The Japan-British Exhibition of 1910 at White City

Imre Kiralfy, the man behind the Great White City exhibition site in west London, was keen to hold an exhibition celebrating Britain and Japan. He approached the Japanese authorities who, after initial reticence, became enthusiastic. The event was organized jointly by Japan and Kiralfy’s company for the 1910 season. Governmental involvement was unusual for the White City exhibitions, normally a purely private venture. The exhibition was intended to celebrate the close relationship between Japan and the U.K., cemented in the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, signed in 1902 and renewed in 1905.

The Japanese Diet voted a huge sum Y1.8 million (about £18 million in today’s money) for this exhibition, even though the government was in serious debt. Japan had participated in many international exhibitions in the past. But it had never invested so much money and effort as it would do in London. Japanese government officials spent months in preparation. Nearly 20,000 articles were shipped from Japan and there were over 1,200 Japanese exhibitors. The logistics involved in shipping all this material on time were mind-boggling, given it took over two months to reach the U.K. from Japan by ship in the 1900s.

At that point in its history, Japan was focused on projecting itself globally as the equal of western powers such as the U.K., Germany, Russia, France and the U.S., as well as promoting its exports. International exhibitions provided an excellent platform. Japan seized this opportunity to project its power in one of the world’s most powerful countries and showcase its alliance.

In previous exhibitions the Japanese government had focused on trade promotion. For the White City exhibition, it took a broader approach. It wanted to influence the British public, which it felt viewed Japan as an upstart actor on the international stage.

Guide to the Japan-British Exhibition

Projecting Japan’s soft power

Showcasing Japan’s rich culture and long history was central to this projection of soft power. The exhibition involved the biggest display of Japanese painting, ceramics and wood carving ever seen till then outside Japan. This met with much appreciation from the British press. For example, the Chokushi-Mon was created for the exhibition by a Japanese woodcarver, Wada Genyemon. It’s a 4/5 model of a 16th-century karamon gate from a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. Karamon refers to the beautiful hipped roof.

Displaying Japan’s rich gardening traditions was also central. Two Japanese gardens, the Garden of the Floating Isle and the Garden of the Peace, were designed from scratch, using a combination of Japanese and British gardeners and other workers. In order for the gardens to be as authentic as possible, plants, building materials, stones, and even entire dismantled buildings were sent from Japan to Shepherd’s Bush.

The Chokushi-Mon, Kew Gardens

British and Japanese imperialism on display

Celebrating imperialism was a central element of the White City exhibitions. A significant part of Japan’s exhibits was dedicated to its expanding empire. The Palace of the Orient contained displays about Japan’s model colony of Formosa (Taiwan), the Korean Protectorate (which Japan annexed in August 1910 during the exhibition) and the South Manchuria Railway. The tone of these exhibits emphasized Japan’s civilizing mission, taking a similar approach to how western countries showcased their empires at this time.

Villages exhibiting subjugated people were a common feature of exhibitions at this time. The Japan-British Exhibition was no exception. It included ethnic villages displaying people from both the Japanese and British empires. Imre Kiralfy, as an impresario and entrepreneur, had an eye on how these popular “attractions” could entice people to the exhibition.

There were three villages related to Japan. A draft contract now at the Museum of London gives a flavour of what was required of those on display. The Japanese middleman, Kumaji Oshima, was required to “furnish … twenty four natives of Formosa” and “to reproduce the exact living conditions of the natives in the Exhibition grounds.” One village displayed Paiwan from Japan’s model colony of Formosa (Taiwan). A second displayed Ainu, an indigenous people from Hokkaido, in northern Japan. Recent research by the historian, Dr. Kirsten Ziomek, has shed new light on the experiences of the Ainu and the Paiwan who lived in some of the villages from April till October.

During the exhibition, an 18-year-old Paiwan, who is referred to in postcards as “Ruji Suruchan”, died. This information appears to have been suppressed at the time of the exhibition. The historian, Dr. Kirsten Ziomek discovered this fact during her research and located the death certificate and burial record in the UK. The Paiwan man lies far from home in an unmarked common grave in the Margravine Cemetery, Hammersmith.

However, what was most disturbing about these villages from the perspective of the small number of Japanese residents in London was the presence of a third Japanese “traditional” village. They expressed concern that this village would put the Japanese on the same level as people in the Paiwan and Ainu villages, undermining the goal of the Japanese government – to project Japan as a modern civilized country with its own empire. The exhibition generated criticism of the government back in Japan, even in the Japanese Diet, for allowing the villages to be included in the exhibition, part of broader questions as to whether the government’s huge investment was worth it. On the British side, at least in the media, there was a great deal of appreciation for the Japanese side of the exhibition, especially the display of arts and culture.

Legacies of the Japan-British Exhibition

Sake cup and stand. Image from the Horniman Museum

Many artefacts from the Japan-British Exhibition remained in the U.K. after the event closed. Some were purchased and the Japanese Government donated others to British institutions. The Chokushi-Mon gate can still been seen at the Japanese garden in Kew Gardens. Ainu material is present in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum, the British Museum, and the Horniman Museum. These items are significant as there are so few Ainu cultural artefacts from this period in Japan itself as the Ainu were subjected for many years to forced assimilation.

Various wealthy visitors to the exhibition went home and created Japanese-style gardens on their estates. Captain Clarence Wiener hired Japanese gardeners to recreate miniature versions of the two White City gardens. The inspiration for the Japanese garden at Tatton Park, Cheshire was almost certainly a visit by its owner, Lord Egerton, to White City. It’s still possible to see this garden at Tatton Park, now owned by the National Trust. Even though Japanese garden designers planned out these two gardens, they were really Japan-British gardens with an emphasis on showiness and exoticism.

Meanwhile at White City, the Garden of the Floating Isle, located in the northern part of the exhibition site, has been lost. But part of Garden of Peace has survived. It still contains a couple of trees planted for the exhibition – an acer and a zelkova japonica. The site is now part of Hammersmith Park. It is the oldest publicly owned Japanese garden in the U.K.

The Japanese Garden in Hammersmith Park, courtesy of Invisible Palace