Last week, The New York Times ran an article on the first visit by Japanese envoys to America in 1860. The article is part of a larger historical series on the Civil War, but what I found so interesting were the artistic renderings of their trip by the visitors and the gifts they brought with them to present to the President. This first diplomatic mission was led by three Japanese officials and completed by a retinue of 77 others (including 6 cooks). For President Buchanan, on the cusp of political crisis, the visit was a popular and welcome diversion and the visitors took the country by storm. Newspapers and the paparazzi of the day recorded every move, while the Japanese themselves also recorded their impressions and images of America.
The impressions of the Japanese were filtered through the lens of their experience. Drawn by a member of the Japanese delegation, one would think that this sketch of Washington D.C. was some pleasure garden or village back in Japan. Closer viewing reveals the Capitol, the base of the Washington Monument and the bridge across the Potomac to Virginia.
Back in Japan, foreign traders were now allowed under the “Treaty of Friendship and Commerce”. They set up in the port city of Yokohama and were limited to a 25 mile radius. The foreigners were fascinating to the local population and a new form of ukiyo-e, called Yokohama-e, emerged. It depicted these strange new people and their dress, their weapons, their customs and so on. Earlier works, such as this 1855 print, were based on much speculation and little real information, and as such, the rendering of the faces and dress is clearly not that accurate.
This print, from “A Series of the European Countries,” was made only 6 years later and also depicts an Englishman, but in this case both faces and dress reflect a fairly accurate view.
Back in my hometown of New York, the exhibition “Samurai in New York: The First Japanese Delegation 1860” has just closed at the Museum of the City of New York. It was one of a number of “Heritage of Friendship” events planned this year to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 1860 visit. Currently running at the Yokosuka City Museum (in Japanese) is the sister exhibit “Japan and America in 19th Century-Technical Revolution and Diplomacy” . If you would like to read more in-depth information I recommend reading Guests of the Nation:The Japanese Delegation to the Buchanan White House by Dallas Finn on the White House Historical Association website. The Library of Congress also has an amazing collection on this topic. Other resources inlcude Ann Yonemura’s book Yokohama:Japanese Woodblock Prints from the 19th Century.
A Quick Addendum:
A few days after this post I stumbled across this ballon ascension print from the same series as the one shown above. It is missing its third panel, but is clearly by the same artist, Yoshitora Utagawa. Such a rare image in ukiyo-e! And you gotta love the inaccurate rendering of the U.S. Flag! This one is currently for sale at Okura Antiques.
Image credits: 1, 3 & 4. Library of Congress collection via The New York Times, 3. via The Museum of the City of New York , 5-7. The White House Historical Association, 8. Naga Antiques, 9. me, 10. Library of Congress Exhibits. 11. Hotei Japanese Prints, 12. me.