The Japanese Section Exhibition was one of the main successes of the Liège World's Fair.
The exceptional beauty of the products exhibited, their originality and their artistic merit immediately won over the visitors. For some, this exhibition was a real revelation; for all, it provoked a feeling of admiration bordering on astonishment; did not the Minister of Industry and Labour describe it as a "miracle"?
This astonishment, which was nuanced by the public's enthusiasm, has its natural explanation. Today, it is true, Japan is more or less known to us, and even if the victories of Tsushima and Port Arthur had not affirmed its power to the world, the twenty-seven international exhibitions in which it has taken part since 1873 would suffice to establish the superiority of the Japanese people in the infinitely varied fields of industry and art. But this reputation has not yet penetrated all Western circles:
It should not be forgotten that, until 1868, the Empire of the Rising Sun, closed with jealous care, had remained, for Europeans, the country par excellence of the unknown
and mystery. Its industry and literature were not even suspected; from the artistic point of view, the Japanese were known only through a few export products, manufactured especially for Europe; rare examples of their ancient art were possessed; even then, their authorship was attributed to Chinese influences. In a word, Japan was, forty years ago, generally included among the barbarous countries, and even today many people, on the basis of this old misconception, are astonished, as much perhaps as amazed, at the tangible evidence of Japanese activity; they are too ready to see in the spirit of assimilation the principal, if not the only factor in the sudden expansion of the Japanese, and in the fact that they have been able
They are too ready to see the spirit of assimilation as the main, if not the only, factor in the sudden expansion of the Japanese, and they cannot yet persuade themselves that the results of this expansion are the logical outcome of a long and brilliant period of formation.
In reality, Japan is at present the most civilised nation in the whole of the Far East; materially speaking, her civilisation differs from ours only in that it is older.
that it is older.
It has gone through similar phases. Based on conquest, it dates back to more than 600 years before Christ. Around this time, an indigenous prince, Liumou-Tennô, began the work of domination by seizing the island of Nippon and pushing the ancient race of the Ainos northwards; his dynasty has continued to reign until the present day.
The conquest continued for six centuries: this was the period of absolute monarchy. In 33 B.C., Souzin, the tenth mikado, failing to defeat the Ainos, divided the country into four great military commands, which he distributed to his most skilful generals, decorating them with the title of Shogouns (generalissimos): feudalism
feudalism began; it lasted until the middle of the 19th century. The subjugation of Korea (200 years after Christ) marked the beginning of the beautiful era of Japanese civilisation; thanks to contact with China, the arts were introduced into the Empire of the Rising Sun; industry, agriculture and education progressed; military courage developed more and more.
more and more. Some feudal families began, around the 8th century AD, to take advantage of the services rendered by their members during the Korean wars to take over the management of affairs: the "mayors of the palace" entered the scene and, with them, internal quarrels and conflicts of precedence. The Shoguns became all-powerful and annihilated the authority of the mikados, who were soon reduced to the role of "lazy kings".
At the end of the 16th century, the Tokugawa family seized power; for more than 250 years, it held the Shogunate alone. In 1867, the Komei emperor died and was succeeded by Moutsou-Hito, who decided to regain power. A revolution broke out. The princes sided with the new emperor and put their troops at his disposal; the Tokugawa family was defeated, the Shogun was forced to abdicate and the empire was restored.
1868 opened the era of great reforms; from that time onwards, Japan took giant steps towards modern civilisation. Treaties were concluded with foreign powers and, for the first time, ports were opened to Europe. The feudal system was abolished in 1871; European inventions, railways, electricity, photography, were introduced. The Gregorian calendar was adopted, commercial exchanges were created, a penal code was promulgated, the army, the navy and the entire administration were completely
completely reorganised on European lines. To crown this work, the emperor finally gave his people a constitution on 11 February 1889.
This was a great innovation: Japan was the only country in Asia to have a constitution, which, moreover, was visibly inspired by European charters.
The monarchy is hereditary; the mikado alone exercises executive power: he shares legislative power with the two chambers: the Chamber of Peers and the Chamber of Deputies. The Chamber of Peers has 325 members, including the princes of the blood, many representatives of the nobility, members appointed for life by the Crown, and others elected for seven years by a very small electorate; the Chamber of Deputies consists of 300 members aged at least thirty, elected for four years by all male subjects who have reached the age of twenty-five and pay 15 yen (about 39 francs) in taxes annually.
