The Far East meets the South West: Nineteenth-Century Discussions of Japan in the South West: The Newspaper Evidence


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The Japan 400 Festival in Plymouth, England, in September 2014 celebrates and explores the connection between Plymouth and Japan, a connection which was recalled in Britain in the nineteenth-century as new relations were forced upon the Japanese by the Western powers (William Dalton’s Will Adams, the First Englishman in Japan. A Romantic Biography was published in 1861 – the crew of the Clove had overwintered in Plymouth in 1614).

What would the reader of the Plymouth and Devon newspapers have known about the Japanese in the late nineteenth century? Digitisation of the provincial newspapers is not complete, which would render the question an easier one to answer in terms of a complete view of the coverage in editorials, correspondence and news. But it is clear that the literate Devonian would have gained information about Japan and the Japanese through the course of the nineteenth-century via material in national journals and magazines such as the mid-nineteenth century Daily News, or the late-Victorian Strand Magazine, reports in the local press, through access to volumes in commercial and public libraries (thus the Plymouth Public Library had the seventeenth-century François Caron’s Account of Japan, and Engelbert Kempfer’s History of Japan in the volumes of John Pinkerton’s Collection of Travels and Voyages of 1808), and through local activities (educational or amusements) which promised a tangible connection to the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. What follows is a brief research note, drawing principally on the evidence of the local press, using the West Country (and largely the papers of Plymouth and Exeter) as a case study of Victorian British understanding of ‘Japan and the Japanese’.[i]

The Japan of the Victorians – very different from the reality, no doubt – addressed many needs and interests. For Christian missionaries, for example, tales of uncorrupted heathen morality might be set against the corruptions of intemperate Christians, thus one clergyman at a meeting of the Gospel Propagation Society, John Fielder Mackarness of Honiton, ‘an out and out tractarian’, was reported in the Western Times in late 1858, noting that ‘the romantic tale of the opening up of Japan, which had recently so surprised the western world … make many almost wish themselves Japanese’, but questioning the reality of ‘extraordinary morality and … obedience to natural religion’, feared the impact of ‘our holy, Christian civilization in the shape of the offscourings of Plymouth, and Liverpool, and Wapping’ (WT, 4 December 1858, p.7).

Interestingly, the early visitors to Britain from Japan did take in nineteenth-century Plymouth: Okada Setsuzo visiting the town (and Portsmouth) from London, and noting some of his experiences in his diary (Andrew Cobbing, The Japanese Discovery of Victorian Britain: early Travel Encounters in The Far West, 2013, p.70). Another brief visitor was the ‘Japanese Robinson Crusoe’, Zen’chiro Oyabe, 1867‒1941, (1898; A Japanese Robinson Crusoe, Honolulu, Los Angeles: University of Hawaii Press, 2009), who spent a Sabbath at St Andrew’s church, visited the castle and other sites, including places associated with the Pilgrim Fathers, and mystifying some of the natives by a perfect command of English acquired during his time living in the United States.


In its function as the reporter of international news, certainly, the papers reproduced events in Japanese foreign policy and domestic affairs in sections of ‘foreign intelligence’ for instance. Items from national newspapers and journals, generally entitled ‘Japan and the Japanese,’ reappeared throughout the period, from 1859 onwards (Royal Cornwall Gazette, 28 January 1859, reproducing an article from the Journal des Débats; and the North Devon Journal, reproducing an article in Daily News, 5 September 1872). Consular news appeared in the 1860s: the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette publishing the report of Consul Charles A. Winchester at Shanghai, on the ‘considerable increase in shipping’ with Kanagawa, from 1862 to 1863 (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, hereafter EPG, 26 August 1864, p.10).

Speculation about the rise to economic and maritime power of the nation, also appeared, as this article from the Western Morning News of 2 May 1894 indicates.

Although little more than two years old, the Japan Society can boast the possession of no fewer than 555 members. Of these a goodly number, together with many visitors, attended the society’s meeting last evening, when very interesting paper on Aspects of Social Life in Modern Japan was read by the Ven. Archdeacon Shaw, chaplain to the British Legation at Tokio. The lecturer drew special attention to the patriotism of the Japanese and their respect for ceremonial authority, and expressed the opinion that it was chiefly in order increase the position and power of their country that the people had taken readily to the customs of Western civilisation. In the course of an interesting discussion which followed the reading of the paper, a Japanese speaker declared that the young Japan party desired not only gain for their country approximation to Western culture, but even a place among the great Powers of the world.

