On January 10, 1885 (Meiji 18), The Japanese Village exhibition in London was opened to the British public. It resembled a traditional Japanese village with a tea-house, a Buddhist temple, and some 100 Japanese inhabitants, including 26 women and children. The exhibition showed Japanese textiles, pottery, wood-carving, lacquer-work and inlaid metalwork, wrestling and martial arts.
The opening was attended by Sir Rutherford Alcock (ラザフォード・オールコック, 1809-1897), the first British diplomatic representative to live in Japan (1858-1864).
Organized by Tannaker Buhicrosan, an entrepreneur who had spent time in Japan and whose wife was Japanese, the exhibition was held at Humphrey’s Hall in Knightsbridge, one of London’s most fashionable shopping streets at the time.
Visitors included Scottish designer Christopher Dresser (1834–1904), and English dramatist Sir William Schwenck Gilbert (1836–1911), whose production of the comic opera The Mikado coincided with the exhibition. Inhabitants of the Japanese village actually assisted Gilbert with his production. This was acknowledged in The Mikado’s 1885 program:
“The Management desires to acknowledge the valuable assistance afforded by the Directors and Native Inhabitants of the Japanese Village, Knightsbridge.”
Advertisements in the Illustrated London News give an idea of the scale of the exhibition:
“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.”
On May 2, 1885 a fire destroyed Humphrey’s Hall and all the Japanese structures. One of the Japanese inhabitants died. The exhibition was rebuilt—with the addition of a concert hall and a bridge spanning a pool—and restarted in December of the same year.
In March 1886 (Meiji 19), the British weekly illustrated newspaper The Graphic reported:
“The Japanese Village is one of the prettiest sights in London. In no way disheartened by the conflagration which laid his little hamlet in ruins, Mr. Tannaker Buhicrosan has rebuilt the village on an enlarged and improved scale—a comfortable and spacious theatre, being one of the most noteworthy features…there is now no danger to life to be apprehended from fire. The requisite alterations have been completed by additional exits to various parts of the buildings, and the Metropolitan Board of Works have granted their certificate. To an artist, the village, with its old temple, bridge, and ornamental water, is most quaintly picturesque.”
Coming at a time when there was immense romantic interest in Japan, which had opened its doors to the outside world only in the late 1850s, the exhibition was extremely popular and attracted over a million visitors. However, interest eventually waned and the village closed in June 1887 (Meiji 20).