The Pre-Raphaelite Craze in Nineteenth-Century Japanese Periodicals

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The Pre-Raphaelite Craze in Nineteenth-Century Japanese Periodicals

Thomas J. Tobin, The William Morris Society

The late-Victorian mania for all things Oriental produced Japanese decorative screens for the English drawing room, Oriental-style pottery for the English table, Aubrey Beardsley’s angular “japanned” prints for English parlor walls, and Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado for English entertainment halls. The adoption of the mannerisms of the East by the West is well documented in English periodicals in the 1890s: popular nineteenth-century periodicals helped to create and to sustain what Punch called the “Oriental Craze.”

However, in Japan, there was another craze going on: Pre-Raphaelitism. The Japanese were discovering the poetry and paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his Pre-Raphaelite brethren; many Japanese periodicals reflected the medieval “aesthetic” of Rossetti, Swinburne, and Tennyson. As quickly as the West was absorbing Eastern motifs and attitudes, the Japanese were learning to admire and imitate the Pre-Raphaelites. This, too, was fueled by periodical literature, and in much the same way as it was happening in England.

This essay serves as a means of investigating the role played by the popular periodicals in Japan in creating and sustaining an “Aesthetic Craze.” I will briefly examine the demand for japonisme as it is published in the British periodical press and compare it with the demand for English Aestheticism as seen in the Japanese periodical press. Both of these crazes for foreign art and aesthetics may be traced to the political and economic trends of the time. Expanding markets and closing borders (reported in both countries’ newspapers) served to create tension between expansionist merchants and jingoist bureaucrats in each nation. The affectation of foreign tastes as fashionable, facilitated by the English and Japanese periodical presses, helped to break down barriers to international trade and communication.

If we take as a definition of japonisme a western interest in the culture and art of the East, then it is tempting to date the beginning of this phenomenon in England to the late 1700s and the fad for chinoiserie. However, the periodical press in eighteenth-century England largely ignored Japan as a part of this trend, as Yumiko Yamamori observes:

Although Japanese export artefacts started the fashion for a Japanese style during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, it was little more than a fad for exotic things. Japanese styles were applied purely for decorative effect.

Not until the American “opening” of Japan by Commodore Perry in 1852 did many English artists become enamored of Japanese design. For example, James MacNeil Whistler and his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti collected Japanese tiles, jewelry, and pottery, incorporating their motifs--and in many cases the objects themselves--into their paintings. As the century came to a close, the Japanese aesthetic had been adopted by such diverse artists as Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Crane. These brief examples are some of the results of a decades-long strategic “friendship campaign” by British merchants and government officials to play up the quality of Japanese goods and the nobility of the Japanese people. This trend between the 1860s and the 1890s is most easily illustrated in news reports and parodies in the British press. Garrett Droppers, after having spent some years teaching in Japan, wrote in 1900 that “perhaps no other country has received so much unstinted praise in the periodical literature of the past two decades” (163).

The most telling reason for such “friendship campaigns” by the British and Japanese governments is economic, and occurred during the 1860s and 1870s. Yamamori summarizes the relation between the early economic changes and the military situation in Japan:

The power of the Tokugawa government had been significantly lessened after these events and it became a matter of course that the Emperor would be restored to power. This was finally realised in 1868 (the Meiji Restoration) and the Samurai class vanished from Japan. Being aware of Chinese diplomatic and territorial defeats, the fear of Western invasion precipitated Japan towards modernisation as a Western style society and a world military power.

With regard to the changes which took place at the beginning of the Meiji era, Bentley’s Miscellany in 1858 looks forward to the new market represented by Japan:

Exeter Hall has reason for rejoicing; the men of Manchester will rub their hands gleefully as they reckon up their possible profits, for has not a new country been opened up to the blessings of Western civilization and calicoes? The benighted Japanese will no longer be suffered to adhere to their exploded system of protection, but must accept at our hands a commercial exchange, frok which they will, of course, derive all the benefit. . . . Altogether, then, we have reason to anticipate a favourable result from opening up trade with Japan, although it may very likely demand time. Still every new outlet for our manufactures is so much gained. (“Japan and the Japanese” 623, 634-635)

Tomoko Sato points to several additional economic factors which contributed to the emphasis on strengthened trade between England and Japan:

The first National Industrial Exhibition (Naikoku Kangyo Hakuranaki) was held in 1877 in Tokyo. Throughout the Meiji period the Japanese government tried to use these exhibitions to promote industry and commerce. . . . Advertisements became more important and many companies used English texts in their advertisements to enhance their modern appeal and to reach foreign customers in cities such as Kobe and Yokohama. (Japan and Britain 123)

A telling result of such practices was a kind of cultural cross-pollination, in which East and West incorporated the styles of their new trade partners, as seen in exhibitions and periodical reports. A writer for the Academy in 1880 notes this specialization of goods exclusively for foreign markets:

