Immersive Architectural Exhibits and the Representation of Japanese Space
“The spectacle subjugates living men to itself to the extent that the economy has totally subjugated them. It is no more than the economy developing for itself. It is the true reflection of the production of things, and the false objectification of the producers.”
“The oldest social specialization , the specialization of power is at the root of the spectacle. The spectacle is thus a specialized activity which speaks for all the others. It is the diplomatic representation of hierarchic society to itself, where all other expression is banned. Here the most modern is also the most archaic.”
Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (p. 16, 23)
The Japan-British Exhibition of 1910 was an opportunity for Japan to demonstrate to a British and International audience its modernization and its capability to enter the global economy as a legitimate trading partner. Japan also wished to project the image of an Empire equal in stature to that of Britain, which necessitated the inclusion of its colonized subjects, the Ainu and the Formosan peoples. Thus, the exhibition included not only fine art objects of the highest quality, but also immersive representations of Japanese settlements, architecture, and gardens. The spatial component allowed allowed visitors to get a first-hand impression of the way daily life occurred in modern Japan and within rural aboriginal villages. The diorama-like constructions projected a view of the island nation which could be experienced viscerally, bringing the international audience closer to the spaces of everyday life. The high degree of veracity, with entire building, garden (including authentic trees, shrubs and stones shipped from Japan) and townscape reconstructions argued against the view of Japan as a developing and savage nation. Intimate views of public spaces and traditional architecture demonstrated an artistically advanced nation with a high level of craftsmanship and distinct aesthetic culture.
The site of the exhibition was in West London at the White City (named after the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago), Shepherd’s Bush (W12). Prior to the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910, the site was used for two Edwardian era exhibitions; the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908, when most of the buildings were built, and later for the Imperial International Exhibition of 1909. The existing buildings had an imposing grandeur with their oriental fusion style (a combination of Mughal and Edwardian architecture), sumptuous gardens and water features. The Court of Honour shows the scale of the endeavour, an immersive environment with a variety of viewing and promenade spaces allowing the crowds of visitors to appreciate the architectural spectacle. Imre Kiralfy, the proprietor of the Exhibition, designed the building to demonstrate ‘the epic scale of wealth India brought to Britain.’ (Hotta-Lister, p.40)
Complementing the already elaborate architectural scenery, the Japanese Imperial Government commissioned an unprecedented intervention which totalled 1.8 million Yen (180,000 Pounds), a record amount for an exhibition in a foreign country (Hotta-Lister, p.54). This enormous undertaking was approved by the Diet even as the Japanese government was nearing insolvency, a testament to the importance of the exhibition in securing the hearts and minds of the British and International communities. The result of this intervention was the addition of painstakingly wood-carved Japanese gateways by Japanese craftsmen and woodworkers, authentic buildings, scenographic gardens, and two village reconstructions complete with aboriginals. Hundreds of Japanese, Ainu (brought from as far away as Hokkaido), and Formosan (modern-day Taiwan) completed the exhibits, providing entertainment through artistic performances, craft-making and Sumo wrestling. It is estimated that 8,350,000 people visited the Exhibition from the opening day on the 14th of May to closing on the 24th of October 1910. On the Japanese gala day, Sept 24th, a record 460,200 visitors came to the Exhibition (Mutsu, p. 179). Preparations lasted over 3 years for the 163 day event, whose opening was initially delayed by the sudden death of King Edward VII on 6 May (Hotta-Lister, p. 3).
In order to convey an authentic representation of Japan in the order of the highest quality, the Japanese authorities shipped building materials, plants, stones and entire buildings that had been dismantled for the voyage. Leading Japanese craftsmen and artists, about 200 in total, were sent to assemble and produce the extensive models of buildings, gardens and village scenes. Out of the thirteen models that were sent for the Exhibition, seven of these were commissioned specifically for the event, initially constructed in Japan, approved by the authorities, dismantled, shipped and then re-erected at the Exhibition site. Pre-existing models were generously loaned by temples, the Tokyo Arts School and private owners (Hotta-Lister, p. 68).
