The re-opening of Japan in the mid-19th Century unfolded with breathtaking drama. The Tokugawa shogunate, having ruled a closed Japan since 1603, surrendered its power. The trickle of international trade with Japan surged under the threat of force. And Maine ships, Maine sailors, and Maine scholars were among the first to introduce Japan to the West.
The Arrival of
the Black Ships
One day in 1853, villagers along the shores of Tokyo Bay caught sight of boats they had never seen — had never even imagined before. Steamships, spewing smoke into the sky, came racing into Tokyo Bay, dropped anchor, and trained their substantial artillery on the ancient capital of Edo. Commodore Matthew C. Perry, at the behest of US President Millard Fillmore, had come in search of a Japanese treaty. His small, but heavily armed fleet of “black ships” was there to help the Japanese leadership see the wisdom of granting that request.
Through Perry’s “gunboat diplomacy,” the 1854 Japan-US Treaty of Amity and Friendship granted limited trade privileges and promised aid for any American ships wrecked on the Japanese coast. It also permitted American ships to buy coal, water, and other provisions at Japanese ports.
The Meiji Era and All Things Japanese
Japan’s Meiji Era began in 1868, when the national leadership reverted from the Shogun to the Emperor. The “enlightened rule” defined a newly opened and accessible Japan, a country as anxious to absorb the scientific and technological advancements of the western world, as it was to share its unique national culture and identity.
Japan became the object of intense, global curiosity. Its prints, paintings, prose, photography, poetry, music, fabrics, landscaping, and architecture all had a near mystical influence on the outside world. Japonsime, a term first used by Claretie in his 1872 book L’Art Française, encapsulated the enormous influence of Japanese art and culture.
Many artists including Monet, Van Gogh, and Gauguin were inspired by the asymmetrical compositions and vivid use of color in “the floating world” created by such Japanese ukiyo-e masters as Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro, and others. By the turn of the century, few homes in Europe or in the US were without at least one item of Japanese-related art, furniture, pottery, or objet d’art.
Madama Butterfly in the
Midst of the Meiji Era
Puccini’s magnificent Madama Butterfly debuted in Italy in 1904 and is today one of the world’s best-loved operas. In it, the Old Japan/New Japan transition is both setting and plot catalyst. Young Cio-Cio-San joyously enters into an arranged marriage with Lt. Pinkerton, an American naval officer stationed in Nagasaki. He goes back to sea but promises to return. Cio-Cio-San bears his son. But when Pinkerton returns it is with his new American bride.
Listening carefully to the music of Madama Butterfly, you can hear the strains of The Star-Spangled Banner intermingled with the melody of Kimigayo, Japan’s national anthem.