Hamlet and the Bicycle

Ian Buruma

  • The World of the Meiji Print: Impressions of a New Civilisation by Julia Meech-Pekarik
    Weatherhill, 259 pp, £27.50, October 1987, ISBN 0 8348 0209 0

The Meiji period: 44 years (1868-1912) of ‘Civilisation and Enlightenment’, of steam-trains, long-nosed barbarians, crystal chandeliers, fancy-dress balls and wars fought in Hungarian cavalry uniforms. There is something highly theatrical about the ‘modernisation’ of Japan, which began with a dazzling (words like ‘dazzling’ always come to mind when discussing Meiji) crash-course in Western culture and ended in a defensive re-evaluation of traditions that would never be the same again.

Two images from the Meiji theatre perfectly catch the mood of the period. One was a performance of Hamlet in Tokyo, just after the turn of the century, by Kawakami Otojiro. He had just completed a tour of Europe, where he had hoodwinked the critics – Max Beer-bohm among them – into believing that his renderings of plays like The Warrior and the Geisha (his wife played the geisha) were Kabuki masterpieces. Back in Tokyo, Kawakami’s Hamlet took the stage riding a bicycle. This, the Kabuki scholar Earle Ernst assures us, in his book The Kabuki Theatre, ‘was not incongruous to the audience of that period, for both Hamlet and the bicycle were new and foreign and therefore logically belonged together.’

Thirty years before this remarkable performance, the greatest Kabuki actor of the time, Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1838-1903), opened a new theatre. He appeared on stage in white tie and tails and gave the following speech: ‘The theatre of recent years has drunk up filth and smelled of the coarse and the mean. It has disregarded the beautiful principle of rewarding good and chastising evil ... I am deeply grieved by this fact and in consultation with my colleagues I have resolved to clean away the decay.’

On one hand, the zany, vulgar, wonderful excitement of new ideas and innovation; on the other, the pompous use of native traditions for the moral improvement of the citizens of a self-consciously modern state. These were the two faces of Meiji, which suggest less a dichotomy than a fundamental ambivalence: Westernisation – in the slogan of the day, Enlightenment and Civilisation – was undertaken to defend Japan against the West, not to emulate the West for its own sake. ‘Protection by mimicry’, the 19th-century British Japan scholar Basil Hall Chamberlain called it.

Both the zaniness and the somewhat sinister pomposity are amply represented by the prints in the book at hand. The prints, mostly from Lincoln Kirstein’s superb collection, and the rare and fascinating photographs, are well-chosen and beautifully reproduced. And the text by Julia Meech-Pekarik is witty and informative. The pictures were selected for their historical interest, but also their aesthetic value. An awful lot of gaudy rubbish was produced during Meiji for a massive audience whose taste was lively rather than refined. Indeed, until recently, lovers of Japanese woodcuts turned up their noses at the cherry-red and deep purple chemical-dyed Meiji prints. But now that most older woodcuts in good condition are out of the amateur’s financial reach, Meiji prints are taken seriously.

The book progresses in chronological order, beginning with the ships that brought the trading riff-raff from Britain, America, France, Russia and Holland to Yokohama. We see a cigar-smoking American mounted on his splendid horse, led by a tattooed Japanese groom. There are foreign business establishments with Chinese servants and Japanese courtesans and European merchants drinking wine, while their wives play the violin. There are scenes in celebrated brothels. One triptych shows the inside of a bawdy Yokohama establishment called Gankiro – alas, destroyed by fire in 1866. One clearly drunken foreigner has a girl sprawled on his lap fondling his private parts, as other girls play their samisens and a grim-faced merchant dances the hornpipe.

There are also pictures of more domestic scenes: an American woman in an exotic state of decolletage, making herself up in a mirror; and another American woman scrubbing her child with soap in a bathtub. The ‘high quality’ soap was much admired by the artist, Hashimoto Sadahide, whose comments are remarkably sympathetic to the foreigners he depicted. This was perhaps a sign both of Sadahide’s class and the times he lived through, before the anti-foreign backlash set in.