In his last report on the trade and commerce of Hiôgo and Osaka, H. M. consul furnishes some interesting notes with regard to the condition of Japanese art manufactures. Among these we learn that there is at present a very large demand for Awata ware. . . [and] considerable quantities of Kaga and Owari porcelain ware are, it is stated, now finding their way down to Hiôgo and Kobe for shipment to Europe, for which purpose they appear to have been specially manufactured. (“Japanese Art Manufactures” 167)

A secondary reason for the encouragement of trade between the English and the Japanese was strategic: the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans were, by the early 1870s, at the brink of war, and each nation was appealing to Britain for military and economic aid. Because of good economic ties with the three Eastern nations, England was reluctant to offer open military aid to any of the combatants, especially since Russia--an especially powerful trading partner and naval power in the Pacific, had yet to show its collective military hand. Thus, Britain continued a policy of economic openness and military neutrality until the outcome of the “Asian Problem” was more certain.

Trade between England and Japan was seen as a vital link between the two countries that would help to ward off possible acrimony if England were forced into supporting Japan’s enemies in the military situation brewing on the Asian continent. Many periodicals gave voice to this concern in a backhanded way, such as when Robert Porter examined the options of Japan becoming a competitive economic power as a result of its increasing military strength:

When the great Siberian railroad is completed, Osaka can send its good direct to London from Vladivostok by a water journey of a few days. . . . The foreign importers of Yokohama or Kobe (principally Englishmen), who do four-fifths of the business for the Japanese producer, industriously spread the notion that Japanese competition and Japanese industrial progress are twin myths. (149-151)

Trade was further bolstered by an exchange of artists, teachers, and scientists:

In addition, besides oyatoi [Western scholars and advisors], some Western artists were invited to Japan by the Meiji government. Upon the decision to establish modern museums in Japan, the government sent officers to the West to research, and also invited the British designer, Christopher Dresser to Japan in 1876. During his stay, he was asked to visit factories and workshops to give some advice on European taste to promote future trade with England. During his 98-day stay, the energetic Dresser met 75 makers of ceramics, metalwork, bamboo and basket works, lacquer furniture, textiles, embroideries, enamels, cloisonné enamel, toys, and paper. (Yamamori)

In addition to bringing Western talents to Japan, trade was encouraged through the return of English merchants who realized profits by trading in Japanese goods and the idea of Japan as a mysterious and elemental culture, which meshed well with the Gothic revival in England.

In order to preserve . . . traditional art and also to enhance export trades, the Meiji government strongly encouraged the export of Japanese arts and crafts. It realised the importance of world exhibitions as the ideal showcase in which to promote Japanese products to the world, hence, made a great effort to explain the benefits of such participation to the people. This was done by starting regular domestic exhibitions and rewarding craftsmen for their skills, offering financial support to craftsmen, and preparing the desirable craft designs for exhibitions. In particular, the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibitions (1876) is known for the enormous investment made by the government: it even paid the travel expenses for all Japanese exhibitors who wished to attend with their objects. (Yamamori)

The statistics for the period leading up to the 1890s point to the growing importance of East-West trade, and the growing importance of the periodical press in both England and Japan toward publicizing and increasing such trade:

During the Meiji period, foreign trade was increasing rapidly: in 1868, total imports were 15,553,473 versus exports of 10,693,072; by 1912, they had grown respectively, to 526,981,842 (33 times) and 618,992,277 (57 times). The major export items were silk, tea, copper and ceramics and the main import item was cotton. . . . The foreign trade of Japan with Britain in 1909 amounted to approximately 24,000,000 sterling, or 29 per cent of British foreign trade. (Yamamori)

The English demand for Japanese goods began after the opening of Japan in the 1850s, and during the 1860s many English collectors began buying Japanese pottery and household objects because of their simplicity and economy of design, artistic use of asymmetry, and association with the medieval culture of Japan. This phenomenon was originally reported in English periodicals, and, to some extent, the periodical press, although slow at first to champion the Japanese aesthetic, helped to fuel the huge English demand for Japanese art and goods.

Turning to the availability of Japanese decorative arts in Europe (excluding Holland), a British ship carrying a full load of Japanese crafts returned to London in 1854. These were exhibited at the Old Watercolour Society Gallery in Pall Mall East and became the first opportunity for the British to encounter Japanese crafts. Although this early event did not make any immediately noticeable impact on British art, it was featured by the London Illustrated News [sic] on 4 February 1854 with great acclaim. (Yamamori)

The lure of the exotic prompted many English artists and craftsmen to adopt Japanese methods or to incorporate Japanese themes into their productions:

Western pictorial artists had started to use the concept of Japanese art to free themselves from Western classical tradition. Japanese wood block prints, ukiyo-e, were newly introduced to the West in the nineteenth century, and had a sensational impact on Western art. Asymmetrical arrangement, blank backgrounds, flat and linear depiction disregarding mathematical perspective--none of these featured in the traditional canon of which had ruled in the West for centuries. (Yamamori)