Readers of Consular reports cannot fail to be struck, with the general, and unfortunately well-deserved reproaches brought by our represent abroad against British exporters of neglecting even the most ready and inexpensive means of conveying to foreign customers adequate information regarding our manufactures. This is in marked contrast to the energy displayed by the Germans, who avail themselves of practically every known resource to develop their foreign trade. I am pleased to note that far at least Japan is concerned, journalism has come to the aid of the British manufacturer. There is published in London, but printed almost entirely, even to its advertisements, in the Japanese language and character, a trade organ, which serves to enlighten the people of Japan as to British industries, and especially engineering, machinery, and tools. As a result of the special attention paid to the needs of Japanese customers, British exporters find far less competition in that country from the Germans and Americans than formerly prevailed.

But Englishmen must not be too cock-a-whoop even as regards trade with Japan, for the time may come for even the Mikado to challenge our supremacy of the sea. I see it announced that the Austrian Lloyd Steamship Company is about to reduce its tariff for goods, and increase the number of its vessels, in order to meet the competition of a Japanese Company trading between Kobe and Trieste. The shrinkage of the world is going on merrily. What would have been thought a few years ago of Japanese steamers competing with those of a European nation? Such an idea would have been regarded as a flight of fancy equal to Macaulay’s picture of the New Zealander sitting on the ruins of London Bridge.

 Western Morning News, 2 May 1894, p.4.

Concern in that year about British economic interests in Shanghai were reported in the paper, drawing on the impression created by consular reports, impressed by the ‘phenomenal’ progress in industry: ‘Japan threatens to become one of the most formidable rivals of England and India in the Eastern markets’ (WMN, 7 August 1894, p.4) – driving out Lancashire from the Chinese market for manufactured cottons, and if Sino-Japanese conflict damaged Japanese trade it was only predicted to be short-lived.


Another important way by which ‘knowledge’ of the Japanese was conveyed to the locality, and indeed with the promise of witnessing the Japanese at close quarters, performing one of the arts for which they had already acquired fame, was the visit to West Country towns, by ‘real’ Japanese acrobats. This happened on a number of occasions.

In Exeter, the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette advertised (14 May 1869, p.4):

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ROYAL ASSEMBLY ROOMS, EXETER.

Two Nights Only, Tuesday and Wednesday, May

18th and 19th. Mid-Day Performance Wednesday at 2.30.

IMPERIAL   ROYAL   TYCOON   MALE   AND   FEMALE

JAPANESE PERFORMERS.

Patron – H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh.

WONDERFUL  and astounding Feats, never

 before witnessed in this City — TOP SPINNING

EXTRAORDINARY FEATS OF ARCHERY, GRAND CONCERT by the JAPANESE LADIES, BALANCING, EGG SPINNING, YEDDO FLY WHEEL; this Feat is one of the most surprising attempted, the performer turning Somersaults on the Points of Sharp Swords, with frightful rapidity; BUTTERFLY FANNING, TWENTY MINUTES IN JAPAN, illustrated by the Troupe, showing the Fashions and Customs of this so little known nation. To conclude with the TEMPLE OF MIKADO.

The Proprietor begs to say this is the only Troupe of Real Japanese in England, and shortly returns to Japan.

   Prices : ‒ 3s., 2s., 1s., and 6d.  Children half-price.

Schools by Special Arrangement.  Photographs of the Troupe at Mr VINNICOMB’S, where Tickets can be obtained. Open at 7.30; commences at 8. Carriages at 10.

