Jessica Reilly
Material Culture
November 15, 1998

Japanese Influence at the Centennial

The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was a world wide event that captured the hearts of many cultures. The United states brought together houses of different states and includes foreign exhibits as well. Many countries such as Norway, France, Spain and Japan participated in the fair to display the strengths of their unique countries. The Centennial Exhibition was overflowing with art, symbolism, and nationalism. I would like to focus on what the Japanese contributed to one of the most memorable fairs in history.

    In order to provide some historical context for the Centennial Exhibition, I will explain what was going on in Japan in the 1870's. In Commodore Perry's famous visit Japan was opened up to the Western world. emperor of japanAfter trade relations were established AJapan became an eager pupil ready to learn from its Western teachers.@ The emperor Meiji moved the capital to Tokyo to form a more democratic state. After equality and religious freedom were liberalized, the rigid social class structure began break down. No longer were an elite group of samurai and nobles in control of Japan=s future. The Japanese military, economy, and society began to be modeled after the Western world. A strong army and navy were developed to keep up with modern countries and the education system was patterned after the French and German system. The Meiji government supported prospering businesses and industries so Japan could successfully move into the 20th century.(1)

The Japanese were known as the "sweetest-voiced, gentlest-mannered folk" of the Centennial Exhibition. They had exhibits in both the Main Exhibition building and the Agricultural Building. The items displayed were generally the same. The Japanese people excel in the delicate art of figures, screens, and pottery. Lacquerware and wood carvings are also a specialty which enhances the beauty of cabinets, work boxes, and furniture. However the most spectacular of all the exhibits was a gigantic bronze vase located in the entrance way of the Main Exhibition building. Some of the smaller vases were cast but this expensive creation was hand carved into beautiful images of nature. It was said to be created after 2250 days of labor and has the estimated value of $3000 in that time period.(2)

I would like to concentrate on this vase and try to explain the connections I have found to Japanese culture at the time it was made. It may be the key to nationalism and the advancement into the modern world. The vase has many symbolic meanings running throughout the structure in the depiction of nature and animals. A vase in Japanese culture sometimes represents the four sides of Buddhist truths. They are as follows:

1)suffering exists from birth to old age.

2)desire is the cause of suffering.

3)freedom from suffering comes by cessation of desire.

4)freedom from suffering is attained by virtuous living.

Vases are also seen as a mixture of harmony, intelligence, and peace. Many vases are used in prayer services or in the purification process. In general vases represent fertility, growth, and life source.(3)

This vase is made of bronze which also holds a meaning within itself. The metal is believed by ancient society to hold power. They also believed bronze has the power to drive out pollutions and evil spirits.(4) When we look more closely at the vase we realize that there are even more symbols than ever imaginable.vase The bronze vase is covered with ordinate designs and carvings. Mostly nature scenes are represented with vines and animals. As I will explain each dragon, elephant, crane, and snake may represent something that was going on in Japanese society during the time it was created.

The dragon generally represents authority, chaos, and power in many cultures. In Japan the dragon is the embodiment of infinity and sovereignty. In Japanese culture this creature is seen as a symbol of human passions, a messenger of the gods, and the key to success.(5) The dragon holds many strange powers that the people respect and write about. This belief is represented in a story called "The Invincible Pair."

...The dragon turned into a small boy, took the monk on his back, and smashed the rock walls of their hole, and burst forth amid thunderclaps and bolts of lightning. Huge clouds gathered in the sky and heavy rain fell. The monk was frightened but trusted the dragon enough to hang on. He was deposited instantly right where he had started, on the veranda of his dormitory on Mount Hiei. The dragon flew off...(6)

Although the Dragon is generally seen as trouble, its cunning can also result in good. The Japanese movement in artillery can be related to the dragon because of the secretive aspect of building up the military in 19th century Japan. In the 1870's Japan had a special officer training school, an arsenal employing 2, 500 workers, and factory producing more gunpowder than ever in their history.(7) Because of these actions there were numerous peasant revolts and protests against privilege and national policy.(8) However the movement brought benefits to the country as well as trouble. The dragon may represent authority and strength of the growing military aspirations of Japan.