Sadahide even has nice things to say about blacks, who came along with their white masters as servants. ‘The source of life for these people,’ he writes, struggling with an alien geography, ‘is thought to be a great river flowing nearby or the adjacent ocean. Those born in a country of such intense heat are mostly black in colour. It is said that they are no different in human nature, being kindly and compassionate.’ This would be an unusually enlightened opinion even today in one of the most racially conscious countries in the world.

The public curiosity for foreign exotica, new gadgets and strange customs was boundless. No wonder the artists, who were as ignorant of the outside world as their customers, sometimes cheated with the facts. There are some fascinating prints of foreign countries by Utagawa Hiroshige II: Paris, France shows a seafront that looks most like Marseilles; Picture of Prosperous America entices us with an exotic view of elegant flâneurs parading in front of Frederiksberg Castle with a palm tree in the background. The picture of the castle, in fact located near Copenhagen, was lifted from the London Illustrated News. But what did it really matter? These pictures are a bit’ like the English words on Japanese shopping-bags and T-shirts today: ‘Do the sincere hearts?’ ‘Lets sports violent all day.’ It’s foreign, so the hell with meaning.

One of the most splendid examples of Meiji vulgarity is a print by Utagawa Kunisada III, entitled Dance of the Stars and Stripes from a booklet called Biography of Mr Grant. A cartouche in the right-hand corner shows us General Ulysses Grant, a most popular figure in Meiji Japan. Underneath are five dancing geisha, their kimonos ... but no, let an eyewitness. Miss Whitney, describe the scene:

After a solo by the ‘stars’ and a concert by the ‘stripes’, a line of girls, dancing as they came, advanced simultaneously from the door of either vestibule, waving their fair hands and keeping their time with sandalled feet. What made the blood rush with a thrill through the hearts of the Americans? What in the appearance of these girls made thousands of sweet memories and patriotic thoughts arise in our minds? Ah the old flag, the glorious Stars and Stripes! ... Each girl was dressed in a robe made of the dear old Stars and Stripes, while upon their heads shone a circlet of silver stars. It made the prettiest costume imaginable.

Here we have Meiji as a grand cabaret performance. Perhaps the cabaret to top all others was the fancy-dress ball held at the Rokumeikan, a grandiose hybrid building erected for the sole purpose of entertaining foreigners and thus impressing them with the Japanese effort to be Enlightened and Civilised. There Japanese dignitaries played pool with European diplomats, drinking German beer, smoking English cigarettes. Pierre Loti danced at the Rokumeikan: ‘A little too gaudy, too fancy ... And then the suit of tails, so ugly even on us, how strangely they wear them! Of course, they are not equipped with the right back for this sort of thing; it is impossible to say why exacly, but it seems to me they all somehow resemble monkeys.’ Naturally, Loti adored the whole thing. He was rather a Rokumeikan figure himself. The great fancy-dress ball of 1887, when Japanese nobles, including generals and cabinet ministers, indeed the prime minister himself, dressed up as Tyrolean peasants, mountain samurai, Louis XIV courtiers and Japanese folk deities, was the climax. Many conservatives deeply disapproved. Such an occasion was not repeated again. The Rokumeikan was sold to a private club two years after the ball. The building was torn down just before the attack on Pearl Harbour.

There was continuity in Meiji, of course. Both the infatuation with and the fear of the Western world existed before 1868. But even the curiosity for strange customs and dress, displayed in Meiji woodcuts, and the minute descriptions of foreign etiquette, indeed, the obsession with correct forms and taste, were traditional. It is the same taste that created the prints and literature of the great pleasure districts of Edo and Osaka during the Tokugawa Period (1615-1868). They too, the stories and the prints, often read like handbooks for correct behaviour in grand brothels and fancy teahouses which were beyond the means of most people. Japanese have always taken a vicarious pleasure in such information. Because Japan was virtually isolated before the late 19th century, curiosity was turned inwards, toward the narrow world of courtesans and Kabuki actors.

