Discovering Japan… at the British Museum

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to visit the British Museum. The British Museum runs a whole bunch of free tours and talks run by volunteers, but I had no idea until my Twitter friend, @ypldn, asked me to join the Japan tour that he was running.

The Japan rooms in the British Museum (rooms 92-94) are really worth checking out if you’re in London and interested in Japanese culture. If you visit, you should aim to get there before 11am, as that’s when you can join in the free daily tour.

As you enter room 92, you are greeted by a large statue of Kudara Kannon.

Japan exhibition: Statue of Kudara Kannon

According to the sign in the museum, this replica statue is a “living embodiment” of Kannon, a Buddhist deity who offers humans compassion and mercy. It was made around 1930.

Japan exhibition: Statue of Kudara Kannon

In contrast to the Asian influence of the Kannon statue, the next item that caught my attention was a Western-style clock made in the 1700s.

Japan exhibition: Feudal lord's clock with lacquered stand

The tour guide drew attention to the fact that the Kannon statue showed not only an Asian influence but also a spiritual influence, and that the clock showed both a Western and scientific influence. It is this contrast that makes the Japan we know today.

A picture which I really liked in the museum was this one called “Port of London” (1862):

Japan exhibition: Port of London, England

The artist, Utagawa Yoshitora, combined various sources, including a view of St Paul’s cathedral taken from the Illustrated London News.

There aren’t a lot of pop-culture artefacts at the museum, but there was a lovely picture from the Studio Ghibli film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind:

Japan exhibition: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

I actually found it more interesting to see examples of historical art, though:

Japan exhibition: Elegant Model Pictures of Japan

This book from 1684 was originally printed in black and white, and the colour was added later. It shows fashionably dressed townspeople – rather like a historical version of Vogue.

One of the most interesting things I learnt during the tour was about “Living National Treasures” (人間国宝). “Living National Treasure is a Japanese popular term for those individuals certified as Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties (重要無形文化財保持者 / Jūyō Mukei Bunkazai Hojisha) by the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology as based on Japan’s Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties (文化財保護法 / Bunkazai Hogōhō). The term “Living National Treasure” is not formally mentioned in the law, but is an informal term referencing the cultural properties designated as the National Treasures of Japan.” (Wikipedia)

I had heard the phrase “Living National Treasure” before while in Japan, but didn’t know what one was. I had always assumed it was some kind of strangely translated Japanese English – but I was wrong! At the museum, there was an interesting bamboo basket called “Spring Tide” made by Fujinuma Noboru in 2001.

Japan exhibition: Bamboo Basket "Spring Tide"

Fujinuma Noboru is not actually a Living National Treasure himself, but he follows in the tradition of a past Living National Treasure, Shōunsai Shōno.

Having already learnt so much from the tour, I was delighted to learn more when we stopped by a pair of rather curious looking elephants.

Japan exhibition: Pair of Kakiemon elephants

These Kakiemon elephants were made in Japan between 1660 and 1690. They were made specifically for export to Europe, and other examples of Kakiemon ceramics can still be seen today in places like Hampton Court and Windsor Castle. But why do the elephants look so strange? Well, it’s likely the craftsmen had never seen elephants in real life, so these items were probably created based on drawings and word-of-mouth.

Other points of interest in the Japan rooms at the British Museum include a functioning replica tea house (where tea ceremonies are sometimes held) and a set of samurai armour, which dates from the 1500s to the 1800s.

Japan exhibition: Samurai armour and helmet

If you visit the British Museum, don’t forget to check out the gift shop! There are a lot of gorgeous Japan-related goodies in there, including books, bags, T-shirts, and jewellery. Some of the jewellery was really lovely, but I exercised a little bit of self-restraint and just bought this “Japanese Beauties” bag:

Japanese Beauties bag

The Japanese Beauties range was inspired by Migita Toshihide’s series, “Twelve Aspects of Beautiful Women”. Toshihide was an accomplished Japanese artist creating work in the traditional ukiyo-e style of woodblock printing. Ukiyo-e translates as “pictures of the floating world”. Produced between the 17th and 20th century, this style of printing often features motifs of landscapes, tales from history or the theatre. (Information from the British Museum.)

Finally, just a brief mention for something in the British Museum which wasn’t actually Japanese. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I just love big Buddha statues. Well, this one is actually Chinese, but… isn’t it wonderful?

Marble figure of Amitabha Buddha, China

This statue of Buddha Amitabha, which is almost 8 metres high, was originally flanked by a smaller standing Bodhisattva, now in the Tokyo National Museum (so there’s the Japan connection for you!).

Remember, the British Museum is free to enter! It’s a great place to spend some time if you’re in London and, if you’re not that interested in Japan, there are plenty of other exhibitions to keep you entertained. See the British Museum website for more information.

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