Japan: Courts and Culture — politics and bling at Buckingham Palace

On May 9 1921, George V held a state dinner for Crown Prince Hirohito at Buckingham Palace — the first time a Japanese heir-apparent had “ever left his native shores”, according to the king’s toast. Consommé à l’Impérial and lamb chops à l’Orientale were on the menu, and the programme of music for that day included, with exemplary British diplomacy, a selection from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, an opera about an American who impregnates and abandons a Japanese woman, who then dies by suicide.

Two days later, the crown prince, in western white tie and gleaming patent-leather shoes, with a sash across his chest, posed for a photo at a banquet at St James’s Palace. He looks a touch ill at ease, standing next to the supercilious, heavily medalled Prince of Wales and two floridly moustached older gentlemen. But there is more to this than costume: he is on equal terms here, spatially and visually, with Britain’s heir to the throne, reflecting and even adding to Japan’s international weight.

The programme of music and the photograph, on display from the Royal Collection in Japan: Courts and Culture at The Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace, neatly capture the contrasting desires of the two island empires at a fervid stage of their relationship. Britain enjoyed a patina of Japanese culture, whether genuine or filtered through western lenses, while Japan’s hunger was to learn, assimilate and adopt the aesthetics of the royal court of a world power.

The exhibition has choice items from royal property, but is lopsided — understandably — when it comes to representing Japanese art forms: there are plenty of ceramics, armour and lacquered objects, things which are heavy-duty, travel well and endure, but no kimono or calligraphy. One of the most striking items is a late 19th-century embroidered folding screen, given to Queen Victoria for her diamond jubilee in 1897, whose sepia-toned silks give it the uncanny look of a photograph.

In fairness to Britain, for a long time it had only been able to imagine Japan. The shogun’s policy of sakoku, which limited Japanese citizens’ contact with the rest of the world, in fact forbidding leaving the country on pain of death, lasted more than 200 years from the 17th century until American gunboat diplomacy forced an opening. Most Japanese wares, then, reached British royals through circuitous routes, relying on the few foreign traders admitted to Japan, and were often bastardised along the way.

The first gallery in the show offers several good — by which I mean bad — examples of this. Whereas Japanese craftspeople in Arita, a centre for fine porcelain, made their bowls and jars to shine by themselves (a jar with ceramic plum blossom applied in relief is notable), Europeans felt that they lacked a certain bling and so mounted them on golden pedestals, gave them gilt-bronze handles or applied gleaming lion-head adornments. George IV was a particular fan, during his 10-year reign from 1820, not least because they better suited his extravagant Brighton Pavilion, where individual Asian cultures were subsumed into his mishmash vision of “the Orient”.

In the late 17th century, Mary II had, thankfully, better taste, and a small pair of ox-shaped incense burners glazed in pale green celadon say a lot more by shining a lot less.

The nature of the British-Japanese royal relationship — and the consequent quality and kind of objects available for display here — developed from the 1850s, when the weakened shogunate recognised that it needed international engagement, and diplomatic exchanges commenced. The British were no slouches at heading Tokyo-wards. In 1869, Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s second son, was Japan’s first foreign royal visitor. Reciprocal visits and accompanying gifts came thick and fast for the next 50 years.

There was plenty of armour, of course, shocking in its refinement and complexity, its elegant materials in contrast to the clanking ironwork the British were familiar with. One suit of armour, given by the late 19th-century Meiji emperor to Prince Alfred, is rich in carved gilt copper, black lacquered iron, blue silk brocade. But not all is as it seems: pieces from three separate suits have gone into making this one. Similarly, there is a piquancy to giving samurai equipment as gifts just as the samurai’s special status was abolished at home. The Japanese royal family is playing up to what the British expect, the seduction of the past.

What the Japanese received from the British is just as telling. In a cabinet opposite the photo of the crown prince is a display of honours, including the insignia of the Order of the Chrysanthemum, invented by the Meiji court after the model of European courtly decorations, such as Britain’s Order of the Garter. On a sash of silk, red in the centre, blue at the edges, hangs an enamel medallion, a geometric starburst around the rising sun, surrounded by yellow chrysanthemums, the imperial flower.

There was a frenzy of awards of this order to British princes and, by return, of the Garter to Japanese royals. These tropes of European royalty went well with Japan’s other western adoptions: not just formal dress for court, but ways of modernising its military and economy, which it did at warp speed.

It’s in these consciously cross-cultural slippages that the show becomes most intriguing or revealing. An enamel box presented to the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) in 1922 has the British royal coat of arms worked into it, with a delighted-looking lion and unicorn. A woodcut print by Makino Yoshio shows a ghostly Buckingham Palace glowing behind the dark trees of Green Park. And the cartes de visite of a Japanese delegation to the UK in 1862, wearing traditional dress in a high-Victorian studio setting, are sensational embodiments of tension.

The Victorian royals were not alone in their fascination with Japanese art: in the 1870s, the japonisme style exploded among European artists, including Van Gogh and Monet, inspiring a taste which filtered down into department-store wares and private homes. The royals played their part, lending acquisitions to a show at the South Kensington Museum in 1872; 30,000 people visited in the first week. While the royal family preferred the real thing, rather than japonisme, they had generated their own British-Japanese hybrid.

One cross-cultural moment deserves special mention. In 1881, Princes Albert Victor and George of Wales arrived in Japan, a visit commemorated in the show by a leather-bound photo album open at views of Mount Fuji. What you cannot see in the show is that George, future King George V, had a dragon and a tiger tattooed on his arm to commemorate the trip. It’s not a bad way of construing the British royal family’s understanding of Japan: enduring, but skin-deep.

To February 2023,

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