On February 18, 1853 (Kaei 6), Ernest Francisco Fenollosa (アーネスト・フランシスコ・フェノロサ, 1853–1908) was born in Salem, Massachusetts in the USA. He would play a major role in preserving traditional Japanese art.
In 1878 (Meiji 11), Fenollosa arrived in Japan to teach political economy and philosophy at the Imperial University at Tokyo, after having been invited by American zoologist and Orientalist Edward S. Morse. He soon started researching Japanese temples, shrines and art treasures with his student and later art scholar Kakuzo Okakura (岡倉覚三, 1862–1913).
Because of Japan’s frenetic efforts to catch up with the West, and the government’s edict to separate Shinto from Buddhism, traditional Japanese arts lost much of their prestige. Many art treasures were thrown out and even burnt as garbage. This persuaded Fenollosa to focus his efforts on traditional arts, and to halt the dismantling and destruction of art collections and the discarding of traditional art techniques.
Fenollosa travelled around Japan to catalogue art treasures and rediscovered many forgotten ones, including ancient Chinese scrolls brought to Japan by traveling monks during the first millennium. He was instrumental in founding the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (東京美術学校) and the Tokyo Imperial Museum (帝国博物館), of which he became the director in 1888 (Meiji 21). He also helped to draft a law for the preservation of temples and shrines and their art treasures.
Fenollosa’s large private collection of Japanese art eventually ended up at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, where he would temporarily work as curator of the department of Oriental Art.
His important work was already recognized in his own time and Emperor Meiji (1867–1912) decorated him with several orders.
When Fenollosa died in Great Britain on September 21, 1908 (Meiji 41), the Japanese government had his ashes picked up by a Japanese warship. They were interred in Homyoin (法明院) at Miidera (三井寺) in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture.