When Japan Occupied London: Remembering the Japan-Britain Exhibition of 1910
Steven Kent | Kingston University
In October 2020, the British government signed a crucial post-Brexit trade deal with Japan. For many commentators, particularly those who focus upon politics and international relations, the significance of this trade deal is reminiscent of a series of commercial treaties signed during the late 1890s in the build-up to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. Following the opening of Japan in 1854, many within the Tokugawa Shogunate became increasingly curious about the outside world. Whilst Dutch merchants introduced commodities such as chocolate and institutions such as banking to Japan during its period of self-imposed isolation, books imported from the Dutch left many questions concerning the outside world unanswered. For example, The Photon Incident of 1812 highlighted Japan’s ignorance of international affairs such as American Independence and the ongoing Napoleonic Wars. Prior to the Boshin War, the Shogun began sending a number of students to study in Britain, many of whom would later become civil servants or ambassadors. They introduced activities such as kendo to Victorian society and began a long, intertwined relationship between Britain and Japan which was built upon the mutual exchange of culture and knowledge. This article will focus on the often overlooked Japan-Britain Exhibition of 1910, an event in London that saw a large portion of White City become, for six months, a scenic replica of Japan. The Exhibition attracted an estimated 8 million guests, a figure which rivals the attendance of the 2012 London Olympic Games.
The Exhibition was amongst the highlights of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, which was signed in January 1902. The Alliance has been regarded as a marvel of late Victorian diplomacy, symbolising the union of two island empires that shared similar ambitions and interests. Since 1895, Britain had sought a calculated response to fears aroused by Russian and French expansionism in the Far East. These concerns were exacerbated following the signing of the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894, a pact that enclosed Britain’s vulnerable Far Eastern territories in a geopolitical pincer between Russian Siberia and French Indochina. To counter this, proposals of an entente comprising of Britain, Germany and Japan began to formulate. Following years of negotiations, Britain and Japan signed a landmark agreement, creating the first military alliance between a European and an Asian power. The Alliance was overwhelmingly popular within Britain’s ruling Conservative government and both nations were quick to highlight, through posters, postcards and cultural events, the positive benefits of their newfound relationship.
British foreign policy during the Victorian Era had traditionally focused upon the Eastern Question and how Britain would contain growing Russian influence in both the Mediterranean and the Far East. However, Japan’s unexpected victory over Russia following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was met by mixed and conflicting opinions within British society. Whilst many were jubilant by the defeat of Russia, with some observers within the British press comparing Admiral Tōgō’s victory at Tsushima to Nelson’s at Trafalgar, an increasing number of people instead grew suspicious of Japan and its ambitions in the Far East. Complicating the Alliance in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War was the defeat of Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour in the 1906 election. During the campaign, posters proclaimed Balfour’s accomplishments in achieving (and in 1905, renewing) the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. However, the landslide awarded to the Liberals suggests that foreign policy did not appeal to the electorate, particularly considering the widespread criticisms concerning the disastrous Boer War of 1900-1902. The victorious Liberals, under the leadership of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, instead focused upon welfare reforms. With the signature of the Triple Entente in 1907, which unified Britain, France and Russia prior to the First World War, the original defensive elements of the Alliance became redundant as Britain no longer required Japanese assistance in defending India from a hypothetical Russian invasion.
As early as 1905, Japanese diplomats became increasingly concerned with what was feared to be a growing lack of interest in the Alliance amongst both the British political sphere and the wider populous. In mid-1906, Jutarō Komura, who had served as the Japanese Foreign Minister between 1901-1905, was appointed as Japan’s ambassador to London. Komura’s tenancy in London came during a time when Japan’s leadership sought to take advantage of its recent victory to push for wider recognition of its newfound status. In 1906, the Japanese considered holding a grand international exhibition in Tokyo during 1912. Acknowledging the importance of such an event, invitations were distributed in 1907, but financial difficulties resulted in the Tokyo Exhibition being delayed until 1917. Japan’s leadership acknowledged that hosting an expedition as the sole industrial power of Asia would demonstrate the modernisation Japan had undertaken over the previous 60 years. Whilst Japan had missed The Great Exhibition of 1851, Japanese diplomats and entrepreneurs had since become frequent guests and exhibitors in subsequent events by the end of the century.
