Okakura Tenshin and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston October 23, 1999-March 26, 2000.
Commodore Matthew Perry’s historic “opening” of Japan in 1854 did not open up very much. Many American ships had run short of supplies or foundered near Japan’s xenophobic shores, which had been closed to foreigners since the Shogun’s declaration in 1639 that Christians were a menace to Japan. Perry’s sailors put on a minstrel show, the Japanese countered with a sumo match, and a treaty was signed—at gunpoint, more or less. But hospitality was slow in coming to what Melville in Moby-Dick called “that double-bolted land, Japan.”
Even after the restoration of the Emperor Meiji in 1868, and the subsequent efforts to modernize along Western lines, Japan controlled its image in the West. Visitors who wished to venture beyond the “treaty ports” of Yokohama, Kobe, and Nagasaki had to follow carefully laid out routes, and stay in the same few Western-style hotels. The journey by rail and rickshaw from the burial shrines of Nikko, past the views of Fuji in Hakone, and on to the temples of Kyoto became as familiarly exotic as the journey up the Nile. A few foreigners, hired to teach their expertise to the Japanese, acquired a more sophisticated sense of Japan than a couple of weeks and a guidebook allowed. But for most Westerners, Japan remained a secretive island with strange customs and impeccable taste.
World’s fairs and art museums gave Japan further opportunities to stage its reputation abroad. Such achievements as the high rate of literacy in Meiji Japan could be publicized in exhibits, but the Japanese quickly learned that it was their excellence in art that most impressed foreign audiences—and foreign buyers. Millions of Americans first became aware of Japanese arts and crafts at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. The well-to-do Bostonian Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow reported to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge, “This exposition does not amount to much—Outside the Jap. dept. I have not seen a thing so far…that I ever want to see again.”
Bigelow, a shy homosexual with a penchant for behind-the-scenes intrigue, stopped practicing medicine six years later and moved to Japan, where he stayed eight years, amassing a huge collection—more than 15,000 Japanese paintings and objects—which he bequeathed to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1890. Bigelow helped to inspire a remarkable group of New Englanders and their Japanese associates, including, most importantly, Ernest Fenollosa and his disciple Kakuzo Okakura, who made Boston the center of the late-nineteenth-century vogue in the United States for Japanese things.
Last May, as if to underscore the longstanding relationship between New England and Japan, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts opened an outpost in Nagoya, a historically important but charmless industrial city between Tokyo and Osaka. With spectacular holdings in Asian and nineteenth-century French art (especially Monet and Millet, those passions of the Japanese), the MFA had much to offer a Japanese city. In exchange for extended loans of art works and curatorial advice, Nagoya built …