Sunday, July 18, 2010

Asian Art 2: Friendship Dolls

Next to the Japanese baskets at the Asian Art Museum is a small special exhibit devoted to the uneasy love/hate relationship between Japan and the United States from 1854 to the early part of the twentieth century. (The Japanese "abbreviated map of all the world's nations" above is from the early part of the 19th century.)

1854 was when Commodore Perry forcibly opened up Japan to the West, which initiated a craze for all things Japanese in the United States, until racism towards its immigrants and growing fear about its modernized military and industrial might led to the federal Immigration Act of 1924, which effectively banned all new Japanese immigrants from entering the United States among other exclusions.

There are fascinating prints of a rapidly modernizing Japan, and a few of the Western players in that process, including Eugene Miller Van Reed (below), who died on one of his Pacific voyages and was buried in 1873 at Lone Mountain in San Francisco.

The discreet, read-between-the-lines signage at the museum states:

"In 1859, Van Reed went to Japan to seek his fortune as a merchant, an arms dealer, and later the founder of his own trading company. Van Reed was also responsible for the first organized emigration of Japanese laborerers in the modern era. In 1868 he arranged for the transport of 148 men to Hawaii to work on sugar plantations. Their treatment of these laborers on the plantations became a source of controversy among the governments of Japan, Hawaii and the United States."

In 1927, as part of a public relations attempt to sway the attitudes of youth from both nations, a set of 57 "Friendship Dolls" were sent from Japan to San Francisco and a concurrent set of American dolls were shipped to Japan.

While dolls in America were considered children's playthings, in Japan they were revered as artworks, and the objects with their elaborate trousseaus are amazing.

The set of 57 Friendship dolls traveled the United States for two years, stopping in hundreds of cities, an ironic counterpart to the newly legislated exclusion of their flesh-and-blood compatriots, who would not be allowed to legally immigrate to the United States until 1952.

For an interesting essay on the subject by Ken Ikemoto, who works at the museum in its Education department, click here.

1 comment:

namastenancy said...

I was never much for playing with dolls but I covet one of those, complete with wardrobe. They are simply exquisite!