From a comment elsewhere it seems they must have drawn a good crowd as Manley of the English Opera Company in residence at the Theatre Royal hoped better houses would happen after they left (EPG, 21 May 1869, p.5). They had already performed their feats in London and other places and, as the advertisement claimed, were the ‘only Real Japanese in England, and shortly returns to Japan.’ In June the Japanese troupe, owned by the New Jersey-born Professor Risley (Richard Risley Carlisle, 1814–1874) entertained the crowds with balancing and top-spinning at the Royal Public Rooms, the note in the EPG in 18 June judging the ‘description and illustrations of Japanese manners and customs’ to be ‘very amusing’ (and entertained children of the Charity School at one of the performances, see Exeter Flying Post, 9 June 1869, p.5).[ii] Yet the troupe had its rival: in the same paper, 3 December 1869, it was claimed that the Imperial Japanese Troupe, which had performed at the International Exposition at Paris, performing at the recently built Victoria Hall, in Queen Street, were ‘the original and superior troupe. The party that visited Exeter a few months ago were very amusing, and they performed some remarkable tricks, but they are wholly cast into the shade by the Imperial Troupe.’ The dexterity and cleverness of adults balancing bamboo objects, and a ‘nimble little Japanese boy’ also doing his tricks, astounded the reporter (EPG, 3 December 1869, p.5). The Japanese troupes also visited Torquay, Bideford and Barnstaple, and toured Cornwall, in this year.

The EPG advertised the final appearance that year of the Imperial Japanese Troupe:

VICTORIA HALL, EXETER.

RETURN AND FAREWELL VISIT !!!

POSITIVELY for Two Nights only—Tuesday

and Wednesday, Dec.21 and 22, of PROFESSOR

RISLEY’S IMPERIAL

JAPANESE TROUPE,

Consisting of Twelve Male and Female Performers, and the

world renowned

LITTLE “ALL RIGHT!”

And, in order that all may have an opportunity of witness-

ing the marvellous Feats performed by these extraordinary

Artistes, THE PRICES WILL BE REDUCED so as to

suit all classes.

Admission—Reserved Seats, 2s.; Second Seats, 1s.;

Back Seats, 6d. Reserved Seats maybe secured and Tickets

obtained, Mrs. Piper’s, 241. High Street. Children to

the First and Second Seats, Half-price.

     Now that the talents of these Artistes are well known in  this city, it hoped that they will receive that patronage their merits deserve on this their Farewell Visit.

      Doors open at 7.30, to commence at 8 o’clock precisely.

      Remember ! Wednesday, Dec. 22. Is most positively

their last appearance this city.

(EPG, 17 Dec 1869, p1)

A rival troupe of Japanese was also advertised in the next decade, the Dutchman Frank Tannaker-Buhacrosan’s Japanese troupe appearing briefly at the Royal Public Rooms in Exeter (EPG, 7 December 1872, p.2).[iii] The troupe’s performance was described as ‘novel and pleasing’ (EPG, 2 December 1872).  Again, the newspapers were amazed by the agility and skill of the Japanese, the EPG, commenting that ‘their wonderful exhibitions of physical agility are beyond anything Northerners can attempt’ (EPG, 12 December 1872, p.2). But the troupe’s use of a child acrobat proved controversial (the controversy taking place after the failure of a bill promoted by social reformers such as Lord Shaftesbury, concerning child acrobats) however, with the appearance in Exeter police court of Tannaker-Buhacrosan, summoned for ‘assaulting and ill-using’ his son Johnny, at their lodgings, when he refused to learn his lessons (locking him in a cupboard with bread and water), his hands tied up with the buckles used to secure his travelling rug, ‘was approaching crucifixion’, in the view of the mayor. ‘The Bench, however, exceedingly regretted that a child so young and so delicate should be put through these exercises, and this was a case which he thought the defendant —whatever might be the … in his country—would find was not allowed in England.’ (EPG, 17 December 1872, p.3). He was fined ten sovereigns, the EPG commenting:

We cannot profess to gauge the value to the public of seeing a child perched inside a tub, on the top of half-a-dozen other tubs, placed one upon another upon the soles of a supine acrobat, but we have a notion that it scarcely counterbalances the wickedness of imprisoning a four-year-old infant in a cupboard for ten consecutive hours …

EPG 17 Dec 1872

Six years elapsed before the return of the troupe (or rather, a new troupe with only two of the original members) for a week at the Victoria Hall, reported thus in Western Times, 16 November 1878: ‘The performances are altogether of an extraordinary kind, and such — notwithstanding that we have many clever acrobats among our own countrymen — to show us that we have still much to learn in that direction.’ The performers included ‘Little Allright’ going through his series of evolutions at the summit of a pole balanced on a shoulder. The extraordinary sight of a ‘Japanese priest’ mounting ladder whose rungs were made of sword blades, was also reported, the performer, ‘the only [priest] who has been allowed to leave his country up to the present time ; he is further said to be a spiritualist and a “wonder worker,” …’ If there was applause, no doubt the audience’s appreciation was also strengthened, by the presentation of gifts, ‘all of Japanese workmanship, as was the practice of the Troupe  elsewhere, and the gifts included fishing rods, cabinets, trays, workboxes, fans, umbrellas, and numberless small articles to every patron’.

