Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Dancing into the Modern Age: 150th Anniversary of the Meiji Restoration - by Lesley Downer

November 1868: Emperor Meiji enters Edo in his phoenix palanquin
On November 26th 1868, a hundred and fifty years ago this month, a vast procession three and a half thousand strong filed through the massive gates of Edo Castle, with musicians stepping out in front. Right at the centre, born on the shoulders of forty or fifty close packed bearers, was the imperial palanquin, topped with a golden phoenix, carrying the sixteen year old Emperor Mutsuhito, whom we now know as Emperor Meiji. 
Emperor Meiji on his way to Edo

He had been wending his way across the country from his ancestral home in Kyoto for twenty days. Ten thousand people lined the streets to watch him pass. Shortly afterwards Edo was renamed Tō-kyō, ‘Eastern Capital’, and Edo Castle became the Imperial Palace. The event was dubbed the Meiji Restoration. A whole new era had begun. 

Shoguns had held power in Japan for many centuries. During those years the emperors had been like popes, spending their lives sequestered in the imperial palace in Kyoto and never leaving. For 250 years the country enjoyed uninterrupted peace. Japanese culture flourished - the world we see depicted in woodblock prints and on the stage of the kabuki theatre, the world of Basho’s haiku, Zen and much else. 

During most of those years Japan was closed to the west. The only westerners were 20 Dutch merchants who were allowed to live on a small island off Nagasaki. A Dutch ship came once a year and kept the Japanese up to speed with western science and developments. Thus the Japanese knew a fair bit about the west but the west knew very little about Japan. 
The rickshaw, invented in Japan in 1869

Then, in a single day - July 8th 1853 - everything changed. Fishermen in their boats at the mouth of Edo Bay saw four monstrous ships surging towards them, spouting steam. ‘As large as mountains,’ the fishermen reported, ‘moving as fast as birds.’ It was as if aliens had landed. But it was not Martians. It was Americans. It was Commodore Matthew Perry and his famous Black Ships. 

The fifteen years of turmoil that followed ended with the shogun being overthrown. The fifteenth and last shogun retired to his family lands and the teenage Emperor was borne in splendour into Edo, now Tokyo. And straight away things started to change. 

Ginza Bricktown 1874
Under the shoguns Edo had been an eastern Venice, lined with canals, with willow trees swaying along the banks. People went around by water, on foot, by palanquin or on horseback. There were no wheels for transporting people, only for goods. Wheels were quick to arrive. The rickshaw was invented almost instantaneously - in 1869. Soon rickshaws were everywhere, clattering through the streets, with the drivers shouting and threatening to mow people down if they didn’t leap out of the way fast enough. 

Tokyo mushroomed much as China is mushrooming now. New buildings shot up in the western mode, of brick and stone, not wood. One of the first was the Mitsui House, a splendid wedding cake-like confection, owned by the wealthy shopkeeping and money exchanging Mitsui family, soon to found a business and banking empire.

Then in April 1872 an area called the Ginza, full of furniture shops and second hand shops, mysteriously burnt down. No one was hurt, generating the suspicion that the fire had been set deliberately. The area was rebuilt entirely in sparkling new brick buildings and called Ginza Bricktown. The street was lined with all sorts of wonderful shops - a brand new newspaper office, a post office and a beef restaurant where people could dine on an exciting new dish - beef. In 1874 the Ginza was lit with Japan’s first gas lamps. 
First train at Shimbashi station by Shōsai Ikkei, circa 1870 -
donated to Wiki Commons by the Metropolitan Museum of Art
  Also in 1872 the first train line opened linking Tokyo and Yokohama, built under the direction of the Englishman Edmund Morell. He had succumbed to fever and died at the age of 30 the year before the railway opened and is buried in the Foreigners’ Cemetery in Yokohama. The emperor was there in all his regalia to open it. He was 20 by now. He soon set an example by changing to western clothing (a military uniform with lots of medals) for official duties. He also made the revolutionary announcement, ‘I shall eat beef.’ 

The empress followed suit. In 1873 she announced she was going to give up teeth blackening which was quite as shocking as if Meghan had suddenly announced she was going to blacken her teeth. Up till then adult women had always painted their teeth with lacquer to make them a lovely shiny black.
View of Benten Shrine: The Emperor and Empress cherry blossom viewing with their attendants
by Utagawa Hiroshige III 1881 - donated to Wiki Commons by the Metropolitan Museum of Art
In the cities at least everyone who could afford it was madly experimenting. Men rushed to the new-fangled barber shops - the first opened in 1869 - to have their oiled samurai topknots cut off and their hair cut in the latest style, the jangiri style, the cropped cut. People who had grown up wearing topknots and swords tried the bizarre new western fashions - trousers and Sherlock Holmes capes and incredibly uncomfortable leather boots.

Women were more conservative in their dress choices. Geisha being trendsetters were the first to try western clothes - bustles and bonnets. The very first person to wear high heeled shoes was a Nagasaki geisha in the 1880s.

Then in 1883 the Rokumeikan - the Hall of the Baying Stag - opened in central Tokyo right opposite the Imperial Palace. It was a rather flashy Italianate mansion of white painted brick with colonnaded verandas, set in landscaped gardens. There Japanese high society - gentlemen in frock coats, ladies in bustles, bows, corset and bonnets - dined on French food cooked by a French chef, using knives and forks, played billiards, had charity bazaars, sang western songs and played western musical instruments.

Dancing into the future - at the Hall of the Baying Stag
There were also famous balls. The idea was that gentlemen should appear with their wives on their arms as western people did. But unless you were an ex-geisha as quite a few of the ladies were, most upper class Japanese women were not accustomed to going out with their husbands, so a lot of the ladies at the Rokumeikan were actually the geisha of the gentleman in question, not the wife.
From Aguranabe, 'Sitting round the beef pot'
by Kanagaki Robun

All this modernising was a lot of fun but it also had a serious purpose - to persuade the western powers that the Japanese were every bit as civilised as them so that they would repeal the hated unequal treaties, by which the Japanese had to pay inflated export duties and the exchange rate was rigged in the westerners’ favour and many other humiliating clauses besides.

But despite all the dancing and modern clothes, the treaties were not repealed until 1895, after Japan defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War. As a Japanese diplomat said wearily a decade later, after Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War: ‘My people had been sending artistic treasures to Europe for some time, and had been regarded as barbarians. But as soon as we showed ourselves able to shoot down Russians with quick firing guns, we were acclaimed as a highly civilised race.’

In case anyone might like to hear more, I’m giving a couple of lectures to mark the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration - at the Ashmolean in Oxford on Friday November 23rd from 1 to 2 and at the British Library on Tuesday November 27th at 7.15. 

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale very much based on a true story and set in Japan at the time of the turmoil preceding the Meiji Restoration- out now in paperback. For more see

All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons or private collection.

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