For the first ten years or so after the reopening of Japan, the passion for Japanese art was confined to individual artists and collectors. In the 1870s, when more information and materials became available, the vogue took off in earnest and numerous Japanese style interiors were created. This trend was carried to extremes in the 1880s, particularly in England, and thousands of ordinary homes were filled with Japanese-style decorative objects such as fans, umbrellas, and porcelain. Cosmo Monkhouse, for instance, predicts a late-1880s collecting vogue for “authentic” netsukes:

Nothing will satisfy the desire for netuskés when it once sets in. . . . It is possible that before long the names of these little masters of Japan (difficult though they may be to remember) will be well known to collectors, and that a vast amount of time will be spent in learning their signatures in Japanese characters, while a veritable “Ikkan” or “Miwa” will fetch a great many times its weight in gold. (“Japanese Art at the Fine Art Society” 86)

In terms of the art trade, the periodical press made much of the elegance and simplicity of Japanese wares and art. Although the English demand for Japanese goods began decades earlier, the English periodical press picked up on the trend beginning in the 1860s.

During the 1860s, English artists adopted wholesale many Japanese items for use as motifs, and the periodical press in England romanticized Japanese culture and “artefacts” as though they were long-lost remnants of medieval Japan--which, in a way, they were. For example, the Pre-Raphaelites adopted Japanese items in their works, but based on the idea popular in the press of Japan as a “backward” and feudal society, one whose objects lent mystery to the Pre-Raphaelites’ paintings. In another instance, Paul Spence-Longhurst points out that in Dante Rossetti’s The Blue Bower, the instrument depicted in the painting is a Japanese koto, which the figure “absent-mindedly plucks” (50). The principal figure of Rossetti’s lesser-known The Bride wears a kimono, but in such a fashion as to be almost unrecognizable as such. One gets the sense that these Japanese items are used out of context, to hint at exoticism without necessarily standing as metonyms for the whole of Japanese culture. Toshio Watanabe singles out William Michael Rossetti as

the only . . . Pre-Raphaelite who showed any consistent and serious interest in Japanese art. . . . He published an article on Japanese woodcuts as early as 1863 in The Reader. . . . Though not very well informed, his comments are perceptive, and he went beyond regarding Japanese art as simply something to be used in a painting as a decorative device or as fashionable paraphernalia. (5)

Because of the novelty in Europe of Japanese artists whose works may have, in Japan, already become outmoded, the new interest in Japanese culture created an artificial boom in prices across the spectrum of Japanese art:

The admiration which Japanese pictures excited when the country was first opened up to foreigners led to a rush on the market for all paintings bearing the signatures of well-known artists. It was not long before Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Germans became as enthusiastic over the works of Sesshiu, Kano Masanobu, and Hokusai as the Japanese themselves. (“Progress in Japan” 69)

Thus, we can see that although the influence of periodicals on the tastes of artists and the general English buying public during the 1860s is relatively small, there is already in place a nascent feedback loop: William Michael Rossetti’s articles on Japanese woodcuts were the result largely of having consulted periodical reports of the works of the likes of Hokusai and others.

The Gothic revival, as personified by the Pre-Raphaelites and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), produced a desire in England in the 1870s to purchase and to preserve both English and Japanese wares which had changed little since the “glorious dynasties” of yesteryear. Whether the products sought were actual antiques or reproductions was a question of economic demand. E. W. Godwin laments in an 1876 article for the Architect that “either the European market is ruining Japanese art, or the Japanese have taken our artistic measure and found it wanting; perhaps there is a little of both” (363).

Indeed, the Japanese had taken the “artistic measure” of the English marketplace, as will be discussed below. Japanese artists began to create goods that were influenced by the Gothic revival style, and by the late 1870s, mass-produced poor-quality “Japan-ware” was for sale to English consumers outside the traditional realm of art connoisseurs.

By the 1880s, the mystique of Japan--created in large part by the periodical press in England--produced exhibitions and cultural exchanges. The English press reported on the growing enchantment of even workaday England with both the culture and the commodities of Japan. The demand for Japanese art and goods moved out of the bohemian circles and into popular taste during the late 1880s, fueled largely by press reports on Japanese culture, goods, and exhibitions. For example, the London Times in January 1885 highlighted the Japanese exhibition at Humphrey’s Hall in Knightsbridge:

It is an entire Japanese village erected and peopled by natives of Japan. On entering the hall the visitor finds himself in a broad street of shops and houses from which rows of smaller shops forming narrow lanes are laid out to the right. These are not merely painted fronts but well built apartments of multi-coloured bamboo with single or thatched roofs painted by native artists. (XXXXXXXXXXXXX)

Japanese homes, shops and tea-houses were represented, as was a temple. The exhibition featured demonstrations of fencing, dancing and wrestling, as well as lacquer-work, and wood-carving, and textiles, fans, copper work, ivory etc. were available for purchase. Admission was 2 and sixpence, making the Japanese goods on display affordable for the middle classes, a situation which created an economy of scale, allowing the import trade from Japan to boom in England. This exhibition was reportedly the inspiration for Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.

