An Update from the Dreaming Spires: Adjustments and Expansions in Oxford

It’s been a while since my last blog post, and in that time, a lot has changed about my work environment and my research goals. Term has been over for only a few weeks here in Oxford, and it’s been bittersweet to watch everything I’ve worked on during term wind down and most of my friends go home, wherever that is for them. I’ve been trying to use this time to reflect on what I want to gain from being here in England more generally, beyond the time I’ve been logging in the Bodleian and what I’ve managed to do so far. I’ve also broadened my research focus to examine more instances of late-Tokugawa Japanese diplomacy and travel, beginning a few years after the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1854 until the official beginning of the Meiji period in 1868.

During term, I was almost entirely focused on the work for my weekly tutorials, and I kept up with my research project by going to lectures at the Nissan Institute for Japanese Studies. The lectures ranged from the foreign and domestic implications of the reelection of Prime Minister Abe last December, to the technology behind Nissan’s self-driving cars. While the lectures were not directly related to the topic of my research, I found them useful for learning about different ways of approaching Japanese studies. I’ve been trying to make connections between the approaches I observed in this series of lectures with the Nissan Institute conference on the purpose of Japanese studies, which I attended in March, and was a catalyst in my decision to apply for the Kraemer scholarship.

Since term, my research goals have evolved quite a bit. I have ended up being much more independent from the curators at the Pitt Rivers Museum than I had originally imagined, but they’ve still been very open and generous with their materials, and I’m currently making plans to visit their archives and examine the Potteau photographs. The Pitt Rivers has a wealth of Japanese artifacts on display, including Noh masks purchased in the early Meiji period and early Japanese firearms. Such objects are useful for examining both the importation of European goods and influences (Portuguese-imported guns) and the exportation of Japanese goods to Europe (the masks were part of the Pitt Rivers’ original nineteenth-century collection, and are an early example of the japonisme trend).

I’ve also made a point of going to the Ashmolean Museum to look at their Japanese collections, mainly because the objects in the collections are so diverse, well-cared-for, and interesting. A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture by the textile conservationist Sue Stanton and was allowed to see some of the finer points of her work. The talk was fascinating, both from a layman’s perspective, and from the perspective of a student looking into different potential careers. The audience was shown an array of restored and worked-on pieces from the Ashmolean’s collection, and we were taken through the process of “diagnosing” and analyzing the pieces, various restoration techniques, and the storage of old and historical textiles. I really enjoyed it, and my favorite aspect of it was that one of the pieces we discussed was this gorgeous wood-framed screen showing the four castes of Japanese society in the Tokugawa era, which the Ashmolean had shown a few months before during an exhibition on Meiji-era textiles. That exhibition was, without any hyperbole, breathtaking, but it had forbidden any photography. Getting to see the screen again, and at a much closer range than before was an extremely lucky opportunity, and I was even more fortunate that the Ashmolean curators allowed me to take pictures that I may share here.

Golden screen, property of the Ashmolean Museum.

Golden screen, property of the Ashmolean Museum.

Insert of screen showing two students of kendo.

Inset of screen showing two students of kendo.

I’ve also been expanding my focus, with quick research expeditions to the remote wilds of London, where I’ve learned more about Japanese-British relations during the 1860s. Japan and Britain’s diplomatic interactions grew especially rich during that decade, when it became apparent that America, Great Britain’s chief competitor for Japanese trade and relations, was occupied with its Civil War. During the period I’ve chosen to focus on, mainly 1860 through 1868, multiple groups of young Japanese men arrived in the United Kingdom as students, frequently serving as informal and illegal ambassadors. Two of such famous groups are the young men of Choshu and of Satsuma, referred to colloquially as the Choshu Five and the Satsuma Students. Such groups often had regional ties much stronger than those they held to any national Japanese powers, and demonstrate the importance of regional versus national ties in the opening of Japan. Many of these students were samurai, in much the same way that samurai made up the core of the Ikeda and Takenouchi missions, which were happening almost simultaneously.

The Choshu group arrived illegally in London in 1863, a few years before the Satsuma group, and to celebrate the 150th anniversary of their arrival, the cultural attaché of the Japanese Embassy to Great Britain has mounted several commemorative events. I was able to attend a showing of a film about the Choshu Five showing at the embassy itself, where there was additionally an exhibition on historical maps of Japan, taken from the collections of the noted Japan scholar Sir Hugh Cortazzi. The film was more fictionalized than I would have liked, but it was certainly an enjoyable movie and it helped me realize how important it is to focus on more than one instance of Euro-Japanese relations. On a very personal note, it was more than a little comforting to see a film that is essentially concerned with the importance of studying abroad.

Unfortunately, the Embassy does not allow any photography for security reasons, so this is the best I could do.

Unfortunately, the Embassy does not allow any photography for security reasons, so I had to be content with this as proof.

A very informative program from "The Choshu Five" showing

A very informative program from “The Choshu Five” showing

While in London, I also went to the British Museum in order to see its exhibition of Asian propaganda. While it was much more concerned with the wars of the twentieth century, its Japanese pieces were really unique, including a kimono displaying imperial propaganda and prints celebrating Japanese victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese war. Nearby, the permanent Japan collection covers the entirety of Japanese history in only a few rooms.  While I might have felt a bit bereft of research material when I entered the first room, the Museum’s diverse collection of artifacts, which includes Jomon flame pots and early clocks, is fascinating. So fascinating, in fact, that I dwelled on objects like a painting collaboration between King George V and a Japanese calligrapher, and with only minutes to spare, found the British Museum’s picture of the Choshu Five, along with contemporary pieces. I’m planning a weekend return, in the hopes that I can dip into the Museum’s famed library.



  1. I would have loved to see that Kimono at the British Museum! The Choshu seem like a really interesting group to research. Keep writing!

  2. The British Museum was a bit strict about taking pictures of the propaganda exhibit, but since the kimono is one of the exhibit’s centerpieces, there is a fairly well-lit picture at ( Thanks for your comment!