My father thinks it weird to spend time visiting a cemetery as a tourist activity, but for history enthusiasts it’s not all that unusual to seek out the gravesites of famous or significant historical figures. I certainly do so in Japan, so why should I not do the same here in New York? Yesterday, I did just that, heading out to Brooklyn’s famous Green-Wood Cemetery in search of the gravesites of two Americans significant in Japanese history. Green-Wood is a National Historic Landmark, and at one time, “by 1860, Green-Wood was attracting 500,000 visitors a year, rivaling Niagara Falls as the country’s greatest tourist attraction. Crowds flocked to Green-Wood to enjoy family outings, carriage rides and sculpture viewing in the finest of first generation American landscapes.”1 I can certainly see why. While I certainly felt a share of hesitation and awkwardness at being a “tourist” in a cemetery, especially while others might be visiting dearly departed loved ones, or holding a funeral, and while I certainly made a conscious effort to do my best to be respectful of the graves and the spirits of those buried there, at the same time, on a beautiful late spring (almost summer) day, Green-Wood is indeed a beautiful place. Lots of gorgeous greenery, and lots of beautiful sculpture and masonry. The brownstone gate, erected in 1861, is an impressive example of Gothic Revival style; many of the mausolea, monuments, and tombstone sculptures are not only beautiful examples of artworks, but reflect as well Victorian or Gilded Age interests and tastes. Many are in a Neo-Classical style of one variety or another; one mausoleum in the form of a pyramid, guarded by a sphinx, stood out especially, a product of the Egyptomania so popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The cemetery boasts the highest point in Brooklyn, from which I enjoyed views of Downtown Manhattan (and the still under construction One World Trade Center) and the Statue of Liberty. British and American forces fought for control of this strategically valuable spot of land, today known as Battle Hill, during the 1776 Battle of Long Island, the largest battle of the American Revolutionary War, and the first major battle in history in which a United States army took part, the country having declared its independence, i.e. its existence as a country, the previous month. The 9,000 American troops were eventually defeated by a British force of 20,000, and retreated, but a plaque on the site describes the battle as “galvaniz[ing] the new nation’s sense of patriotism, providing both the army and civilian population with the resolve to continue the struggle for independence.” A monument dedicated to the 148,000 soldiers enlisted from New York City to fight for the Union in the 1860s stands today atop the hill.
Green-Wood is quite large, covering 478 acres, and finding the graves turned out to be more difficult than I had thought. With roughly 560,000 burials, I don’t know what I was expecting, that I would just pop in, take a few photos and pop out. Which is not to say that it was not a pleasant experience – as I said, it was a beautiful day, and Green-Wood is a remarkably beautiful place to stroll and explore. I’m just glad I got out before the gates closed. Fortunately, the visitors center offers a wonderful service, a computer system providing a print-out of the precise location, and numbered plot, of the burial you’re looking for. With that print-out in hand, I headed out, and with, frankly, a minimum of effort or wrong turns, found the two individuals I was seeking.
Townsend Harris (1804-1878) was, as we all learned during the miniscule amount of time spent on Japan in high school social studies, the first United States Consul General to Japan. He arrived in Japan in 1856, on the heels of the so-called “opening” of the country by Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853-1854, establishing the first US consulate in Japan at a temple in Shimoda. Roughly a year and a half later, he was able to meet with Shogun Tokugawa Iesada, and the US-Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce, commonly known as the Harris Treaty, was signed. Though the opening of Japanese ports to American trade, and privileges of extraterritoriality for US citizens in Japan, are commonly discussed in conjunction with Perry’s supposed “opening” of the country, in fact, it was this 1858 Harris Treaty and not the earlier 1854 Convention of Kanagawa which secured most of those stipulations.
Harris remained in Japan only briefly, returning to the US in 1861. Though not as widely-known a name as Commodore Perry, Harris comes a very close second (or, arguably, first) in his significance in the opening of US-Japan relations. He and the events surrounding his time in Japan served as the inspiration, or basis, for “Madame Butterfly,” surely one of the most famous things Americans (or Westerners) traditionally associate with Japan; Harris, or a character based on him, also appears in numerous other stage plays, films, and television shows, including Bertold Brecht’s “The Judith of Shimoda,” first performed in English in 2010, and the 1958 film “The Barbarian and the Geisha,” in which the character of Harris is played by none other than John Wayne.
His gravesite was refurbished in 1986 as a gift from the Japanese government, including a cherry tree, dogwood tree, and the shiny new tombstone, paving stones, and memorial plaques you see here.
I had some trouble finding, and then getting to, Harris’ grave, as it is not immediately along one of the walking paths. Up until that point, all day, I had managed to avoid stepping on the grass entirely. But, in order to reach Harris’ grave, I found I had no choice but to walk up the hill, avoiding stepping directly on anyone’s grave as carefully as I could.
John LaFarge is not quite as well-known as Harris, but I would argue is no less interesting. Maybe even more interesting. LaFarge (1835-1910) was a painter and designer of stained glass windows, whose most famous works include the stained glass windows and mural paintings at Boston’s Trinity Church, as well as paintings of sights in Japan, Hawaii, Samoa, and other places he visited on his many journeys. He was a great-nephew of Commodore Matthew Perry on his father’s side (another connection to Japan), and a descendant of the Mayflower Pilgrims & Plymouth colonists on his mother’s side.
He journeyed to Japan in 1886 with his friend Henry Adams, and upon his return to New England produced many artworks depicting Japanese subjects or themes. Though he did not donate or sell any great collection of Asian artworks to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts as Denman Waldo Ross did, nor play a direct role in founding the museum’s Asian Arts Department as William Sturgis Bigelow and Charles Goddard Weld did, in my mind he nevertheless inseparable these men, and from the likes of Ernest Fenollosa, Okakura Kakuzô, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Edward Sylvester Morse, all of whom played such a significant role in introducing Japanese art to New England in the late 19th century, and setting the foundations for Boston’s prominence today as a center of the study & appreciation of Japanese art and culture.
1) “About/History.” Green-Wood Cemetery Official Website. The cemetery was founded in 1838; Central Park opened in 1857 but its expansion to its current extent was undertaken from 1858-1873. Construction on Brooklyn’s Prospect Park was begun in 1859, and completed 1867.
All photos in this post my own, taken 18 June 2012.