Going Japanese

The idea that in 1885 there was a Japanese village located in Knightsbridge, the heart of bustling Victorian colonialism, may strike many as something more akin to today’s multi-cultural London, yet, in the nascent years of Anglo-Japanese relations, a corner of Victorian London was, for two years, from January 1885 until June 1887, transformed into ‘The Japanese Native Village, erected and peopled exclusively by natives of Japan’.

[T]HE EXHIBITION was completely contained within Humphreys’ Hall, which was south of Knightsbridge and east of what is now Trevor Street, employing around 100 Japanese men and women in a setting built to resemble a traditional Japanese village.

According to advertisements placed in the Illustrated London News:

Skilled Japanese artisans and workers (male and female) will illustrate the manners, customs, and art-industries of their country, attired in their national and picturesque costumes. Magnificently decorated and illuminated Buddhist temple. Five o’clock tea in the Japanese tea-house. Japanese Musical and other Entertainments. Every-day Life as in Japan.

The result of the opening up of Japan to trade with Britain in the 1850s, an English craze for all things Japanese had built through the 1860s and 1870s, led by the British perception of Japan as a mediaeval culture.

The Japanese Village was visited by over 250,000 in its first months. Attracted principally by a massive amount of press attention, showing its replica Japanese houses populated by genuine Japanese men, women and children as well as its: “magnificently decorated and illuminated Buddhist temple”.

The Japanese Village opened only two months before Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado opened at the Savoy Theatre in March of that year.

Gilbert had begun work on the libretto of The Mikado long before that, in May 1884, and had in fact finished Act 1 two months before the Japanese Village opened. It was fortuitous, however, that at the height of Japanese mania the most popular songwriters of their day brought their work to a London stage.

The Japanese Village, however, had assisted in various aspects of the stage production. Indeed, the programme of The Mikado in 1885 actually carried an acknowledgement of the support received from the Japanese Village:

The Management desires to acknowledge the valuable assistance afforded by the Directors and Native Inhabitants of the Japanese Village, Knightsbridge.

It was this energy and intense curiosity that contributed to the founding of the Japan Society in 1891, an organization which today still enthusiastically promotes and celebrates Anglo-Japanese relations.

If you have a desire to immerse your senses in Japan, you could go along to the School of Oriental and African Studies – SOAS University – at the western corner of Russell Square. Above the Brunei Gallery, there is a small perfectly formed Japanese garden [featured], complete with raked gravel, wisteria and lemon thyme.

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