The 1890s saw the height of the English demand for Japanese culture, to the point of wholesale importation of both Japanese goods and Japanese artisans to England. Also during the 1890s, England saw a wave of imitation Japanese objects made in Britain by British manufacturers. The 1890s saw the decadence not only of Western art, but of popular English taste. Punch lampooned the Aesthetic Movement’s fascination with Japan in a cartoon depicting an Aesthetic couple swooning over a blue-and-white teapot: “It is quite consummate, is it not?” “It is indeed! Oh, Algernon, let us live up to it” (DuMaurier). [FIGURE 1] Yumiko Yamamori cites many English periodicals as having a strong impact on the popular mania for all things Japanese, among them the Studio:

A British leading artistic magazine of the day, The Studio, featured miscellaneous aspects of Japanese art and culture continually throughout the 1890s and 1900s. Particularly, the edition of July 1899 dedicated eight pages to the Japanese-inspired house of Mortimer Menpes, an Australian painter, with ten photographs. (Yamamori)

By this time, the periodical press was feeding its own news cycle; the Academy in 1892 reported on the creation of the “Society for Encouraging the Study of Japanese Art,” founded in large part by other editors and writers for the journal. Likewise, the Japan Society, which “was founded during the ninth international Congress of Orientalists, held in London in 1891, consists already of 403 members” (“The Japan Society” 7), and by 1893 had already established its own journal. Concurrent with this trend of publicizing the quality of Japanese goods was a series of warnings about the economic advantages of Japanese manufactures:

There are others who say that this Japanese . . . competition scare has its origins in London; that it was set agoing there by the Manchester bimetallists, who believe that the cotton mills of India, of China, and of Japan are going to rob England of 400,000,000 Asiatic customers for its cotton yarns and cotton cloth; that the object of the scare is to induce the British government to adopt a more liberal policy on the silver question, and thereby take away the protection which these silver-using countries practically have against the gold-standard countries of Europe. . . . Those who have any doubt as to the reality of Japanese competition should glance at the windows of our leading carpet and upholstery establishments. There they will find, during these summer months, large quantities and infinite variety of cool-looking blue and white cotton rugs from Japan. A reference to the advertising columns of newspapers in the leading cities shows that these goods have been the specialties of the season and have been sold in enormous quantities. (Porter 145)

The end of the century also saw a rise in the one-off and knock-off based on Japanese themes, as this tour-book review in The Speaker for October 1892 illustrates:

Mr. Tracy effectively contrasts the pretty bamboo bridges which are commonly made to cross the water-courses which fertilise even the smallest gardens with the couple of planks which the inartistic Briton makes to serve the same purpose. (“Japan Again,” 477)

Phony “Japanese” goods were produced by English laborers from English materials for the English market (for example, “imported” Japanese garden bridges, such as those mentioned above, were made mostly in Birmingham), and the fakes were difficult to tell apart from those mass-produced in Japan. The original goal of British foreign policy at the middle of the century--fostering artistic and cultural exchange--found its culmination in the marketplace, where England’s fascination with the culture and art of Japan produced an economic bubble.

This cycle of diplomacy, limited exchange, periodical-press puffery, and eventual wholesale commerce has its mirror in Japan, where the press began to take interest in the artifacts and culture of the West as something novel. Between the 1860s and 1890s, there was a buildup of demand in Japan for English art and culture, and it, too, was fueled by the periodical press. The outcome of the process by which this demand was created and sustained is similar to the trend seen in England, but the motivation behind many articles in the Japanese periodical press stemmed from radically different impulses than similar articles in the English press.

After the 1850s, Japan embarked on a growing campaign of modernization, led by the new emperor and, more reluctantly, by the Tokugawa government. Some Japanese men, for example, wore the traditional kimono with English bowler hats to signify their adoption of Western practices. A craze for English goods soon swept up the Japanese, and periodicals in the 1860s and 1870s reflected the mania. These examples, too, are the end results of a decades-long strategic campaign by Japanese merchants and government officials to play up the high quality of English goods and the nobility of the British people. The movement began with artistic exchanges, in which the Japanese emulated Pre-Raphaelitism: “Takahashi Yuichi (1828-94), a Western-style painter in the early Meiji era, had been taught by Charles Wirgman, a reporter and illustrator for The Illustrated London News” (Hashitomi 29). By the end of the nineteenth century, the Japanese had expanded their desire for Western tastes to include commerce:

Embassies were despatched to the European courts, and commissions were sent to study the systems of government, of administration, of education, and of religion in the Western world, as well as the dockyards, workshops, and arsenals of the principal manufacturing countries. (“Progress in Japan,” 61)

Between these two extremes, the growing Japanese fascination for all things English was reported on, and in many cases, fueled by, Japanese periodicals.

