Daily Archives: March 16, 2011

Some European views of Japan in the nineteenth century

References to Japan in nineteenth-century newspapers in Australia are spasmodic and provide a very incomplete view of that country. The word ‘japanned’ occurs frequently in advertisements in connection with a variety of articles that were subjected to that lacquering process. As for the people, lifestyle and cultural achievements of Japan, there was a strong inclination to believe that European culture and attainments were significantly more advanced.

Thus in 1825 the Australian newspaper reprinted a letter to the editor of the Singapore Chronicle in which the writer commented on the language and ideas in several newspapers in the Australian colonies. According to the writer, the newspapers showed a range of regrettable linguistic developments in Australian English; however, they also offered evidence of ‘the rapid advancement of a country destined at some future day in all likelihood to alter the whole frame of society in Eastern Asia, and to give law to China and Japan.’

According to the Sydney Gazette in 1829:

In the island of Japan, we have the example of a people, who having attained a high degree of civilization and knowledge of the arts of life, have nevertheless abstracted themselves from intercourse with foreign nations. … There [in China], as in Japan, society appears to have attained a point at which all further progress and improvement have been arrested.

A small indication of the ignorance, or prejudice, which affected views on the ‘Far East’ may be found in an article on the history of printing, published in the Colonial Times in 1827, according to which Japan did not obtain the art of printing until the sixteenth century, subsequent to its invention in Germany in 1457.

There was, nevertheless, a recognition that Japan produced impressive manufactured goods. In the Sydney Monitor in 1828 a contributor is quoted as saying that Sydney is a place where,

… if you have but the money, you may procure any thing that convenience requires, and indulge if you please, the most capricious freaks of fancy, from the clumsiest Dutch toys, to the exquisite manufactures of China and Japan.

In quoting this passage the writer of the article disputes the possible implication that the items are widely available, but there is no criticism of the view that manufactures from China and Japan are typically, and in contrast to some items of European origin, ‘exquisite.’

Letter to the editor: ‘Comparisons are —’, Australian 20/10/1825, p. 2. Knowledge and civilization: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 10/3/1829, p. 2. Printing: Supplement to the Colonial Times 12/10/1827, p. 2. Manufactures: Sydney Monitor 23/8/1828, p. 3.