In 1908, Komura was invited to the France-Britain Exhibition, hosted at the Great White City in Shepard’s Bush in conjunction with the fencing competitions of the 1908 London Olympic Games. Whilst attending, Komura was approached by Imre Kiralfy, the Jewish Hungarian-born organiser of the ongoing Exhibition. Kiralfy was the architect of the Great White City, the majestic exhibition hall which was modelled upon the ‘White City’ of Chicago, where Kiralfy had organised an extravaganza to coincide with the 1893 Chicago World Fair. He was a natural showman and a renowned conjuror of spectacles and proposed to Komura that a similar exhibition should occur between Japan and Britain. Komura was instantly smitten by the idea and promised to suggest the proposal to the Japanese government when he returned to Tokyo. The significance of a joint Anglo-Japanese exhibition would enable the Japanese to showcase the importance of Britain’s influence during its industrialisation. Where else was better to do so than the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution? Komura received this opportunity later in 1908 when a change in governments saw him being recalled to Japan to serve once again as the Foreign Minister. He was replaced as ambassador to Britain by Takaaki Katō. Keen to capitalise upon the success of mutual royal visits between Japan and Britain during 1907, the Japanese government supported Kiralfy’s suggestion of an exhibition in Londo, but insisted that it occurred in 1910 instead of 1909. The Japanese sent officials to both survey the exhibition site and to estimate the volume of investment required. In 1909, Katō and Kiralfy signed the agreement and the Japan-Britain Exhibition was due to open the following year.
Not a moment was wasted in the preparation of the exhibition. So important was its success, the Japanese government considered the Exhibition a national priority, resulting in the Japanese financing almost the entire Exhibition. Emperor Taishō has also been documented as expressing a keen interest in the Exhibition and this resulted in the organisers seeking only the finest exhibits to send to London. The insistency upon attention to detail, perfection and authenticity saw tons of materials such as sand, grass, shrubs and stones being shipped from Japan to London. These would constitute the many varied Japanese gardens that spanned the vast exhibition grounds.
Meanwhile, artisans created painstaking replicas of iconic Japanese monuments and artworks, which accompanied a varied selection of national treasures never before seen by the public. For example, the replicas included one of the last remaining attractions of the exhibition, the Chokushi-Mon, a four-fifths sized replica of the Nishi Hongwan-Ji Gateway in Kyoto. This now sits within the Japanese landscape garden at Kew Gardens, which also became home to the comet fish after the Exhibition closed.
Whilst comet fish are today considered a common household pet, the Exhibition was the first time they had been showcased in Britain. But perhaps the most exquisite replica was an immense model of the city of Osaka, comprised of over 300,000 model houses in 40 distinct styles. Other models included a one-tenth scale reconstruction of Taitokuin Mausoleum, built from shaped bronze tiles and lacquer. The Taitokuin replica now resides within the Royal Collection and is currently on loan in Tokyo. The original mausoleum was destroyed during the firebombing of Tokyo during the Pacific War.
Artworks and architecture were not the sole attractions on display at the Exhibition. It is estimated that just under 2,300 exhibitors and actors travelled to London to demonstrate activities ranging from sumo wrestling to tea ceremonies. Whilst the partial nudity of the sumo wrestlers offended some within Edwardian society, tea served by the geisha girls and the opportunity for women to try on a kimono outweighed any controversies. A Japanese woman even demonstrated traditional martial arts dressed in Edwardian attire.