Architecture and Intention
The official declaration of the Japanese authorities was to ‘cement and make greater and more lasting friendship between two great Island Empires.’ In the words of Prince Tokugawa himself:
Let it be remembered that Great Britain and Japan were not rivals…to increase the prosperity and the commercial relations existing between the two great Island Empires. (7 July 1910, Prince Tokugawa)
Japan used the Exhibition as a platform to tangibly represent the achievements of the Empire and show that it was an equal to Britain, as any other European nation would be. Displays of Japan’s economic expansion were exhibited in context with historical representations, creating a chronology of modernization. Japan’s Imperial history was illustrated through tableaux, which included recent military victories over China and Russia, it’s subjugation of minorities in Formosa and Hokkaido, and examples of technological advancement such as models of railways, and detailed architectural models of financial, industrial, and educational facilities.
At the time of the Exhibition in 1910, Britain had been inundated with cheap, mass-produced arts and crafts made for the export market from Japan. The impression of Japanese products as having lower quality at this time was perhaps made worse by the the fusion of traditional arts with the Japonica-style demanded by the British public, leading to progressively cruder and less authentic products. The Exhibition was an opportunity to reverse this trend and present the British public with high quality, genuine artistic works in the form of fine arts, architecture and entire village environments. A holistic and sometimes life-size representation could give visitors first-hand experience to study the construction of traditional buildings, intricately detailed by Japanese craftsmen.
Magnificent gateways provided for the ceremonial entrances, clearly defining the outer world of London and the inner sanctum of the Japanese Exhibition. The Ro-mon of the Kasuga shrine at the ancient capital, Nara, stood sentinel at the Wood Lane entrance (Mutsu, p. 46), while another carved gateway, the Chokushi-mon (the Imperial Messenger’s Gate) commissioned by the Kyoto Exhibitor’s Association, was built at four-fifths scale and shown in the Textile Palace (much larger than many of the other models which were typically about one-twentieth scale). The of the west gate in Nishi Hongan-ji (Western Temple of the Original Vow) in Kyoto, which was originally built at the end of the sixteenth century fir Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the ruler of the day. The Chokushimon was later presented to King George V who gave it to Kew Gardens, where it still stands today. The elaborate wood carvings are the work of Wada Ganyemon who completed it in 45 days. The gateway was restored twice by Torii Kumajiro in 1936 and 1957, another woodcarver who had actually worked at the original 1910 Exhibition (Hotta Lister p. 124-5). It was once again painstakingly restored in 1995 after getting quite dilapidated. Many of the buildings in the exhibition, including the principal Ro-Mon gateway were designed by Dr. Y. Tsukamoto, Professor of Architecture in the Imperial University (the present day University of Tokyo, Department of Architecture), who was in England to supervise construction.
There was also quite a bit of media attention directed towards the erection of Japanese architecture on the grounds of the exhibition. Articles were accompanied by detailed drawings showing methods of construction, plans and elevations for the readers to study. Model buildings of traditional design, most of them old temples at one-twentieth of the actual size, erected at the site were Kinkaku-ji (‘the Golden Pavilion’), Daitoku-ji Mon (‘Daitoku Temple Gate’), both in Kyoto, Yomei-Mon (‘gate of the Tokugawa Mausoleum’) at Nikko, Horyu-ji, Yakushiju-tou-mon, Toshodai-ji Bell Tower, Todaiji East and West Tower, and Todai-ji Buddha Palace, all in Nara, and Uji Ho-o-do in Uji. Tamamushi no Zushi (a portable shrine) was erected full-size at the site. Tsukamoto Yasushi, a Japanese expert from the Imperial University, employed by the Japanese Commission, accompanied a group from the Royal Institute of British Architects to provide detailed information on the buildings modelled. (Hotta-Lister, p. 124-5)
Great care and attention to detail were the hallmarks of the architecture presented at the Japan British Exhibition of 1910. The beautifully rendered models (sometimes built at nearly the original scale) were lauded by the British public and changed perceptions of Japanese art as being cheap or vulgar. The historical representations also drew a clear parallel with Japan’s illustrious history as an Imperial power, capable of producing artworks and architecture of equal value to that of the British Empire or any other European nation.
