What Happens When a Japanese Woodblock Artist Depicts Life in London in 1866, Despite Never Having Set Foot There

Life in London Woodblock

The affini­ties between Eng­land and Japan go far beyond the fact that both are tea-lov­ing nations with a devo­tion to gar­dens; far beyond the fact that both dri­ve on the left, are the world’s lead­ing over­seas investors, and are rainy islands stud­ded with green vil­lages. They go even beyond the fact that both have an astrin­gent sense of hier­ar­chy, sub­scribe to a code of social ret­i­cence, and are, in some respects, proud, iso­lat­ed monar­chies with more than a touch of xeno­pho­bia. The very qual­i­ties that seem so for­eign, even men­ac­ing, to many Amer­i­cans in Japan — the fact that peo­ple do not invari­ably mean what they say, that uncer­tain dis­tances sep­a­rate polite­ness from true feel­ings, and that every­thing is couched in a kind of code in which nuances are every­thing — will hard­ly seem strange to a cer­tain kind of Eng­lish­man.

That astute com­par­i­son comes from an essay called “For Japan, See Oscar Wilde” by Pico Iyer, a writer unique­ly well-placed to sense this sort of thing by virtue of his child­hood in Eng­land and long­time res­i­dence as an adult in Japan. His Indi­an her­itage and pen­chant for world trav­el have also equipped him to write with clar­i­ty about the ways — some­times grotesque, some­times delu­sion­al, some­times aspi­ra­tional, some­times fan­tas­ti­cal — in which one coun­try can per­ceive anoth­er.

In the case of the some­how sep­a­rat­ed-at-birth nations of Eng­land and Japan, we have some direct doc­u­men­ta­tion of the for­mer as dreamed of by the lat­ter in Uta­gawa Yoshitora’s 1866 trip­tych Igirisukoku Ron­don no zu.


“Togeth­er, the three images depict a street scene near the Riv­er Thames, com­plete with throng­ing Eng­lish pedes­tri­ans, two sail­ing ships, hors­es, oxen, and car­riages,” writes Slate’s Rebec­ca Onion: “The images would have sold fair­ly cheap­ly, in the thriv­ing mar­ket in wood­block (ukiyo‑e) prints in 19th-cen­tu­ry Japan. Uta­gawa, a rel­a­tive­ly minor artist from an exten­sive lin­eage of wood­block print­ers, also pro­duced por­traits of Kabu­ki actors, trip­tychs of his­tor­i­cal bat­tle scenes, and images of for­eign­ers in Yokohama—one of the only places in Japan where they were allowed to trade at the time. (Here’s an 1861 print titled ‘Two Amer­i­cans.’) Uta­gawa prob­a­bly did not vis­it Lon­don, and was instead work­ing from sec­ond­hand reports.”


That would make him a per­fect sub­ject for Iyer, who has tend­ed to spe­cial­ize in writ­ing not just about the places of the world but the places of the mind. While the peo­ple of Uta­gawa’s Lon­don of the mind dis­play a sim­pli­fied typ­i­cal Eng­lish style of dress, and do so before a proud domed build­ing and a mighty-look­ing, elab­o­rate­ly rigged sail­ing ship, their com­po­si­tion remains some­how quin­tes­sen­tial­ly Japan­ese. But then, how much sep­a­rates the quin­tes­sen­tial­ly Japan­ese from the quin­tes­sen­tial­ly Eng­lish? “The actu­al peo­ple who live in Japan,” said Oscar Wilde as quot­ed in Iyer’s essay, “are not unlike the gen­er­al run of Eng­lish peo­ple.”


And the affin­i­ty goes both ways. When Prince Fushi­mi Sada­naru made a state vis­it to Eng­land forty years after Uta­gawa made his prints, he hoped to catch a per­for­mance of The Mika­do, Gilbert and Sul­li­van’s hit com­ic opera set very much in the Japan of the Eng­lish mind (and one that faces accu­sa­tions of cul­tur­al impe­ri­al­ism to this day). Alas, the British gov­ern­ment had pre­emp­tive­ly can­celed all per­for­mances dur­ing the Prince’s stay for fear of offend­ing him. This prompt­ed a Japan­ese jour­nal­ist in Lon­don to lat­er see the show him­self. He went on to write of his dis­ap­point­ment: he’d gone in expect­ing “real insults” to his home­land, only to find “bright music and much fun.”

via Slate’s The Vault/Two Nerdy His­to­ry Girls

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lon­don Mashed Up: Footage of the City from 1924 Lay­ered Onto Footage from 2013

2,000 Years of London’s His­tor­i­cal Devel­op­ment, Ani­mat­ed in 7 Min­utes

Prize-Win­ning Ani­ma­tion Lets You Fly Through 17th Cen­tu­ry Lon­don

1927 Lon­don Shown in Mov­ing Col­or

Down­load Hun­dreds of 19th-Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Wood­block Prints by Mas­ters of the Tra­di­tion

The Best Writ­ing Advice Pico Iyer Ever Received

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • michelle says:

    A very clever arti­cle :-) Cri­tiques art his­to­ry writ­ings well. Expos­es how west­ern eyes look at east­ern art? Now I am gonna look for some writ­ing about art writ­ten by peo­ple who live in the east about the art­work of peo­ple who live in the west. Again — clever arti­cle !

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