The emperor governs through his ministers; justice is administered in his name by the supreme court, the courts of appeal, the local courts and the district courts; the emperor has the right to issue ordinances outside Parliament, to veto laws, to summon the Houses, to close their sessions and to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies; to declare war, to make peace, to conclude treaties. Japanese subjects have freedom of speech, of the press and of worship, as well as the rights of assembly and association, with certain reservations. All are subject to military service. Primary education is compulsory.
The Constitution granted a large degree of autonomy to local authorities. The Empire is divided into 43 prefectures, each with an elective general council, a sort of local legislative assembly, and an executive college.
and an executive college. Towns and villages are administered by elected communal councils, holding legislative and executive powers; the mayor is also elected and acts only as a representative.
The mayor is also elected and acts only as an organ of the communal council. Between the prefectures and the communes are the provinces, of which there are 541, also with elective
of elective assemblies.
A spirit of assimilation, one might say, when comparing these institutions with those governing most of the nations of old Europe. But is it not already a stroke of genius to have understood the need for reform and to have faced up to it without wavering?
In order to compete effectively on the world market, Japan had to organize itself strongly, to follow the example of its competitors and to graft the modern frameworks of the European States onto an ageing civilization. This is what Japan has done, and we must praise it all the more because it has not confined itself to borrowing new forms from elsewhere: it has appropriated, to the extent necessary, the spirit of our institutions, has adapted them to its own conditions of existence, and has known how to make judicious use of them: the war against Russia has just demonstrated this peremptorily.
On the other hand, Japan, while modernising, has retained its personality. Far from ignoring its past, it glorifies the memory of it and uses it to constantly develop,
among its inhabitants, the national spirit. It has succeeded in maintaining itself in original ways, and this brings us back to the Liege Exhibition and the tangible results of Japanese activity.
In no field, perhaps, does the personality of the Japanese reveal itself to us so intensely as in their industry and, more particularly, in their art industries. The Liège Exhibition proved this abundantly, as well as highlighting the spirit of organisation and method which essentially characterises the
of the Nipponese enterprises.
Japan had initially declined the invitation of the Belgian Government to participate in our World's Fair: this invitation was sent to her in 1903, when Japan was preparing her brilliant exhibition in St. Louis.
New attempts were made by our Minister in Tokio, Baron d'Anethan, and by Mr. Pierre Bure, our distinguished Consul General in Japan; Baron Chazal, delegate of the Executive Committee of the Exhibition, made urgent representations to the court of the Mikado; Japan's acceptance finally came in October 1904.
Six months remained to organise everything, to collect and transport products of all kinds over an enormous distance, and we were in the middle of a Russian war and thousands of craftsmen
were under arms... These serious difficulties did not stop the Japanese merchants for a moment. Mr. Oka, advisor to the Ministry of Commerce and Director of Industry, took over the presidency of the Exhibition Committee. An exhibitors' association was formed under the leadership of Mr. Takesawa, and invitations were issued to the public.
The initial hesitation soon gave way to such great enthusiasm that many members had to be turned away: the Section had only 1,800 metres of space in Liege, which was too small to accommodate a third of those who offered their services.
A selection was made, which ensured representation of the various regions and main industries of the country; Mr. Oka went to Belgium and drew up the plans for the section: it was opened on 29 May, several weeks before most of the others.
If the installation of the Japanese Section was a prodigy of speed, the exhibition itself exceeded general expectations. I cannot think of recounting here all the distinctions that Japan's participation brought to the exhibition, still less of recalling all the names of the exhibitors: there were 328 of them; they won 44 grand prizes, 32 diplomas of honour, 103 gold medals.
Without dwelling on the setting of the Section, which was very happy in its extreme sobriety, I will move on to a rapid examination of the main products exhibited. These were grouped by industrial centres - cities or provinces - each category of product having its own showcase in the regional community to which it belonged; the visitor to the Section
The visitor to the Section could thus make a sort of industrial journey to Japan and immediately realise the origin of the objects exhibited.
The Japanese intended, on the one hand, to make known the natural products of the country, to show that copper, camphor, coal, antimony, silk and bamboo are to be found there, and, on the other hand, to prove that, as far as skill and taste are concerned, the industrialists of modern Japan do not yield to those of earlier periods.