The elephant represents awkwardness, caution, endurance, and wisdom. It can also be seen as depicting longevity, patience, and gentleness. You will notice that the bronze vase has three elephant heads on the front. In Japanese Buddhism this represented the subjugation of six sources of temptation. They are the five senses-hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, smelling but most importantly the human will.(9)

I believe this symbolism reflects what was happening in Japanese society in the 1870's and 1880's. The Japanese people wanted to overcome the position they were placed in comparison to the Western world and used the endurance of the elephant to perseverance. The Japanese also used the values learned in the Buddhist religion to help themselves become better people. The Great Teaching which describes rules to follow in order to proceed with caution, but achieve desired goals. The teachings say to "respect the gods, love one's country, obey the rules of moral part of ethical and religious belief."(10) After Perry opened up Japan to the West many things changed. The Meiji government restored public buildings, worked on the maintenance of schools, and repaired the country's roads.(11) This helped to advance the society into a long lasting, unified society. The elephant is a symbol that has guided Japan in their actions.

In Japan the crane is a sacred bird called the tsuru who is generally associated with chrysanthemums and pine. The crane represents prudence, purity, and vigilance. It is seen as a royal bird who represents the spirit of a prince. The prince Yamato is honored just as the crane for his loyalty and valor.(12) In the 1870's the Emperor Meiji of Japan also proved his position to the feudal class and average citizens. They were granted permission to supplement their incomes by taking up farming, commerce, and different occupations which rules in the past had forbidden them to do.(13) The crane helps to strengthen the social aspects of Japan by using the people as well as the government in major decisions.

The snake intertwining the bottom of the vase has his own special meaning. Generally this reptile represents cunning, deceit, and wisdom. In Japanese Buddhism, the snake is a symbol of anger and the cardinal sins of man.(14) One Japanese Folktale called "The Serpent of Mount Unzen" describes its role:

...they continued hunting every day without taking a rest, and one day they saw a big snake. Recognizing it as the evil creature that had done damage to their fields, they tried many shots, but could only wound it without reaching its vital spot. The wounded monster hid itself in the depths of the mountains and came out to do evil...(15)

The snake is much like the dragon because it can be seen in both a positive and negative sense. Japan was very cunning as it changed from an "uncivilized" country to a future world power. The changes lead to many social and political advancements but also cause trouble among the people. In their Imperial Rule, Japan wanted to abandon the attitude of a "frog looking at the world from the bottom of a well" and learn from other countries failures and successes.(16) Japan expanded their culture to accept Western styles of clothing, music, arts, and food.(17) This is known as "cultural borrowing" and helped to advance Japan into the 20th century.

I loved trying to integrate the vase into the symbol of nationalism and advancement in the Japanese culture. I believe that artwork does express the inner desire to achieve goals and express important ideas. In truth, I really do not know what the artist were trying to show when they created the beautiful vase leading to the Japanese Exhibit. Symbols can be used in subtle ways to give clues to how the Japanese lived their lives. In the 1870's Japan was trying to advance themselves into the Western world and did so by incorporating new values into their social, political, and cultural lives. The Meiji government worked diligently to give its people the education and equal rights they needed to advance in the modern world. The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was a place to show of the new and better Japan.

Related Links
 1876 Japanese Poem and Art
  McCabe Photos of Exhibition


 1.  Http://
 2.  James Daloney Macabe, The Illustrated History of the Centennial Exhibition (Philadelphia: The National Publishing Co., 1870), 48
 3.  Gertrude Jobes, Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore, and Symbols  (New York: The Scarecrow Press Inc., 1961), 1640
4 .  Jobes, 251
 5.  Jobes, 468
 6.  Royall Tyler, Japanese Tales (New York: Pan-American Books, 1987) 53
7 .  W.G. Beasley, The Rise of Modern Japan (New York: St. Martin=s  Press, 1995) 64
 8.  Beasley, 65
 9.  Jobes, 501
 10.  Beasley, 81
11 .  Beasley, 66
12.  Jobes, 378
13.  Beasley, 62
14 .  Jobes, 1469
15 .  Richard M. Dorson, Folk Legends of Japan (Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1962) 123
16.  Beasley, 55
17 .  Beasley, 85

Related Links
  1876 Japanese Poem and Art
   McCabe Photos of Exhibition