Japanese History in London

By Kate Smith | 02 December 2005
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photo shows armour of japanese samurai

Oyoroi armour presented to Queen Victoria by Tokugawa lemochi in 1860. Courtesy of the V&A.

Many Japanese people who now live in London came in the 1980s as Japanese companies spread into Europe. But there have been Japanese people living in Britain since the 1860s following the Meiji Restoration and the reopening of Japan's borders. The first recorded Japanese visitors to Britain were sailors, arriving in 1614 and perhaps even earlier in 1587.

Today over 55,000 Japanese people live in London. We look at some of the places you can find Japanese histories in the city.

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photo shows carved wooden masks

Noh masks from the Horniman Museum

Large Japanese Collections

The V&A has been collecting Japanese material since the 1850s and has more than 42,000 objects from armour to graphics, textiles and ceramics.

The Horniman Museum includes dolls, musical instruments and beautiful Noh masks. These can take from 21days to a lifetime to create as the carver perfects his or her skill.

Also look out for the set of festival dolls on permanent display in the Music Gallery. The doll festival, hina-matsuri takes place each year on 3rd March. During the festival, families pray for happiness and healthy growth of young girls.

The British Museum's Japanese galleries reopened in 2006, and you can now see material from their vast collection of 26,000 objects in Room 94. They include art from the floating world and manga from today. You can see about 500 pieces from the collection here

photo shows sourvenir postcard of japanese house

A souvenir from the 1910 British-Japan exhibition, now at the Museum of London. Courtesy of the Museum.

The Victorians discover Japan

The reopening of the Japanese borders after 1853 caused an explosion of interest in all things Japanese in Britain. This led both to the export of many goods and the adoption of Japanese styles by many European artists. There were also three or four big exhibitions of Japanese art.

You can still see traces of the great White City British-Japan exhibition of 1910 in the collections of the Museum of London who have an original poster and memorabilia on display; and also at Hammersmith and Fulham Archives where scrapbooks of newspaper clippings report the public mood and enthusiasm for the exhibition.

This exhibition was itself the cause of a small Japanese migration to London as craftsmen and experts hired for the exhibition decided to stay on in London - one advised the British Museum for many years.

The V&A and the Wallace Collection both contain examples of the art coming out of, and influenced by Japan in this period, whilst Linley Sambourne House

is a good example of an upper class Victorian home fashionably sprinkled with Japanese objects.
Shows a photograph of the main entrance to the Imperial War Museum. It is a large classical style building with a central dome rising above a columned frontage, topped with a portico. In front of it there are neat gardens, rising up out of which are two large gun barrels.

The Imperial War Museum.

War ...

The Imperial War Museum covers every aspect of the war between the Allies and Japan, from the battle in the Far East, to British experience in prisoner of war camps, to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. A copy of the Hiroshima bomb can be seen in the foyer of the Imperial War Museum. Firepower! covers similar ground, and also has a collection of Japanese arms from the 19th to early 20th century.

photo shows farmhouse

A minka, or Japanese farmhouse at Kew Gardens.

...and Peace

Japanese Gardens have sprung up all over London. The most famous are at Kew Gardens, and include Japanese architecture - the Chokushi-Mon or Gateway of the Imperial Messenger is a scaled down version of an identical building in Kyoto. There is also a Japanese farmhouse or minka, now very rare in Japan. The minka now at Kew is an original shipped over from Japan for the 2001 festival. The Kyoto Garden in Holland Park, originally created in 1991, was also restored for this festival.

Two of London's most secret Japanese gardens are attached to London museums. The Fan Museum includes 200 Japanese fans, and has a Japanese garden with a fan-shaped pond to the back of the museum, completely concealed from the street. The Brunei Gallery has a minimalist paved Japanese garden four floors up from the street in Central London.

Japanese Buddhists also run the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park.

photo shows black and yellow cabinet

A lacquered Japanese cabinet. Courtesy of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection

Japanese venues in London

The Soseki Museum commemorates the largely unhappy time that Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki spent in London, which nevertheless inspired some of his most famous novels. One of the lodging houses where Soseki lived is opposite the museum, marked by an English Heritage blue plaque. He is the only Japanese person so far to have been commemorated in this way.

The Japan Society runs talks and classes for people interested in Japanese culture in London. Look out too for their annual spring treasure hunt - which usually takes place in April or May. It's an opportunity to explore many of the Japanese landmarks of London whilst clutching a sheet of clues and wearing running shoes! You don't need to be a member of the Japan Society to take part - contact info@japansociety.org.uk for the exact time and date.

Special thanks to Gregory Irvine of the V&A for allowing us to quote from his book 'A Guide To Japanese Art Collections in the UK' on UntoldLondon.

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