Looking back from the vantage of 1895, the Edinburgh Review recalls how the Japanese press operated in the 1860s:

Everything was strictly up to date. Telegraph-boys on bicycles traced past the mostly demolished city fortresses of the daimios; English-speaking policemen, in immaculate white uniforms, stood at every street-corner . . . newspaper-vendors emulously hawked their daily wares. Nay, if the visitor was a poet, a baronet, or a journalist, he had to undergo, on behalf of the native press, an interview with “a dapper little gentleman, in appearance about nineteen, dressed in faultless foreign fashion--tennis shoes, flannel trousers, white waistcoat, blue coat, flowing necktie, spectacles, and pith helmet--speaking English with the accuracy and impressiveness of a copy-book,” and asking questions “with the directness of a census-taker.” (“Problems of the Far East” 132)

The Japanese press helped to increase the spread of Western ideas throughout Japan, beginning with the “poets, baronets, and journalists” who visited from England. Although during the 1860s, English fashions in art and dress were somewhat slow to catch on outside of the major cities of Tokyo and Kyoto, the one influence that seemed to pervade the country was that of the press. Daily newspapers and monthly magazines fed the increasing appetite for English art and poetry. The response to Westernization was rapid: “In the twinkling of an eye, so to speak, institutions of an ultra-medieval type were completely modernised” (“Problems of the Far East,” 138), including the press.

Between 1876 and 1885 the number of newspapers delivered through the Japanese post increased from 4,077,095 to 15,258,6721 (“Progress in Japan,” 77). Throughout the 1870s and early 1880s, a mania grew for access to English art, literature, and goods, and a lively trade developed, at first based on reporting about England, and then shifting toward trade in goods. The reports of the expansion of the press in Japan were often astounding. Henry Norman reports in The Peoples and Politics of the Far East that

Journalism in Japan has come with a rush. The seventeen daily papers published at Tokio have a combined circulation of some four millions, and the “fourth estate” is represented altogether by nearly 800 periodicals of various kinds and complexions. The information supplied by them is, often enough, founded rather on fancy than on fact; yet they serve their turn. (142)

The number and circulation of periodicals grew so rapidly that by 1893, the authors of a Japanese-English dictionary are faulted by W. G. Aston, a Japanese language scholar, for not relying on periodicals in order to gauge current idiomatic usage: “Hardly any reference is made to the voluminous newspaper,and other popular literature of the present day, which have been made good use of by Messrs. Hepburn and Gubbins” (319) in their previous dictionary.

By the 1880s, the “fancy” on which Japanese reporting was sometimes based echoed the misrepresentations of Japanese culture as seen in the English press, right down to the false “foreign” goods actually produced in the home country:

While the Cult of Japan was pervading British taste, Westernisation began to have its effect on Japanese art and exports. . . . As the Westernisation programme progressed, Japanese artefacts began to include other inferior goods made by poor adoption of Western techniques. (Sato and Toshio 37)

Japanese artists of all calibers began to study English schools, especially the Pre-Raphaelites, in order to be able to imitate the new style, especially considering that “Engrisheru” images, even by third-rate hacks, fetched extremely good prices.

The temptation of an eager market overcame, for the moment, the innate love of art which belongs to the Japanese as a race, and the descent from perfect to indifferent colouring was intensified by the attempt to conform in all cases to the rules of perspective taught in the schools. . . . When these chefs-d’œuvre became exhausted inferior works supplied their places in the market, and when, in turn, these became scarce the production of a new supply formed the trade of any artists who could wield a brush. (“Progress in Japan,” 69)

The temptation to produce fakes was, in England as well as Japan, one driven by a lucrative market, as seen in this excerpt from an 1875 Academy article on a London exhibition of ancient Japanese lacquer wares:

An examination of this collection is also very instructive for another reason. It is only in the old pieces made for the Daimios, or the Mikado or Tycoon, or wealthy native families, that we find the distinct note which distinguishes Japanese art from all other art. So imitative a nation very rapidly loses its finer shades of feeling and execution, and since 1850 the decadence of Japanese are has been lamentably accelerated. . . . [A]ny one who would learn how time, patience and feeling can produce art perfect in itself out of materials apparently hopelessly commonplace, has only to compare the masterpieces of this collection with the so-called japanned trays of Birmingham to feel what an immeasurable gulf lies between art and manufactures. (Rathbone 177)

While the economic trend in Japan went toward recreating and forging English styles, the government and upper classes continued to emulate Western manners, which were duly reported in the press:

The Japanese Upper Ten have advanced another step in Western civilisation--they are learning to dance in the European fashion. When present at European balls they find their ignorance of waltzes and quadrilles somewhat inconvenient, so during the last few months the nobility have formed private classes at Tokio, and practise diligently. When perfect one of the Imperial princes intends to give a grand ball to show off the new accomplishment. (“Scraps,” 179)

By the 1890s, however, the government strategy of promoting economic and artistic Westernization began to be undermined from within, a process which had begun in the mid 1870s. Hugh Cortazzi reports that “opposition to modernisation was a major factor in the civil war of 1877, the so-called “Seinan War” or the “Satsuma rebellion” (57). Yumiko Yamamori argues that the Western dances held by the upper classes were one flash point:

