In 1853 the American commodore Matthew Perry led a navy squadron to Japan that forced the country’s opening to foreign commerce, ending more than two and a half centuries of isolationist policies under the feudal rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. What followed was a period of unprecedented upheaval in Japan. In the Bakumatsu period (1853–68), Japan ratified a series of international treaties and opened “treaty” ports to foreign traders and diplomats. The Meiji Restoration of 1868, which reinstated the power of the emperor, launched a far-reaching program of modernization and westernization that transformed the country from an insulated feudal society into a modern industrial power. The Meiji government embraced foreign customs and technologies, including the railroad, the telegraph, the telephone, and the postal service. It drafted a new constitution, raised a new conscript army, opened new public schools, and encouraged Westerners to live, travel, and do business in Japan. Perry’s expedition and the subsequent lifting of restrictions on foreign influence generated interest in Japan in the US. Not until the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, however, when millions of Americans were exposed to dazzling exhibits of Japanese goods, did a “Japan craze” sweep the nation. The popular taste in household decor was revolutionized as middle- and upper-class Americans began voraciously collecting Japanese wares and domestically manufactured imitations. American artists studied Japanese art and assimilated its techniques for rendering space and form, a stylistic borrowing often termed Japonisme. Scholarship on Japan blossomed, and American tourists flooded Japan’s treaty ports.
The vogue for all things Japanese was fueled by cultural nationalism. The “opening” of Japan by US forces mirrored back to Americans their maturation as a world power. It was common for Americans to write about their relationship to Japan as special, akin to that of mother country and colony. Interest in Japan was also driven by nostalgia. At the same time that Japan was rapidly modernizing, it took shape in the American imagination as a purer, more innocent and spiritual society, poised in the idyllic preindustrial past and untarnished by Western influence. Japanese makers were admired as skilled craftsmen who preserved the old artisan values disappearing from the industrial West. Recognizing the market value of this myth of tradition, Japanese artists responded by adopting anti-modern imagery and rhetoric to push their products overseas. Japan inundated the American market with a vast range of fine and inexpensive wares including woodblock prints, porcelains, lacquerware, cloisonné, fans, screens, and textiles. It aimed to boost its power among the Western countries and preserve its economic and political sovereignty in the face of the threat posed by foreign imperialism.
Kusakabe Kimbei (Japanese, 1841–1934), detail of (Konkonchiki) Japanese Girls Playing Game, c. 1880s. Hand-tinted albumen print, 7 7/8 x 10 3/8 in. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. Gift of Laurie Wilson, Robert Frerck, and family, 2015.