Colonialism and representation
Japan had an ‘educational’ mandate with the inclusion of aboriginal Ainu and Formosan villages for the Exhibition of 1910. In another attempt to equate the stature of the Empire of Japan with that of the British Empire, proof of Imperial domination was paraded in re-created aboriginal environments, full of industrious aboriginals dressed in their traditional robes producing arts and crafts, and examples of their primitive buildings which they actually built and lived in for the duration of the exhibition. The villages received mixed reviews and were perceived as a form of ‘entertainment’ rather than educational. Apparently, this type of side-show was common in exhibitions of this period, as Colonial powers used the venue of the public exhibition to proudly display their subjugated minority groups whose land and free-will were seized during wars and annexations.
The definition and distinction between ‘village’ and ‘pavilion’ was defined in international exhibitions at the time, the ‘village’ being an attraction built by the colonial power for the display of native peoples. The village was placed lower in the hierarchy of exhibits; a ‘pavilion’ was placed higher in status, as a self-contained, almost permanent structure built by the country that used it.
Negative sentiment from Japanese nationals resident in the UK was expressed and was perhaps uniform in its denigration of the aboriginal villages. A correspondent with the Mainichi Dempo newspaper said, “the Japanese Village is a mere sketch of life of the lowest class of peasants in the north-east of Japan and is a sight which must fill Japanese gentlemen with nothing but displeasure and shame. He also felt that it raised a question of personal rights for the aboriginals living in the huts (Hotta-Lister, p. 133).
At the time, Japan was lobbying for the revision of ‘unequal treaties’ with Britain, and it seemed to many Japanese that the depiction of the villages would set this objective backward. According to these expatriate Japanese, the exhibition should have represented Japan as a modern country more in line with the type of urban environments characteristic of London or Paris, rather than what they perceived as a low and vulgar version of Japanese street life. They would rather have focused on Japan’s great achievements of the past century, including the military (army and navy), the postal service, education, transportation infrastructure (including the railway and shipping advancements), and modern urbanization (Hotta-Lister, p. 142).
The British media, on the other hand, viewed the exhibits as authentic and exceptional in their true-to-life representations of life in rural Japan. The Building News and Engineering Journal published details of the timber construction and expressed its amazement at the inventiveness and suitability of the architecture to the climate and seismically active nation. The journal was, however, expressed its bias about their perceived inferiority as being unable to understand their mechanics of the building they designed and built themselves:
It is not very likely that the that the aboriginal inhabitants of a country should understand the mechanics of what they were doing, but in any event they devised by these means a system with the laws of mechanics, and is at the same time admirably suited for the material in which they work, and to a country which is subject to earthquake shocks. (p. 710)
In retrospect, the aboriginal village exhibits are barbaric in their conception, with live people being paraded around like caged animals in a zoo. While this was common procedure at International Exhibits at the time, the entertainment value certainly outweighed the educational value which the Japanese officials intended. The differing points of views (British versus Japanese) is indicative of changing values on the part of the expatriate Japanese who saw the representations as counter-productive in terms of Japanese objectives to reverse the ‘unequal treaties.’ Certainly, perceptions of Japan by the British were not negatively influenced by the inclusion of these villages, rather the dioramas were simply taken as ‘side shows’ in an otherwise impressive display of technology and military prowess. If anything, the aboriginal villages were taken as proof of Japanese Imperial domination over minority groups paralleling Britain’s own colonial history.
Through recent events in the Far East her arts of war have been revealed to us, and the coming display at Shepherd’s Bush will no doubt accord us an exceptional opportunity to learn something of her arts of peace. (Transcript of resolution by Sir Albert Rollit, Chairman of the Meeting of the London Chamber of Commerce International Exhibitions Committee, April 1st, 1909, p. 1)
To balance the militaristic and economic dioramas, two gardens were also built to show the peaceful and harmonious side of Japan and by extension, it’s relationship to the West. Aptly, one of the gardens was named ‘The Garden of Peace,’ while the other was named ‘The Garden of Floating Islands’ (Tachibana, p. 369-370). In the diplomatic words of the Japanese Department of Education:
“The gardens are not purely Japanese. They manifest the good feeling existing between the horticulturalists of England and Japan; equally they symbolize the alliance between our two countries, for Japan supplied the ideas and the plants while Britain contributed the site and materials.”