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VICTORIA   HALL,   EXETER.

EVERY NIGHT AT EIGHT,

Day Representations,

WEDNESDAY, FRIDAY, and SATURDAY

next, at 3.

TANNAKER’S NEW TROUPE

OF

JAPANESE

IS a novel and wonderful Entertainment, excelling any previous representations.

SOMETHING NEW .

    The Proprietor, in thanking the Public for their

support upon previous occasions, begs to state that

having received Consignments of One-and-a-half Million JAPANESE ARTICLES ! and, as a Memento of this

visit, his Manager will present to each patron a

JAPANESE CURIOSITY !!

Consisting of large Cabinets, Glove Boxes, Tables, Trays, Papier-Mache Dolls, Fans, Umbrellas, Ivories, Musical Instruments, Mechanical Spiders, Magnetic Fishes,

Bamboo Cups, China Ware, Fishing Rods, Silk Balls, and

100 other Novelties, all the handicraft of Japanese Work-

men, and Manufactured in Japan.

Every Person Receives a Gift at Each Entertainment.

Doors open at 7.15, to commence at Eight. Prices ‒

3s, 2s, Is, also 6d.   Children half-price, except 6d.

Tickets at Mrs. D. Smith’s, Queen-street.

WT, 19 Nov 1878

The visit appeared to be successful, for the press reported ‘a large share of public patronage, the Hall having been filled nightly.’ (WT, 22 November 1878, p.5). It returned in the next decade, taking up residency at the Royal Public Rooms in June 1889 (EPG, 18 June 1889, p.3) and even having the names of some of the performers reported in the papers such as Chiyokitchee (on the wire rope), Conda Jorra (with a great tub) and juggling and balancing by Odratersan and Gintarro. There was also the attraction of ‘quaint dancing and posturing’ by Japanese ladies: and illustration of life and customs in the Land of the Rising Sun, including ‘marriage, christening, burial, dress and decoration, tea growing, and manufactures.’ The troupe was also to be found entertaining inmates at Wonford Asylum, Exminster Asylum and the City the Workhouse.

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Amusements.

PUBLIC ROOMS, EXETER.

GREAT SUCCESS. LAST FEW NIGHTS.

CHANGE OF PROGRAMME.

TANNAKER’S JAPANESE.

JAPANESE MEMENTO TO EACH VISITOR.

—-

GRAND FASHIONABLE NIGHT ON FRIDAY,

under the distinguished patronage of

The RIGHT WORSHIPFUL the MAYOR,

The SHERIFF of EXETER,

Colonel FREMANTLE and OFFICERS of the

DEVON REGIMENT,

Lieutenant-Colonel GARDINER and OFFICERS of

the ARTILLERY.

—-

Day Performance, Saturday, at 3.

SATURDAY NIGHT IS THE LAST.

Prices: 2s, Is, and 6d. Children Half-price, except 6d.

EPG 14 Feb 1889, p.1

In 1895 the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette reported the entertainment of Gilbert’s ‘modern’ circus, which included the celebrity Blondin (‘A Real Treat, and 71 Years of Age’) and ‘the Tycoon Troupe of Japanese jugglers – at Victoria Hall in Exeter, advertised as ‘direct form Japan’. Their feats of balancing and jugglery almost defy description’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 16 April 1895, p.5; p.1). Japanese men were exhibited in the Edwardian period too: ‘a number of genuine Japanese soldiers’ being included among the exhibits at the Exhibition Fields at Pennycomequick, in Colonel Cody’s (Buffalo Bill) show in June 1904 (see WMN, 3 June 1904, cited in Derek Tait, Plymouth from Old Photographs, Amberley Publishing, 2014).