The people’s desire to pursue the latest fad was often carried to extremes and their obsession for all things Western reached a culmination in the 1880s, when the elaborate social dance hall, Rokumeikan, designed to entertain foreign officials and the Japanese upper-class was built in Tokyo. Such superficial Westernisation provoked a conservative reaction urging the need to return to native Japanese values and traditions. It can be said that Japanese modernisation had become more established after this period. (Yamamori)

Many Japanese lodged a backhanded protest against the Westernization of Japan by using retrogressive movements in England as their models for returning to a more “Japanese” Japan. These opponents of Westernization admired and advocated especially the medieval bent of mid-century English art. The very Pre-Raphaelites and SPAB who celebrated and preserved the English medieval heritage were now used as potent symbols by Japanese critics who longed to return to their former ways of life and their former isolationist policies. By 1890, “it was a remark of Sir Harry Parkes that, unless the Japanese established museums for the preservation of antiquities, there would soon be nothing left in the country that was nationally characteristic” (“Progress in Japan” 68).

Japan was becoming a world power in its own right by the mid 1890s, and the call to re-claim a national identity led to a break with English traditions and styles in many areas of Japanese life, for instance, education:

Japanese education is secular and compulsory, though not gratuitous. Its most marked result has been the development of a dangerous class of idle graduates, too learned to dig, too unsettled for trade, and hence always at hand for inflammatory purposes. . . . The time has, in their opinion, come for pulling down the scaffolding by the aid of which a still insecure edifice of civilisation was reared. “Japan for the Japanese” is their watchword, and they have, unfortunately, power on critical occasions to raise whirlwinds of popular passions. (“Problems of the Far East” 144)

In 1896, Admiral Fremantle confessed in the Royal United Service Institution Journal that England had chosen the right side in the Sino-Japanese tensions of the preceding decades, but that the time was approaching when Japan would no longer need England, since its increasing military power would soon trump its need to engage in commerce to support its independence:

The war-like, go-ahead Japanese have won all along the line; while the peaceable, conservative Chinese have disastrously failed to make any respectable defence of their hearths and homes. . . . In Japan, . . . while art is held in high esteem, and the industry and enterprise of people lead them to be active traders and producers, it is the warlike virtues of patriotism, and devotion to death for a cause, which alone are deemed worthy of public recognition. (119, 125)

The most curious outcome of the artistic, military, and commercial relationship between England and Japan in the second half of the nineteenth century is that Japan did not, as predicted, break entirely with English culture. While the “Japan for the Japanese” movement succeeded in scouring English styles from Japan’s schools, fashions, and commerce, it was unsuccessful in dislodging Pre-Raphaelitism’s influence from Japanese art, design, and poetry. Indeed, the Japanese press admired Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, and Algernon Charles Swinburne consistently throughout the end of the century, possibly because Pre-Raphaelitism represented a desire to return to simpler and more “authentic” English society, a kindred movement to the “Japan for the Japanese” group. Four periodicals may serve to illustrate the affinity of Pre-Raphaelite and Japanese sensibilities in Japanese periodicals: Bungakukai, Shigarami Zôshi, Myojo, and Waseda Bungaku.1

The magazine Bungakukai, or Literary World, helped to bolster Japanese identification with Pre-Raphaelite regard for medieval history and the cult of beauty. Hiroyuki Tanita writes about the “Cult of Rossetti in Japan,” pointing out that

Anyone who studies the cult of Rossetti in the late Meiji era will be obliged to take into consideration the activity of the Bungakukai circle, which played an important part in the development of the cult. . . . Ueda Bin was the first and most ardent admirer of Rossetti in Japan. He contributed several articles on Rossetti’s poetry to Teikoku-Bungaku and Kôko-Bungaku, as well as to the Bungakukai from 1895 to 1898, and he keenly advocated the subtle and mystical emotions of Rossetti’s love poems. (Tanita 20-21)

Hiroki Hashitomi also emphasizes the contributions of Bin to the movement:

Ueda Bin introduced The Star of Bethlehem, a tapestry produced by William Morris, though originally designed by Burne-Jones, in the December 1896 issue of Bungakukai. In the following issue of Bungakukai he introduced paintings by Rossetti as well as poems by Rossetti and Dante. Separately, Mori Ôgai (1862-1922), a doctor, novelist, and connoisseur of the fine arts, when discussing aesthetics in a short article entitled “Tsukikusa no Jo [A Preface to Tsukikusa]” (November 1896), wrote about the open-air painting of the Pre-Raphaelites. (Hashitomi 30)

And here is Bin himself, writing on “Rossetti’s Poems”:

Until Rossetti created a number of his excellent works, into which he must have plunged the lonely thoughts of a half of his life, there must have been some anguish and some joy in his heart. The work that maintains his never-decayed honor in British literary history is, not to mention, the collection of sonnets called “Seimei no ie” or “The House of Life.” (26)

