From April until October this year, there was a special item on display in the Japanese Galleries at the British Museum – the Perry Scroll. I apologise for not posting about this event sooner, but perhaps it’s still interesting to those of you who missed it.
As part of Japan 400, a year of events commemorating the start of diplomatic, scientific and cultural relations and trading between Britain and Japan in 1613, the Perry Scroll was on display. This handscroll is a pictorial record of US Commodore Matthew Perry’s second visit to Japan in 1854. Each month the scroll was rolled on to a different section, and a different part of the story was on display.
I stopped by to visit twice, and was lucky enough to see two parts of the story. In June, I saw a banquet to entertain Perry and his officers, hosted by the five Japanese negotiators (left) and also a funeral procession for crew member Robert Williams (right), a cabin boy who died at sea before reaching Japan.
In October, the scroll showed portraits of the main members of the US delegation, including Perry in the circle on the far right.
Perry first arrived in Japan in 1853, delivering a letter from President Fillmore requesting trade relations with Japan. Along the bottom of the display cabinet you can see the entire scroll, which begins with Perry’s famous ‘Black Ships’ arriving in Japan a year later in 1854, when the Treaty of Kanagawa (日米和親条約) was signed between Perry and the Tokugawa Shogunate. The treaty opened up the ports of Hakodate and Shimoda to trade from the US, and ended Japan’s 200 year-long seclusion, known as ‘Sakoku‘ (鎖国).
The scroll, attributed to Hibata Osuke and painted in 1858, is not an official account of Perry’s voyage, and focusses on lighter aspects of the event, including a sumo wrestling match and a minstrel show. Naturally, it depicts the events from the Japanese perspective. The scroll is 15 metres long and contains intricate detail. If I had still been living in London I would have made sure to visit every month in order to see the entire length of the scroll.
Amazingly, the British Museum only acquired the scroll recently, and it was in Japan until last year. At the time the British Museum purchased the scroll it belonged to a dealer, and apparently sold for almost half a million pounds (source). Since the acquisition the British Museum have worked hard to figure out the details of this masterpiece (such as the artist’s name!), as until recently no one even knew the scroll existed. Where the scroll has been between its creation in 1858 and now remains a mystery.
Visit the British Museum website for more information and step-by-step images of the entire scroll.