There were several teahouses scattered amongst the Exhibition site and the landscape gardens. The Central Tea Association of Japan oversaw a single traditional reconstruction of one specific Japanese tea house, whilst another located near the Ainu Village introduced weary travellers to refreshing oolong tea. The village complex was surrounded by enormous painted canvases which hung from the scaffolds of the mountain railway, giving guests an added sense of illusion that they had been transported into the distant Japanese countryside. Those riding the mountain railway would have glanced down upon the thatched roofs of the village whilst absorbing views of distant London landmarks. Although the inclusion of Ainu peoples demonstrating their traditional way of life amazed Edwardian visitors, some within the Japanese press were concerned such displays would give the impression of Japan being uncivilised and the Japanese Empire being somewhat backwards. Attention within the Japanese press focused upon the celebration of more modern accomplishments; however, the organisers attempted to balance senses of historical admiration with modern Japan. In various locations around London, actors re-enacted historic battles from throughout Japanese history, but at the same time, the battle cruiser Ikoma lay anchored at Gravesend to symbolise the importance of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance as a naval treaty.
The Exhibition was not solely a cultural experience. An estimated 500 Japanese businesses displayed their goods alongside their British counterparts. These included powerful entities, such as the South Manchuria Railway Company, as well as representatives of the textile manufacturing, agriculture, mining, transport and armaments industries. The organisers were also keen that contingents comprising of each of Japan’s government ministries and organisations such as the Japanese Red Cross were also present to further demonstrate Japan’s adoption of European governance.
The addition of the Japanese Red Cross was significant considering the role that Japanese nurses would play tending to the wounded in field hospitals on the Western Front during the First World War. The Exhibition also placed a significant focus upon the lives of Japanese women at a time when the Suffrage movement in Britain was campaigning for greater representation. An entire gallery was dedicated to showcasing literature, crafts, fashions and artworks created by generations of Japanese women. Representatives from women’s groups, such as the Japanese Women’s League, an organisation to which the Empress of Japan donated, served to educate about the freedoms that women in Japan enjoyed in comparison to those available to Edwardian women.
The decision to host the Exhibition in London undoubtedly was a key factor in its overwhelming success as it geographically enabled a larger volume of guests to attend from Britain, Europe and America. Whilst Japanese newspapers presented mixed opinions on the Exhibition itself, the British press acclaimed the Exhibition as a phenomenal sensation for guests ranging from the working classes to future prime ministers. For example, on display was a gyroscopic mono-rail, where several newspapers state that Winston Churchill was so impressed by his ride, that he arranged for the Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith and David Lloyd George to experience it themselves. Whilst some Japanese displays were packed up and sent on a tour of Europe the following year, the impact of the Exhibition upon Anglo-Japanese relations saw an immediate boost to the co-operation between both nations. The Japanese reaped a majority of the rewards, including The South Manchurian Railway Loan, comprising of £6 million, further recognition of Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910 and ultimately, in 1911, the continuation of the Alliance.
It is rather unfortunate that little remains of the Exhibition site today. In the aftermath of the First World War, global exhibitions fell out of favour as many nations could ill afford expenditure on such extravagant affairs. Whilst many artefacts displayed at the Exhibition now reside in British museums and local archives, the main buildings located at the White City site were demolished during the 1930s to be replaced by a housing estate. The adjacent stadium which housed the 1908 Olympics and several re-enactments later became home to a greyhound racing track between 1926 and 1985, twice housing Queens Park Rangers temporarily alongside British speedway. It was demolished to make way for the current BBC complex, which stands opposite a narrow corner of the Exhibition ground where Westfield’s Shopping Centre is now located. Adjacent to the BBC complex stands the sole remnants of one of the Japanese landscape gardens, which was refurbished in 2018 and re-opened to the public later that year by the Japanese ambassador.
Steve currently studies a PhD in Politics and Kingston University, where he explores relations between Britain and Japan between 1902 - 1945. Steve focuses his research upon the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and British appeasement of Japan during the 1930's up until the fall of Singapore.