That narrow world did not come to a complete halt after Enlightenment and Civilisation struck. And, interestingly, it was there that some famous Meiji aesthetes, horrified by the vulgarity of their age, sought refuge. Nagai Kafu, the eccentric novelist, returned to Tokyo after several years in America and France and was disgusted with the ersatz European gloss which, in his eyes, disfigured his native city. He was to spend the rest of his life, physically and artistically, chasing the shadows of the past, and was mostly to be found in the old and less reputable quarters of town. ‘Before I left Japan,’ he wrote (the translation is Edward Seidensticker’s), ‘Fukagawa of the waters had long been the place that answered to my every taste, longing, sorrow and joy. Even then, before the streetcar tracks were laid, the beauty of the city was being destroyed, and that sad, lonely vista beyond the river still let one taste of decline and decay and an indescribably pure and harmonious beauty.’

This morbid nostalgia for everything that was fading or already practically dead might seem to be the antithesis of the vulgar optimism of Meiji. Yet it was not. Kafu’s sensibility was as typical of his time as the garish red prints of steam-trains or the electrification of the Ginza. The speed of change bred nostalgia; disharmony led to a search for times past.

This was sometimes expressed in a taste for the grotesque and the macabre. Here the woodcuts by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) were typical. They are often excessively gory and cruel: scenes of pregnant women suspended upside down over fires stoked by nasty-looking creatures ready to slit their victims open with sharp knives; of samurai heroes disembowelling themselves; above all, of malevolent ghosts, who appear like avenging angels from the past. Yoshitoshi is often called the last Ukiyo-e master. It is a pity that he is not featured in the book, for he, more than any other artist, represented the dark side of the new civilisation. Or was he merely a morbid ghost of the old civilisation, expressing the ‘coarse and the mean’ that Ichikawa Danjuro, dressed in his white tie and tails, resolved to clean away?

The moralistic nationalism of Meiji is apparent in the latter half of the book. The naive early enthusiasm for foreign exotica gradually gives way to the jingoistic satire, directed not so much at foreigners as at the Japanese who imitated them. Then there are the pictures of the Meiji Emperor, stern and martial in his French-style military uniform. There is a marvellous print of the Emperor handing down, as it were as an imperial gift, the first Japanese Constitution to his government. On his right stand his cabinet ministers, all in ornate European dress uniforms; on his left are the foreign diplomats, watching with approval this final proof of Civilisation and Enlightenment. On the same day, dressed in traditional Japanese robes, he reported this momentous occasion to his divine ancestors in a Shinto shrine. Finally, as we near the end of the book, we find the journalistic and chauvinistic pictures of Japanese soldiers slaughtering Chinese troops in 1895 or Russians in 1904.

It is tempting to see these pictures as symbols of a nativist reaction, of Japaneseness reasserting itself against excessive foreign influence. Tempting but wrong. Like Danjuro in his tails, the military Emperor was a peculiar mixture of East and West; a caricature of the West, dressed up in distorted traditional garb, or, at times, the opposite: distorted tradition in Western dress. Dr Meech-Pekarik puts it well: ‘The Emperor was seen as both divine ruler and wise teacher, a sort of philosopher king leading the revival of traditional moral values and embodying also the progressive doctrines of Meiji.’

It is significant that the Japanese foreign minister during the war with China in 1895 called the conflict ‘a collision between the new civilisation of the West and the old civilisation of East Asia’. Dr Meech-Pekarik rightly points out how the Japanese soldiers in the war pictures ‘could easily be mistaken for Westerners’, while the Chinese enemies are depicted as cowardly caricatures of exotic Orientals in silks and pigtails. Forty-five years later the same Sturm und Drang that drove Japanese soldiers into the Asian continent would pit them against the West itself. But that, as they say, is another story.