Among the industrial products proper, we should mention first the beautiful samples of raw silk, gold and silver thread, mats and hats made of fine plaited straw, carpets, Formosa tea, and finally the curious experiments in pearl culture by the Mikimoto company (Tokio).
But, as I said earlier, it was the art industries represented in Liege that gave us a glimpse of the Japan of today, and it was here that the rationalism of the Japanese and their respect for a glorious past appeared in all their strength.
Japanese art has remained, in its general tendencies and forms, what it was in the first centuries of the Christian era. Less grandiose and less noble than Greek art, less elevated than Ogival art, it can be defined in a word by saying that it is made for the pleasure of the eye.
All its characteristics derive from this. First of all, this art is popular, because it is the synthetic image of Japanese life and people, because it is in intimate correlation with the climate, the aspects, the customs, the habits of the country, because everything in it is alive and inspired by nature.
But, in addition, Japanese art is amiable and seductive: profoundly realistic, it is, at the same time, imbued with an exquisite grace, a grace that is sometimes pushed to the point of mawkishness.
It is, above all, an art of decoration and there is no research into forms or colours, no refinements that are foreign to it: everything is brought back to this goal:
to reproduce life, with its maximum expressive intensity, and to charm by the skilful order of the composition, the perfect balance of the lines, the delicate harmony of the colouring.
To achieve this conception, it is not enough to have artists of genius, one needs first-rate craftsmen: in this respect, Japan is wonderfully served.
The sense of decoration, the taste, the skill of the hands are innate in the people, and one sees very young children already excelling in embroidery, in the making of
embroidery, in the making of enamels, in the manufacture of porcelain and sumptuous cloisonnes, in the precious chiselling of metal and the inlaying of mother-of-pearl and gold.
These artists work sometimes on the drawings of the great masters, sometimes according to their own inspiration; they pass on their art from generation to generation and remain faithful to the ancient processes. Sometimes new formulas are introduced into the production process and, here and there, the family workshop has given way to the factory, but this is exceptional.
Most of the large firms, far from seeking to "Europeanise" national art, set out to restore the methods and aesthetic forms of the past;
From this point of view, the century which has just ended has witnessed a veritable artistic resurrection, and one is entitled to consider modern art in Japan as one of the most striking manifestations of the spirit of the past.
the most striking manifestations of the national spirit.
Among the works of art exhibited in Liège, the porcelain and cloisonné pieces were the first to catch the eye. Beauty of colour, elegance of form; such are the main characteristics of the
This group also included a fairly large quantity of second-rate objects, intended for export and apparently not much appreciated by Japanese connoisseurs. Also worth mentioning are the highly decorative earthenware pieces of the Rin-Kozan company and a series of wonderful Satzuma porcelain objects.
This is the queen of porcelains, with its fine decoration and rich gold ornaments framing its compositions with figures; its deep blue background inspired the Sèvres factory three centuries ago.
Japanese cloisonné has been universally admired. The variety is extreme: sometimes they are fine plates, delicate vases in gold or silver cloisonné, such as those exhibited by Ikeda and Komai; sometimes they are large pieces, urns, basins, baskets, like those of the Ando firm.
In the Komai showcase, a bronze dish inlaid with gold, representing a Samurai on horseback, threatening a runaway with his sword, a composition of superb style; at Ando, a few pieces reminiscent of the most beautiful ancient products, and two enormous vases, of remarkably pure curves, decorated with chrysanthemums and other flowers on a bright blue background.
In addition to the cloisonné, the goldsmith's art itself is represented by a few fine examples of dishes, buttons and brooches in damascened gold and by numerous trinkets in hammered or inlaid silver. For some years now, lacquerware - another art industry, eminently Japanese this time and dating back to the Middle Ages - has also been inlaid with gold and silver figures in relief.
Some curious pieces of furniture, made of ebony decorated with silver and mother-of-pearl, armchairs, cabinets, dressers; most of them are rather heavy in appearance and indicate a European or American destination. Some of them have a vague, rather unpleasant Louis XV stamp.
