Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Edo-Tokyo Museum’s Perry-Harris Exhibition: A Holistic Approach to Curing Insomnia

Josh Badgley and I went to the Edo-Tokyo Museum to the special exhibition on Commodore Matthew C. Perry and Townsend Harris and their roles in the opening of Japan in the 1850s. What can we say? We expected to have a rewarding experience learning about the beginning of the Bakumatsu period, but instead learned that is possible to fall asleep while standing on one's own two feet!

The Bakumatsu Nippon exhibition at the tiny Japan Tobacco and Salt Museum (in Shibuya ward, Tokyo) earlier in 2008 proved to be a giant of an exhibit compared to what the Edo-Tokyo Museum offered. The Tobacco and Salt Museum’s exhibition skillfully weaved the arrival of Perry and Harris into the tapestry of the Bakumatsu period by showing the impact the opening of Japan had on the country’s politics, society and culture. Josh and I felt that Edo-Tokyo Museum’s exhibition was disjointed and none of the main exhibits stood out and caught our attention other than a tremendous amount of portraits of Perry and other westerners that reminded us of a “study in grotesque”. Some of the Japanese portraits of Perry and Adams are famous and deserve to be shown, but perhaps this exhibit went a little overboard.

A lot of the items on display were also used in the Japan Tobacco and Salt Museum’s Bakumatsu Japan exhibit. Some of these recycled objects, however, were of interest and included original manuscripts, replicas of the Japanese sweets that were presented to the American consulate in Shimoda, a replica haori that was made for Harris that contains an American eagle mon. “Original” items on display that caught our interest was a telegraph machine that was presented to the Japanese by Perry, various things that Perry brought back from Japan that are now a part of the Smithsonian’s collection, as well as scale models of American and Japanese ships as and a model of the steam-powered miniature train that Perry gave to the Japanese.

The exhibit did touch briefly upon the plight of the hapless Okichi, Harris’s Japanese mistress, as well as the 1860 assassination of Henry Heusken, Harris’s Dutch born translator. We would have liked to have seen more on the sonnō jōi movement as a reaction to the American-led opening of Japan, but what we wanted to see and what we saw were different things! The exhibit also contains mementos, photos and copies of news reports covering the first official diplomatic embassy of Japan to the US, which may interest those who had never seen those items before, but it was “seen it, done it. Whoopee do!” As we left the exhibition, the main point of conversation between us centered on penmanship, of all things. Josh and I marveled at Perry’s beautiful copperplate handwriting. Harris also had nice penmanship, but we thought Perry’s was better. You know an exhibition was bad if all you could really marvel about is penmanship!

In summary, the Edo-Tokyo Museum could have done a lot better in terms of presenting the exhibits they had and tying Perry and Harris into the larger Bakumatsu picture. “Boring” is the one word that really comes to mind. But then again, you also know you’re in for a less than optimal experience when as soon as you walk into the exhibition’s entrance, you are approached by a sixty-something year-old Japanese woman and told that you look like Commodore Perry. Based on the portraits of him that were on display, this was most unflattering. “Gee, thanks, lady. And, oh, by the way, you look like the p*ss boy.”

“Oui Oui, monsieur?”