A New Relationship, Unfolding Through Art ‘Japan’s Early Ambassadors’ at the Asian Art Museum


In 1927, 58 young women arrived from Japan, toting newly issued passports, clad in elaborate silk kimono, their trunks filled with tea sets and painted fans, with the goal of teaching Americans about Japanese culture.

A FRIEND FROM FUKUSHIMA — Miss Fukushima, Japanese Friendship Doll with accoutrements, 1927. By Takizawa Yoshitoyo (Koryusai II, b. 1882). Shell paste over wood composite with glass, human hair, ink, pigments; silk. photo by Daisuke Tagawa

They just didn’t know it.

These representatives from Japan were a group of dolls sent as part of a friendship exchange between the two countries still forging their new relationship. They are also the centerpiece of an exhibition at the Asian Art Museum entitled, “Japan’s Early Ambassadors to San Francisco, 1860-1927,” which runs through Nov. 21.

Occupying a section of the second floor galleries in the San Francisco museum, the show is timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Kanrin Maru, the first official Japanese ship to visit America, along with the USS Powhatan, which carried the first Japanese embassy to the United States.

Arranged in chronological order, the show chronicles, through art and ephemera, the initial decades of the fledgling relationship, now widely recognized as one of the world’s strongest alliances.

The first section of the exhibition covers the earliest history of this relationship, starting with an 1854 scroll that depicts Commodore Matthew Perry, his curly hair not unlike the typical depiction of a Japanese oni (goblin). Another scroll from the same year details the Powhatan, one of Perry’s “black ships,” which would eventually play a pivotal role in U.S.-Japan relations, its sails billowing like clouds, with prominently placed American flags now faded with time.

In its first public appearance is one of six volumes of a diary by Kimura Tetsuta, a translator aboard the Powhatan, one of only two official copies. The volume is propped open to an intricate sketch of the San Francisco coast, inviting the viewer to imagine how majestic it must have looked to someone witnessing it for the first time.

The second section chronicles the subsequent immigration to San Francisco after 1884, when Japan began to issue passports allowing for travel to the country. Akamine Seichiro, who lived in San Francisco from 1880 to 1885, wrote one of the original guidebooks to America, “Amerika Ima Fushigi” (Wonders of America.) The book is open to a sketch of the Palace Hotel in almost photographic detail, one of the world’s largest luxury resorts at the time, which still stands in its original location on Market Street.

Several paintings by Japanese immigrants Chiura Obata and Toshio Aoki depict typical San Francisco landscapes in characteristically Japanese styles, works that tangibly bridge the two countries.

The final section of the exhibition, and its most eye catching, is that of the friendship dolls and their lavish accessories, sent to foster respect and appreciation for Japanese culture. In 1927, Americans sent 13,000 dolls to Japan as a goodwill gesture, part of a grassroots diplomacy program initiated to ease tensions between Japan and America in the wake of the Immigration Act of 1924, which had banned all new Japanese immigration to the United States. To reciprocate, in November of the same year, the Japanese government sent 58 dolls, including representatives from each prefecture, all equipped with elaborate accessories and outfits.

The dolls, made with real human hair, glass eyes, and shell powder artfully painted over wood, were chosen from a contest entered by expert doll craftsmen from across the country. They arrived in silk kimono with an array of miniature Japanese cultural items, from full tea making sets including a tiny whisk to shamisen, taiko drums and small parasols. They made more than 1,000 visits to cities across the country, appearing locally at San Francisco City Hall and the Fairmont Hotel. The dolls on display in this exhibition, Miss Osaka and Miss Fukushima, are two of 45 surviving dolls in the collection.

A letter of introduction dated October 1927 that accompanied one of the dolls as she traveled to America reads, “Nothing would make us happier than if blue-eyed dolls and the brown-eyed dolls would learn to get along well with another.” Like so much of this exhibition, this sentiment reveals the curiosity and optimism that guided the countries as they worked to understand each other, and gives a fascinating glimpse of the developing relationship.

HISTORIC VOYAGE — USS Powhatan carrying the First Japanese Embassy to America, approx. 1860. Woodblock print, ink and colors on paper. photo by Kaz Tsuruta

The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin St., in San Francisco. The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. From February through September, hours are extended on Thursdays until 9 p.m. Closed Mondays. General Admission: $12 for adults, $8 for seniors (65 and older), $7 for college students with identification, $7 for youth 13–17, and free for children under 12 and San Francisco Unified School District students with ID. For more information, call (415) 581-3500 or visit www.asianart.org.

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