The acrobatic performances had been enhanced by the distribution of Japanese commodities. One did not need to attend these shows, however, to buy those goods which had previously been out of reach of middle-class Devonians. Real Japanese goods were advertised by Davis of the High Street (EPG, 13 December 1878), Hodges of Cowick Street in Exeter in the same year (Western Times, 17 December 1878), and real Japanese hand-painted folding fans in 1882 (EPG 4 August 1882). Hodges’ consignment included vases and dishes in porcelain, enamel ware, bronzes, lanterns, ‘jumping frogs’ and silk balls. The exoticism of Japanese art and export wares is apparent in the reporting of the Christmas display of one Barnstaple firm, Walter Herbert of Cross Street, upholsterer and cabinet maker, in 1891. Hibbert was an agent for Liberty’s of London: the shop windows were decorated with ‘Japanese, Indian, and Chinese novelties which give the bazaar an Oriental character’. The wares included ‘Satsuma, Banko, Seto, Shippo, Imado, and in jars, bowls, dishes, teapots, scent jars, vases, &c.’

There are Japanese and Schoo-Schoo gongs, bamboo furniture, Japanese carpets and rings, dining mats, Japanese brocades and prints, Ceylon baskets, Chinese embroideries, and the now much-sought-after Japanese bead curtains of bamboo, rush, and beads of various sizes, suitable for gentlemen’s smoking-rooms, they absorb the smoke. Rice curtains also form an effective decoration. The natural palm leaf and the Japanese productions in the shape of birds, reptiles, and animals are numerous. When lit at night the shop has a most attractive appearance. The examples of bamboo panelling with cretonne, &c., are worthy inspection, useful as they are for walls of rooms or studios.

 

EPG, 19 December 1891, p.6.

In Plymouth one could buy Japanese silks and the perfect novelty of Yeddo Japanese stripes, from Spearman and Spearman of George Street (West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, 1 May 1873). Spooner and Co retailed Japanese short blinds, rice curtains and reed curtains, in 1894 (WMN, 11 June 1894), and also rugs and mats (WMN, 21 August 1894). The regard for Japanese art and artistry was well developed by this period. Locally, echoes of Japanese culture would appear through reports of performances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado (1885) – a military band on Plymouth Pier for example, presenting a selection in June 1894 (WMN, 7 June 1894). Lorna, in a review of the Mikado for EPG 14 November 1895, could make the comment that ‘any dealing with Japan and the Japanese lends itself to lavish displays of rich colouring’: by this period, the Japanese style had become a familiar decorative backdrop.


Devonians were presented with a mysterious culture: a land almost unknown to the West, through Major Frederick Brine’s lecture at the Royal Clarence Hotel Assembly Rooms in January 1867. Brine, R.E., K.T.S., A.I.C.E., and member of the China Club Committee, was a former Commandant of the Hong Kong Volunteers (and was shortly to set off with a detachment of the Royal Engineers for India). Brine claimed during the lecture that ‘every custom there was contrary to what it was here’ – white for mourning, for example:

In the East everything went contrary to our ideas in the West. Consequently, were we to try to govern China or Japan except in Chinese ways, the probabilities were that we would fail. The Japanese were so peculiar in themselves that they could not see that could improve their position, and they had shown from the first a disposition to manage their own affairs in their own way.

EPG, 11 January 1867, p.6

Brine said that there had been a travelling show at Sidmouth which purported to display ‘Ainus’, members of the so-called hairy race – they had proved to be Irishmen in costume.

They were very treacherous, and it would do no harm to give them a wholesome lesson if they did not behave as they should. However, we should not endeavour too quickly to force our western ideas down the throats of an eastern people.

The audience for this lecture, introduced by the mayor, R.T. Head, was small due to the poor weather, but how many more will have read this assertion of British imperial arrogance and ignorance? Brine, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, had also delivered a lecture on the same theme, seemingly to a larger audience, at the town hall in Ottery St Mary (EPG, 23 November 1866).