The coterie who wrote for Bungakukai also contributed to other periodicals; for instance, Ogai Mori, mentioned above, wrote a regular column in Shigarami Zôshi [The Literary Journal], in which he discussed the appeal of English poetry and drama in Japan. Mori’s column in the May 1891 Shigarami Zôshi is entitled “Ogai Bunwa,” or “Ogai’s Literary Talk.” The following is a sample from that column, in which Mori bemoans what he sees as a lack of appreciation on the part of the English for their cultural heritage. Mori values those poets and writers who most rely on tradition--a view which at first seems places Mori firmly in the “Japan for the Japanese” camp of reactionaries:

The English are still addicted to their old works, and they seem to forget to look at the present. They respect old writers and many organize associations which study these old writers. You see Shakespeare associations, Shelley associations, and Browning associations everywhere. [Edmund Clarence] Stedman once said of them, “The headquarters of the Browning association is in England, and it is surrounded by many branches. It is like a small spider spinning the thin threads of its net everywhere.”

People’s hearts are not moved by theaters or poetry either. The plays by Tennyson and Browning and poems like “Mary Stuart” and “Marino Faliero” by Swinburne are very true; “Callirhoë,” “Fair Rosamund,” [and] “Brutus Ultor” by [Michael] Field; “Nero” by [Robert Seymour] Bridges; and “The Sentence” by [Augusta] Webster: they all won good reputations; however, they tended to be book-plays. It is very difficult to see their beauty on the stage. Mediocre people write dramatic criticism. They seem only to like knockoffs of French folk plays. Theaters indulge in luxurious ornamentations and have lost their original purpose, simplicity.

The strangest thing is that people do not go to the theater even if there is a Shakespeare play in London. The people seemed to like Shakespeare for a while after they saw “The Merchant of Venice” at the Odeon, even though they have kept him out since Voltaire. Lyric poetry is also at a low ebb. Keats, Wordsworth, and Shelley groups have all split their strength. Only a few people follow in the wake of Tennyson’s poetry, which suggests a bleak future for the [poetic scene in the] country. (28-29)

It is clear from this passage that Mori admires those poets who “seem to forget to look at the present,” and he points to several contemporary English poets as simply inferior imitations of a truer, more authentic English literary past, seen in the figure of Shakespeare. The fact that English reviewers prefer the French model is an echo of the growing Japanese distaste with the fad for English products; however, Mori is careful to note that there is still merit in some contemporary English authors’ works, especially those who are able to evoke the past in a respectful way--the Pre-Raphaelites stand as an exception to the perceived decadence of English letters.

While Mori and Bin wrote primarily about the poetry of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in Japanese literary magazines, the periodical most influential in spreading Pre-Raphaelite ideas and associating them with traditional Japanese culture was Myojo, or Morning Star. Shuji Takashina reveals that “Fujishuma Takeji . . . was responsible for the covers for the poetry journal Morning Star” (73), and that

Takeji and Aoki Shigeru are regarded widely as . . . outstanding representatives of Western-style painting in Japan during the last third of the Meiji period. From the mid-1890s onwards they came under the strong influence of European oil painting and gave rise to a lively boom in the Japanese art scene of the time. . . . When asked by a journalist which painters he was particularly fond of, [Fujishima] gave the names of Burne-Jones, Watts, [and] Rossetti. As can be inferred from these names, he had already become dissatisfied with the ideal of simply reproducing the real world and, based on a deep affection for the world of history and mythology, was attempting to translate into painting the worlds of music and poetry as well. (72-73)

Myojo published numerous essays on English poetry and painting, with the series by Koya Tozawa in 1900 standing as a capstone; the publication was richly illustrated, and blended many elements of traditional Japanese design with those of the posters of Alphonse Mucha and the dreamy haziness of works by Burne-Jones. Tozawa not only wrote critiques of Rossetti’s poems, but also offered his own translations of the poet for the benefit of his reading audience. Note in the following passage the care taken by Tozawa to connect the themes in Rossetti’s “The Blessed Damozel” with Japanese ideas: he presents first a section on how Dante Rossetti’s idealized medievalism is akin to the Japanese reactionary movement, after which he summarizes the poem using traditional Japanese social structures as a base, and he finishes by explaining the concept of heaven to a largely Shinto audience:

Those who lived in the Middle Ages had solid faith in religion. They believed in God; they believed in heaven; they were not like later people, who have doubt. Because all their ideas were influenced by their religion, they naturally had a sensibility that does not exist these days. Rossetti revived their ideas in his poems. He took material for most of his poems from the Middle Ages, and these poems are his greatest works. The poem that I have annotated in this article is like that. Nevertheless, he did not take his material directly from history; he only set it in the Middle Ages. He did not specify the country or the era.

