This year marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese embassy to the United States, and the Museum of the City of New York is acknowledging this with an exhibition focusing on the embassy’s visit to New York.
I am not very familiar with the museum, or with the kinds of things they generally do or do not do, but I think it fantastic that they should go beyond the typical local-community-focused exhibits about African-Americans or urban development or mayoral history* that one might expect of this museum, to devote efforts and space to as obscure a corner of history as this samurai embassy. Given that Japan Society and Asia Society didn’t do it, it’s especially wonderful that someone should put together this exhibition.
The year was 1860. Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate. The tallest building in New York was Trinity Church. Japan had not yet seen the Meiji Restoration; the US had not yet faced the War Between the States. After crossing the ocean with a larger group, 76 samurai left San Francisco by boat, traveling across Panama by train and then boarding a different ship for the journey to Washington DC. New York was their last stop in the US before leaving for home.
The key goal of this nine-month round-trip journey was to exchange the Japanese and American copies of the Harris Treaty, thereby completing the ratification process begun with the signing at Shimoda two years earlier. In sharp contrast to later Meiji period efforts (such as the 1871 Iwakura mission) to acquire, adapt, and adopt Western technologies, culture, administrative methods, etc, the members of this 1860 mission were encouraged to interact as little as possible with Western people. This was a complete surprise to me, though I suppose the more I think about it, the more it perhaps makes sense, as the country simply had not started shifting in that direction yet.
However, despite these intentions, the samurai ambassadors were persuaded to visit a number of different cities, were regaled with numerous receptions, balls, and other events, had their photos taken despite their initial objections, and became the talk of the media.
The exhibition feels like it consists primarily of gallery labels, which is great for someone like me who adores names, dates, and narrative, though in fact there are *quite* a number of artifacts, and I was really surprised by how many of these things come from the collections of the Museum itself. I think I was most impressed by a sword blade, one of a number presented by the samurai ambassadors to their American counterparts, and forged specifically for that purpose. Passed down through the generations, this particular sword blade never left the family, but the story of how it was obtained was lost for many years until sometime recently, when an expert rediscovered the sword’s provenance.
Other objects included a folding fan with Commodore Perry’s photograph on it, two actual Japanese and American flags flown at the events, and a sketchbook in which one member of the samurai retinue recorded his impressions. Reproductions from the newspapers and magazines of the time were neat to see, but were sadly too blurry to be properly appreciated.
The museum also provides a small booklet – quite solid, and a good ten or so pages in length; not a tiny advertising pamphlet – incorporating much of the text of the gallery labels, and a good number of pictures. Since I’ve fallen into the habit, for better or for worse, of taking photos of gallery labels and objects so as to capture the information contained in an exhibit, for later perusal and remembering, this is a great saver of time and effort.
All in all, this exhibit provides a glimpse into a fascinating, if quite obscure, corner of New York’s history (and that of US-Japan relations), and I would love to see more exhibits like it. It’s tough trying to think of US-based Japanese historical events for which US museums would have good resources (i.e. objects in collections), but I would love to see exhibitions about Commodore Perry in Okinawa, about Japan at the World’s Fairs, about General Grant in Japan… Surely, the Smithsonian or someone has artifacts related to the latter, and presumably there are good newspaper articles and such to pull from, reproduce and present. Maybe one day I’ll find myself in a position to be able to organize such an exhibition.
In the meantime, “Samurai in New York” is up at the Museum of the City of New York (103rd St and Fifth Ave) until October 11, 2010.
*Another large exhibit up at the moment follows the administration of Mayor John Lindsay, i.e. the period 1966-73. A permanent exhibition at the museum features “New York Interiors.”
EDIT: All of my photos from this exhibit can now be seen on my Flickr page.
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