Upon seeing the Japanese Court at the International Exhibition of 1862, the architect William Burges declared ‘if the visitor wishes to the see the Middle Ages, he must visit the Japanese Court’.
It was the first time Japanese art and material culture had been exhibited in Britain on a large scale. Before 1859, Japan had been a largely ‘closed’ society, resisting trade and tourism from the West.
The International Exhibition sparked a craze for all things Japanese and brought an unprecedented number of Japanese objects into Western collections which exercised a major influence on the development of fashion and design.
Artists associated with Aestheticism began to collect Japanese art such as woodblock prints and kimonos.
James McNeill Whistler was at the forefront of the artistic craze for Japonisme. He was deeply inspired by the indigo hues used by artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige and incorporated them into his ‘nocturne’ paintings which explored the sensational effect of different colour harmonies.
However, Burges’s comment suggested that Japan was a culture frozen in time when, in fact, it was undergoing its own rapid period of transformation.
An extraordinary board game produced using the new mass colour printing technologies was utilised as a highly effective tool for informal education and propaganda.
The ‘Board Game of Japanese Reforms’ illustrates a range of sophisticated activities players could aspire to take part in as model citizens in the new Japan.
Activities include ballroom dancing, dressmaking with sewing machines, choral singing, participating in a sports day and attending festivals associated with the Imperial family.
The women are dressed in corseted aniline-dyed purple and green dresses and the men are in Western-style military uniforms, which the Meiji court formally adopted in the 1870s.
The board game shows how Japanese people responded to the colours of the European synthetic dye revolution and incorporated these new colours into their fashion and material culture.