The section of bronzes and ivories is very remarkable. The realism of the Japanese has been given free rein here. The naturalness of their statues is inimitable. The bronzes generally look great. The ivories are distinguished above all by the grace and charming familiarity of the subjects treated: in this last genre, nothing has ever been done better than the delightful figures of children and old men by Mr. Watanabe, and it would be difficult to surpass the Peasant at work, VAïno attacked by an Eagle and the Peasant woman shelling rice by the bronze founder Kaneka Kanejiro. Also noteworthy are some fine specimens of bronze exhibited by Mr. Shima Sahei, a magnificent Eagle with spread wings by the firm of Lamanaka, and a singular Combat of two Samurai by the firm of Miyagawa.
I have reserved the silk and velvet fabric industry for the end of this too brief review and am tempted to give it the prize; indeed, of all the Japanese industries represented in Liege, it is the most decorative in the true sense of the word, and therefore the most truly Japanese; and it is also the one that the great Japanese artists, draughtsmen and colourists, have stamped most strongly with their originality.
Realistic observation of nature, sovereign elegance, incredible refinements in the research of forms and colours, all Japanese art is summarised in these marvellous fabrics.
The skill of the craftsman's hand is pushed to a point that has not been equalled. Two processes are mainly used: silk embroidery with feathers and velvet pinning; this last process consists of dyeing a piece of velvet from one side to the other, reserving the contours of the design; the operation is repeated as many times as there are different tones to be reproduced. Plumetis embroidery is more vivid and sharper, while pin velvet is softer and more nuanced. Both methods have produced splendid results. Three Tokio firms must be singled out: the S. lida Takashimaya firm, the Mishimura Sazaémon firm and the Tanaka Rishichi firm.
Of the first, I will limit myself to a four-metre high "painting" in pinned velvet, representing a flight of herons on the sea, a composition of beautiful allure, very soft in colour, very realistic in interpretation.
At Tanaka's, an enormous Lion in the moonlight, embroidered with plumetis, attracted all eyes: the animal is placed in front and climbs a steep rock, whose silhouette can be guessed in the night: the head and the chest stand out on a black background; in a corner, on the right, a bush coloured with blood From the same house, several other surprisingly well executed night effects with feather dots: a tiger in the tall grass, a woman with a barely faded silhouette, a screen with four lunar landscapes.
Further on, another screen, yellow and pink chrysanthemums on a blue background and a pair of beautiful black silk curtains also embroidered with brightly coloured chrysanthemums.
Mishimura, however, outshines both firms. Its Tiger in the Snow, in pinstripe velvet, is a masterpiece of observation and colour; the most realistic painting would not give more relief, and never has life been better felt:
Three landscapes in plumetis, two waterfalls and a flooded forest edge, almost give the illusion of nature; the third of these works, especially, is exquisite by the delicacy of its gradated tones.
What can be said of the delicate interior dresses - golden chrysanthemums on pink satin, yellow and purple irises on turquoise silk, - the magnificent screen with peacocks, the Pigeons on cherry branches and the two small paintings in plumetis: the Pheasant and the Three horse heads? This is the last word in Japanese decorative art: one could not charm the eye more with elements faithfully borrowed from the outside world.
I will end with a special mention of the Kawashima house in Kyoto and its Hundred Flowers and Hundred Birds Room: the four hand-woven silk wall hangings and the feather-duster embroidered vellum are, from a decorative point of view, some of the best productions of this room. Here again, the execution leaves nothing to be desired. One noteworthy detail: the floral decoration on the walls contains one hundred different species of flowers, and the birds on the ceiling of the vellum are also one hundred in number. The room for which it is intended is no less than 24 feet long, 20 wide and 10 high, and years of study and work were required to complete this magnificent ensemble; 4,000 species of silk were used.
The foregoing review does not claim to be complete. I have sought to establish only one thing: that the Japanese, in the midst of the most extraordinary and sudden transformations that a people has ever had to undergo, have been able to keep their personality intact; I have shown what they have done to remain themselves in the field of artistic industries: they have remained faithful to the traditions of their forefathers; they have guarded with jealous care their ancient national art.
The results they have achieved will perhaps inspire salutary reflections in the overweening innovators of our old Europe; - they will have had the effect, in any case, of making a favourable impression on the Belgians and of fostering closer relations between our country and the Empire of the Rising Sun.
©Livre d'Or de l'Exposition Universelle de Liège 1905