Opener of Japan

Opener of JapanI labeled this hashioki with the title above the moment I saw it on a shelf in a small shop on a back street in Tokyo.

It appears to depict a Western man dressed in nineteenth century clothing. It may represent Commodore Matthew C. Perry, the American admiral whose ships sailed to Japan in 1853 and 1854, and who signed the treaty that opened Japan’s ports and borders to foreigners following more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation. The man is dressed in the colors of the American flag, making it an appropriate post for the week before the Fourth of July. And on July 8, 1853, when Perry entered Edo Bay near present-day Tokyo, he commanded his ships to fire blanks from their cannons, obstensively to celebrate United States’ Independence Day, but more likely as a show of force for the Japanese. So Perry has a definite connection to the Fourth of July.

But I prefer to think that this figure represents someone more like Ernest Fenollosa or William Sturgis Bigelow, Americans who traveled to Japan after Perry and brought Japanese art back to the States to display in American museums. (Curiously enough, both Fenollosa and Bigelow had beards, like this hashioki, but Perry did not.) Many Americans first experienced Japan by looking at a woodblock print or a statue of a buddha in museum. My mind was certainly opened to Japan by the Japanese art I saw as a teenager at the great museums of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.

In either case, the piece is a bit unusual. It represents either an American who dictated policy to the Japanese government, or an American who removed art treasures from the country to display in a foreign museum. It may be an attractive and unique piece, but I’m not sure that it’s really politically correct.

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