Events and People

Japan-a-mania at the Centennial

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America had been trading with Asia since the early years of the Republic. In fact, some of the nation’s first great fortunes were made in the China Trade; the merchant princes of Boston and Salem would ship American goods and Indian opium to China in exchange for tea, silk, and porcelain.

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 Inflatable Bungee Run 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.

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Progress was swift. By 1876, Japan had set up a European-style parliament and was building up a modern army and navy. Railroads were connecting ancient Japanese cities. The Meiji regime decided that a grand display at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition would be the perfect vehicle to show the world how far Japan had come.

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.

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Amidst all this overstuffed and ornate excess, the Centennial’s Japanese exhibit was a breath of fresh air. The Atlantic Monthly said the clean lines and simple elegance of Japanese design made everything else look “commonplace and vulgar.” For the Japanese, “the commonest object of pottery of cotton-stuff for daily use has a merit of design and color which it does not owe to oddity alone.” i Even respected architect Richard Morris Hunt, a devoted Francophile, was stunned by the attention to detail and quality of craftsmanship he saw. The Japanese garden and bazaar, he wrote, provided “capital and most improving studies to the careless and slipshod joiners of the Western world.” ii

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.

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The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition further stoked American fascination with Japan. One person who prowled the Japanese pavilion was a young architect named Frank Lloyd Wright.v Wright, an avid collector and dealer of Japanese prints on the side, was integrating Japanese design elements into his “Prairie style” houses. When designing suburban and country houses, Wright made a point of building his structures “into” rather than “on top of” the natural landscape, a very Japanese design philosophy.

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

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In Philadelphia, the Japanese presence in Fairmount Park did not vanish with the closing of the exposition. After the Centennial, the Park Commission imported a Buddhist temple gate and placed it on the site of the Japanese bazaar. After this structure burned in 1955, the Fairmount Park Commission secured the “Shofuso,” an interpretation by architect Junzo Yoshimura of a seventeenth century aristocrat’s country house. This handcrafted structure, with its cypress frame and hinoki bark roof, had been presented by the America-Japan Society to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It also boasted sliding doors decorated by renowned artist Kaii Higashiyama.vii

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 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 Accessed May 5, 2010.