Some time during the Middle Ages, there were a man and a woman who lived in some unspecified place. They loved each other with a very pure love. The woman died young and went to heaven. Even though she became God’s maid at the palace [of heaven], the woman could not stop thinking of her man and waited for him to come to heaven. The man, who survived on earth, kept thinking of her, and expressed sorrowfully how much he yearned to go to heaven.

This is the outline of the poem. We should read his great poem, created with great imagination and with a delicate writing brush. It gives a very good picture of what the people of those days imagined heaven to be like, woman’s conduct there, and other such things. We also should appreciate Rossetti’s peculiar purity of Religious Love. However, some parts seem ridiculous to Asian readers--for example, the scene of heaven. Even so, rather than that being the author’s fault, it is the readers’ fault. Because, after all, [the idea of] heaven is a result of religious faith; those who do not have such faith cannot possibly believe in it. But readers who think and imagine what religious love means will be able to appreciate the scene of heaven in their minds all the time. I ask such resolution of readers in advance of reading this poem. (22)

In this example, Tozawa takes pains to explain how Rossetti’s poem resonates with traditional Japanese values; Like Mori, Tozawa presents the Pre-Raphaelites as, if not Japanese poets themselves, then poets whose sensibilities mesh well with the growing reactionary Japanese ethos. Tozawa is adamant that “The Blessed Damozel” is beautiful and deserving of Japanese admiration despite its use of the image of heaven: Pre-Raphaelite poetry allows Japanese readers are safe to imagine and interact with foreign concepts without wholly deserting their Japanese heritage. Pre-Raphaelite poetry is a sympathetic--not a colonizing--force that connects to deep spiritual beliefs in Japanese culture.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Waseda Bungaku, or Tokyo Magazine. Kaneko Umaji writes on “The Poetical Imagination of Rossetti, an Authority on Romanticism” in the Waseda Bungaku for December 1893. The magazine uses the traditional Japanese date, Meiji 26, a sign of the reactionary aims of the magazine; yet here, too, Pre-Raphaelite poetry is seen as an acceptable bridge between the out-of-favor colonial power and the Japanese who retain a fascination with the English aesthetic. Umaji’s article is a summary of an article earlier that year by W. Basil Worsfold in the Nineteenth Century. A comparison of the two articles points to the manner in which the Japanese author takes Worsfold’s article and turns its thesis--that Rossetti’s translation of Dante’s Vita Nuova is as lyrically stunning in English as is the original Italian--toward his own ends. Umaji argues that Worsfold misses the connection between Dante Rossetti and his Renaissance-era namesake, the connection most important for a Japanese readership eager to reconnect with its own medieval traditions:

Dante sang of high and beautiful love, which is the spiritual notion in the “Vita Nuova.” He strove in the Middle Ages to inspire people with spiritual power. Rossetti followed Dante and focused on singing of and interpreting the spiritual power of love. His voice was the most sensitive and also the closest to beauty of all [who have translated Dante]. We have been led to the eternal phantom fairyland by him.

We feel like we have been playing in and walking around a profound and remote spiritual world. As it says in the Nineteenth Century, he extended the sphere of the British spiritual world. . . . This is a summary of the article by W. Basil Worsfold in Nineteenth Century. (106-107)

The “eternal phantom fairyland” of tradition is an apt metaphor for what is effectively the end of the artistic and economic relationship between England and Japan. The desire on the part of both nations to reassert their identities after a period of fascination with the otherness of foreign culture eventually pushed aside most of the foreign dress, manners, artistic styles, and commercial practices. Even when the Japanese began to throw off English fashions in favor of return to their cultural heritage, Pre-Raphaelite art and poetry continued to link the two countries. The survival of Pre-Raphaelitism throughout this relationship may be explained by its affinity with the “Japan for the Japanese” movement.

While the question has not been solved, perhaps, with regard to the precise origins of the japonisme and Pre-Raphaelite crazes in England and Japan, respectively, we can see that the political and economic spheres in both countries used artistic exchange as a means of strengthening ties between them without causing international political upheaval. Indeed, the advancement of xenophilic collecting and adoption of foreign modes helped to acculturate and normalize the relations between the two nations to such an extent that in both the news reporting and the satirical journals of the day, we see enacted the same overall program of at least grudging respect for the Other.

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Times article?

Tozawa, Koya. “Annotated Review of English Poetry.” [part 5]. Trans. Sachiyo Connor. Myojo 6 (Sep. 1900): 20-22.

Umaji, Kaneko. “The Poetical Imagination of Rossetti, an Authority on Romanticism.” Trans. Connor Sachiyo. Waseda Bungaku [Tokyo Magazine] 54 (Meiji 26 [Dec. 1893]): 105–108.

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Yamamori, Yumiko. Japanese Export Furniture: with Particular Emphasis on the Meiji Era (1868-1912). “Chapter III: Social Context in the Meiji Era.” 1999. Available 6 September 2002.

1 I must thank Graham Law for his assistance in obtaining copies from the Japanese periodicals cited in this paper , and Yuriko Kameyoma and Sachiyo Connor for their help in translation.

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