Brine’s lectures were not alone, several others were reported in the Devon press in the late Victorian period, ranging from lantern slide illustrated talks by ministers of religion (thus the Wesleyans of Bideford, in North Devon Journal, 21 November 1895; Bradninch parish room, by the Reverend E.E. Atherton, EPG, 30 November 1897), to more learned talks. In addition to the reports of acrobatic performances, the retailing of Japanese goods, and the notices of lectures in the West Country, the newspapers also published correspondence on Japan by those who could claim to have the expertise of years spent in the mysterious Far East. Thus ‘Nipon’ wrote a series of letters for the Exeter Flying Post in 1871, ‘drawn from the experience of an eight years’ residence in that country’, of which period, two years were spent ‘in the interior, where foreigners had never set foot before, and was thereby compelled to acquire the language of the country and a thorough knowledge of the curious manners and customs of one of the most interesting peoples of the world’ (EFP, 6 September 1871). The letters gave a resumé of modern Japanese history, characterised the Japanese physiognomy and relations between the sexes, and extolled the politeness and refinement of the population. Details of the cities and towns, domestic homes, ‘strange customs and usages’ (including punishments) and religious practices, appeared, with a sprinkling of Japanese phrases. There was one effort to link the Japanese to the West Country in the shared love of wrestling (EFP, 4 September 1871), and there a discussion of the Japanese artistry in gymnastic performances. The letters ended with a poem about the writer’s situation, ‘the only stranger in that strange land’ – recalling his years spent at Itosaki.


Another figure who could claim to have knowledge at first hand, of Japanese culture, who lived at some point in this region, was the Irishman Charles J.W. Pfoundes (1840 – 1907), ‘late of Tokio’, who lectured and wrote on the subject (see his ‘Notes on the History of Eastern Adventures, Exploration, and Discovery, and Foreign Intercourse with Japan’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 1: 10, April 1880, pp.82-92). Pfoundes, in fact, ‘headed a Buddhist mission in London’ from 1889-1892 (see the research by Laurence Cox, Brian Bocking and Yoshinaga Shin’ichi[iv]).

In January 1881 he lectured on the art and artists of Old Japan before the Exeter Literary Society at the Athenaeum, drawing on his residency in Japan of thirteen years (from 1863), which gave him a mass of material to illustrate his talk with (‘native drawings, photographs, art ware &c’). Pfoundes had been a captain on the coast of China and Siam too:

He has made a study of the social life, customs, literature, language, art, and poetry of Japan. His publications evince the fruit of long research and intimacy with the country, and give agreeable information upon the religious, moral, intellectual, and political condition of the people. He was the first to direct attention to the meaning of Japanese art, and has now become a missionary for the propagation of it.

Pfoundes’ response to the cultural exchange in Anglo-Japanese art was interesting:

Japanese art was not the jumble of gorgeous monstrosities they were considered to be, but … on the contrary, every line had its meaning, every curve was an expression, and every dot tended to complete the idea which the artist had undertaken to elaborate. As fitting supplement to our higher and more aesthetic realisation of classic art, Japanese art, colour and design might be made to teach a useful lesion. He regretted much to see the Japanese efforts to copy English art, and he rejoiced at the failures in England to copy Japanese art.

 EPG, 28 January 1881

Sir Samuel White Baker (1821‒1893), the African explorer, who had stayed in Japan and was interested in the role that Japan would play in Russo-British rivalry, was also a West Country based enthusiast for Japanese culture, and loaned items from his collection to an exhibition at Newton Abbott (he had purchased an estate at nearby Sandford Orleigh in 1874, the staircase of the house was decorated with weapons and armour including Japanese mail-armour). His lecture at Newton Abbott on the ‘Art Industries of Japan’, which drew on his own tour of porcelain and bronze manufacturing in Yokohama in 1881 (by which point, as he complained in a private letter, a great deal of trash was being produced for the English and American markets, see Samuel Baker. A Memoir, Macmillan, 1895), claimed:

The Japanese were gifted with peculiar perception of the beautiful, and lighthearted and gay, they approached the French impulsive character, and like that highly-gifted European nation, they excelled in the beauty and originality of design

Western Times, 21 April 1882

No doubt other associations between the Japanese and Devonians might be found – such as the ‘Cunninghams formerly of Kobe’ living at Sec Tor outside Axminster (John K. Cunningham), and visited by Sir Ernest Satow, British Minister in Tokyo (1895 – 1900), in 1897 (I. Ruxton, ed., The Diaries of Sir Ernest Satow, British Minister in Tokyo (1895-1900): A Diplomat Returns to Japan, p.200).


