britain’s interest in Japan before 1885: the 1862 International Exhibition in London and the 1867 Paris Universal Exhibition 1867 at which Japanese art products were displayed (1-2); the influential book, Japan, its Architecture, Art and Art Manufactures (1882), written by designer and promoter of Japanese art Christopher Dresser (3); works created by famous artists such as James Abbott Whistler (4); popular travel books by authors such as Isabella Bird (5); and the 1884 International Health Exhibition in London that included Japanese exhibits (6-8). Joseph McLaughlin further explains: From the middle of the nineteenth century, Japan had a special hold on Victorian imaginations for a number of reasons, many of which arose from its sudden, seemingly spontaneous, entry into world affairs. Early writers on Japan, such as A. B. Mitford in Tales of Old Japan (1871), believed that they had discovered a society stuck in the Middle Ages, one which was still imbued with the values of chivalry and honor which Victorian intellectuals, most notably Thomas Carlyle, felt had been lost in an age of industrial capitalism.
- The Times reporter explained that the management would not allow any of the crafts made in the Village to be sold until near the closing of the exhibition to prevent making the affair “a bazaar” (“Japanese Village”), and news reporters repeated claims that proceeds from the Village would go to Mrs. Otake Buhicrosan (Tannaker’s wife) to organize a mission to spread Christianity and promote the social condition of women in Japan (“Sir R. Alcock”). It is unknown whether or not this mission ever took place; however, despite claims that the Village was a charitable event, it was apparently a commercial one. By all accounts, Buhicrosan was an entrepreneur who worked energetically to manage and promote the event.
- Jenny Holt offers an alternate interpretation of the Japanese Village controversy: “liminal members of Japanese society were representing and performing ‘Japanese-ness’ in a way that was disapproved of by the educated (mainly samurai) elite. The Knightsbridge Village was, therefore, a catalyst for debating the ‘correct’ representation of Japanese identity, demonstrating the influence of social class on the way images of Japan were projected overseas” (39).
- Anne McClintock relates the connection between cleanliness and civility: in the early 1800s, soap was scarce; however, in the latter part of the century, “the manufacture of soap had burgeoned into an imperial commerce; Victorian cleaning rituals were peddled globally as the God-given sign of Britain’s evolutionary superiority” (207). The later 1800s developed into a commodity culture. Victorian homes filled with knick-knacks, and commodities were exhibited at exhibitions. Commodity kitsch “made possible, as never before, the mass marketing of empire as an organized system of images and attitudes (208). Soap served to preserve “uncertain boundaries of class, gender and race identity in a social order felt to be threatened by the … slums … industry, social agitation, economic upheaval, imperial competition and anticolonial resistance. Soap offered the promise of spiritual salvation and regeneration through commodity consumption, a regime of domestic hygiene that could restore the threatened potency of the imperial body politic and the race” (211).
- See the following images: “An English Village from a Japanese Point of View,” “Japan Fan-Tasy,” “Knightsbridge in Japan,” “London Japanned,” “The O.B.M Japanned” and articles: “The Japanese Village in Humphrey’s Hall” and “The Japaneseries.”
- Buhicrosan, Otakesan, Japan, Past and Present. The Manners and Customs of the Japanese, and a Description of the Japanese Native Village. The Proprietors of the Japanese Native Village, 1885.
- Cellier, François, and Cunningham Bridgeman. Gilbert, Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte: Reminiscences of the Savoy and the Savoyards. Pitman, 1914.
- Checkland, Olive. Japan and Britain after 1859: Creating Cultural Bridges. Routledge Curzon, 2003.
- Cortazzi, Hugh. Japan in Late Victorian London: The Japanese Village in Knightsbridge and the Mikado, 1885. Sainsbury Institute, 2009.
- “An English Village from a Japanese Point of View.” Punch, 24 Jan 1885, p. 47.
- Holland, S. “A Bird’s-Eye View of Japan.” Young Folks Paper, 23 May 1885, p. 362.
- Holt, Jenny. “Samurai and Gentlemen: The Anglophone Japan Corpus and New Avenues into Orientalism (Part I).” Literature Compass, vol. 11, no.1, 2014, pp. 36-46.
- Jackson, Anna. “Imagining Japan: The Victorian Perception and Acquisition of Japanese Culture.” Journal of Design History, vol. 5, no. 4, 1992, pp. 245-56.
- “Japan Fan-Tasy.” Funny Folks, 10 Oct 1885, p. 325.
- “The Japaneseries.” The Sporting Times, 17 Jan 1885, p. 3.
- “A Japanese Village.”The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, 12 Jan 1885, n. pag.
- “The Japanese Village.” The Era, 17 Jan 1885, n. pag.
- “The Japanese Village.” The Illustrated London News, 21 Feb 1885, p. 203.
- “The Japanese Village.” The Manchester Guardian, 12 Jan 1885, p. 6.
- “The Japanese Village.” The Saturday Review, 17 Jan 1885, p. 79.
- “The Japanese Village.” The Standard, 12 Jan 1885, p. 3.
- “The Japanese Village in Humphrey’s Hall.” Fun, 28 Jan 1885, p. 35.
- “A Japanese Village in London.”The Times, 10 Jan 1885, p. 6.
- “A Japanese Village in London.”British Architect, 9 Jan 1885, p. 15.
- “A Japanese Village in London.”The Ladies’ Treasury: A Household Magazine, 1 Jun 1885, pp. 324-27.
- “The Japanese Village in London.” Christian Union, 16 Apr 1885, p. 9.
- “Knightsbridge in Japan.” Judy, 21 Jan 1885, p. 27.
- Lee, Josephine D. The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. U of Minnesota P, 2010.
- “London Japanned.” Funny Folks, 24 Jan 1885, p. 27.
- McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. Routledge, 2013.
- McLaughlin, Joseph. “‘The Japanese Village’ and the Metropolitan Construction of Modernity.” Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, vol. 48, 2007, n. pag. DOI:10.7202/017441ar
- “A Peep at a Japanese Village.” The Children’s Friend, n.d., p. 75.
- Rossetti, William Michael. Some Reminiscences of William Michael Rossetti. Vol. 1. Scribner, 1906.
- “The O.B.M Japanned.” Judy, 18 Mar 1885, 121.
- “Our Ladies’ Column.” The Wrexham Advertiser, and North Wales News, 31 Jan 1885, p. 2.
- Scholtz, Amelia. “‘Almond-Eyed Artisans’/‘Dishonouring the National Polity’: The Japanese Village Exhibition in Victorian London.” Japanese Studies, vol. 27, no. 1, 2007, pp. 73-85.
- “Sir R. Alcock On Japanese Work.” The Times, 12 Jan 1885, p. 10.
- Yokoyama, Toshio. Japan in the Victorian Mind: A Study of Stereotyped Images of a Nation 1850-80. Palgrave, 1987.
Originally published by BRANCH Collective under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.