The two gardens were designed by two prominent landscape architects based out of Tokyo, Hannosuke Izawa and Keijiro Ozawa, who were responsible for the restoration of traditional gardens in Japan. Great pains were taken to ensure that the plants would be presentable and ready to flower at the precise moment of the opening. Flowers were brought to England in advance, in stages, using the newly opened Panama Canal, which both shortened the route and prevented the forced flowering of the delicate plants during a much longer Indian Ocean crossing. The gardens were built by Japanese workmen in situ, and their work was closely followed by the British press. Just a few days before the opening of the exhibition, this preview appeared in the Daily Mail on March 8, 1910:
The Garden of Gardens: A Marvel of Compressed Beauty. A Wistaria Pergola
“A Japanese garden on a scale of compressed beauty new to Europe is now half-way to completion in the grounds of this year’s Japan-British Exhibition at Shepherd’s Bush.
Three weeks ago the bare outline was visible, the course of the lake, the position of the two hills and the bridges, but since then several landscapes have emerged. Up the mountain side, which will be clothed in juniper, climb trees that look as if they had grown on the spot for years. They include a weeping elm, an elder bush, and a maple on the summit. An old Japanese house, half of it built on piles rooted in the lake, is nearly completed; and the framework of a most persuasive bridge is arched over the water. (ed. Mutsu, p. 35)
The British press and public in general were transfixed by the industriousness of the Japanese workers who were dubbed “human beavers,” quietly absorbed by their work which they carried on with enjoyment and calm satisfaction (Mutsu, p. 36). White City was transformed into an immersive environment screened away from the bustle of industrialization just beyond in Edwardian London. Enormous canvas screens painted with an artificial ‘borrowed scenery’ of pine forests and idyllic mountains, completing the illusion of a garden from Japan. Boulders from Devon and Derbyshire comprised the foreground and some 2000 plants exhibited by the Yokohama Nursery filled in the lush middle ground. A stunning scenography transported visitors to a miniature Japan, its delicate textures, seemingly endless variety and unfolding narrative expertly telling the story of a nation in harmony with nature.
The Japan-British Exhibition of 1910 was an opportunity for Japan to demonstrate to a British and International audience its modernization and its capability to enter the global economy as a legitimate trading partner. Japan also wished to project the image of an Empire equal in stature to that of Britain, which necessitated the inclusion of its colonized subjects, the Ainu and the Formosan peoples. Thus, the exhibition included not only fine art objects of the highest quality, but also immersive representations of Japanese settlements, architecture, and gardens. The spatial component allowed allowed visitors to get a first-hand impression of the way daily life occurred in the modern Japan and within the rural aboriginal villages. The diorama-like constructions projected a view of the island nation which could be experienced viscerally, bringing the international audience closer to the spaces of artistic production. The high degree of veracity, with entire building, garden (including authentic trees, shrubs and stones shipped from Japan) and townscape reconstructions argued against the view of Japan as a developing and savage nation. Intimate views of public spaces and traditional architecture demonstrated an artistically advanced nation with a high level of craftsmanship and distinct aesthetic culture.
Debord, Guy, Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red Publishing, Detroit, MI: 1983
Hirokichi Mutsu, editor, introduction by William Howard Coaldrake, The British press and the Japan-British exhibition of 1910, The University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: 2002
Hotta-Lister, Ayako, The Japan-British Exhibition of 1910: Gateway to the Island Empire of the East, Japan Library, Surrey, UK: 1999
Japanese Timber Construction at Shepherd’s Bush, The Building News and Engineering Journal, No. 2890, Vol. 98: May 27th, 1910
Tseng, Alice Y., The Imperial Museums of Meiji Japan: Architecture and Art of the Nation, University of Washington Press, Seattle: 2008
Feast of the Bear: Ainu Home, Japan-British Exhibition of 1910, Hammersmith Archives, UK.
Copyright © 2012 Shabbar Sagarwala, All Rights Reserved. Any unauthorised commercial reproduction or distribution in part or in full will constitute an infringement of copyright. Permission granted to reproduce for educational use only.