Those interested in Japan, from the evidence of the local press, included the connoisseurs of Japanese culture, the missionaries eager to open up a new field of gospel work (see EPG, 23 April 1897 for the sale of Japanese curios in aid of the missions in Japan), and those engaged in work that took them to the Japanese archipelago, whether this was commerce or plant collecting, as in the letter from the plantsman John Gould Veitch, of the Chelsea and Exeter Nurseries, who sent letters to be published in the Gardener’s Chronicle (published 1860 – 1862; see North Devon Journal, 30 January 1862). It would be interesting to know what those non-genteel visitors to Japan in this period, soldiers such as those members of the East Devon Regiment (her majesty’s 20th (2nd battalion) made of their experiences (alluded to in one of ‘Nipon’s’ letters in EFP, 13 September 1871). Early reports had demonstrated a fascination with the Japanese as an oriental culture which was clearly in advance of the West in many aspects, as the leading evangelical paper, The Recorder noted in an essay reprinted in the North Devon Journal (1 December 1864), it was a remarkable country which had enjoyed a comparatively high state of civilisation when the Britons were little better than painted savages, or ‘wandering freebooters and savages’ – and for artistry in  textiles, porcelain, enamelling and other work, unparalleled. Japanese was imagined as a land of ‘paradoxes and anomalies’ for this essayist, and for other writers, the opposite of the West in many ways. By the late nineteenth century, as British newspapers such as the Bristol Mercury (4 May 1898) noted, the provision of information was something which the Japanese government took a keen interest in, the Bureau of Commerce of the Department of Agriculture and Commerce giving information to foreign visitors and merchants, printing handbooks, for example.

Ominous of less happier relations too, was the news of the Japanese destroyer, Inadsuma, arriving at Dartmouth to take in coal on her way from London to Japan (Western Times, 28 April 1899). The previous decade had seen the double turreted ram cruiser Tsukushi putting into Plymouth Sound for coal and water en route for Yohokama from Newcastle (purchased from Armstrong, Mitchell and Co.) Western Daily Press, 16 July 1883). And earlier still, the EPG, 5 July 1878 had commented (ending with that figure of the Macaulayan future traveller, which we have seen quoted earlier):

For several days a Japanese gun-boat has been lying in Plymouth Sound. From a British seaman point of view, she is a strange looking craft, not unlike one of those uncouth screw steamers which trade coals. But I dare say the Japs—her officers and crew—regard her with complacency. It speaks something for the land of the Mikado to have not only a navy of its own, but men and officers so superior to the traditions of their Celestial neighbours as to conduct a voyage to distant England. As my North Devon readers may not have had an opportunity of seeing a Japanese man-of-war crew for themselves, I may be permitted to say that the sailors are quite ship-shape. It has long been the fashion in Yokohama to copy British fashions, and the Japanese Admiralty have carried it to the extent of rigging up their sailors on the model of Jack Tar.  If you mixed English and Japanese crews up together, it would be ready difficult to pick out the Japs at glance, they are not very dark, and some of our blue-jackets are quite as brown as the Mikado’s seamen. But if you walk behind a Japanese sailor the deception will be found still more complete: the hat flat aback, the capacious collar, the flapping trousers, the fine old roll—all are there the very beau ideal of successful imitation. On the whole, looking to the Japanese seamen, I am inclined to say that the prospective occupant of London Bridge is a Jap, not a Maori, the emphatic assertion of Lord Macaulay to the contrary notwithstanding.

James Gregory,

University of Plymouth , September 2014

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[i]        See M. Conte-Helm, Japan and the North East of England: From 1862 to the Present Day (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), for a more extended study in relations between a region in England, and Japan.

[ii]       See F.L. Schodt, Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe: How an American Acrobat Introduced Circus to Japan–and Japan to the West (Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 2012).

[iii]       See B. Pearse and C. McCooey, Companion to Japanese Britain and Ireland (Brighton: In Print, 1991), p.165.

[iv]       See the abstract to ‘The Forgotten First London Buddhist Mission, 1889-1892: Charles J W Pfoundes and the Kaigai Senkyôkai’, http://www.soas.ac.uk/csjr/events/12dec2013-the-forgotten-first-london-buddhist-mission-1889-1892-charles-j-w-pfoundes-and-the-kaigai-.html. See also B. Bocking, ‘Charles Pfoundes and Annie Besant: a clash of Irish esoteric Buddhisms in Victorian London’,  http://www.music.ucc.ie/drama/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/web-version-Charles-Pfoundes-and-Annie-Besant-Brian-Bocking-2014.pdf

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