I was recently in Tokyo in order to send off some relatives who had been visiting here in Kyoto. After seeing them through the gates at Narita Airport I dashed off to visit the Edo-Tokyo Museum near Ryogoku Station. I had been desperate to go there for some time as I had heard about the model of the Rokumeikan building they had. However, after being mighty impressed at the sheer scale of the museum itself and the somewhat elaborate method for actually getting into the museum building itself, I made a beeline for the Rokumeikan display and found myself utterly disappointed with what was on show. Or rather, not on show, because the Rokumeikan model could hardly be seen. I felt most put-out. It was a little bit like that feeling you get when you’re all expectant and excited about seeing a movie you’ve heard rave reviews about and then you watch it and it’s quite simply ‘rubbish’. What depressed me most of all was that all of the other exhibition pieces were brilliant! Only the Rokumeikan, or rather the method of its display, was a real disappointment. The model itself, what I could see of it at least, was amazing.
It simply could not be seen properly. It was fitted into a hole in the floor and over the top of it some thick glass was placed for people to walk over to see it from a kind of bird’s eye view. This might not have been such a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that because the model was so large in scale (it included both the Rokumeikan building and the large front garden and gate) one sheet of glass alone was not safe enough for people to walk over, so the glass cover was split into smaller sections with what appeared to be thick iron girders in between, thus blocking a clear view of the model beneath.
After this disappointment, I wondered despondently around the rest of museum and then decided to try the museum shop. I found some postcards with one being of the Rokumeikan model. The photograph on the front gave a much better perspective and clearer view. I wondered why the display itself could not have allowed a view like the one on the postcard. Thinking that was all they had in the way of Rokumeikan goods I was about to leave, but then, in the far corner of the shop I saw some publications, one of which gave a description of the Rokumeikan and the construction of the model by the modeler, Uchida Yoshio who is an architect and lecturer at Toyo University. I bought a copy of that and two copies of the Rokumeikan postcards and headed back to my hotel.
The following day, weighed down by heavy luggage, I went to the site where the Rokumeikan once stood. Now, the Yamato Life Insurance company building stands on the spot. Exhausted from the weight of my bags, I was glad to find a trusty old Starbucks coffee shop on the ground floor of the building. After taking a couple of pictures of the plaque commemorating the Rokumeikan, I went and enjoyed a Matcha Tea Latte and pondered the significance of the Rokumeikan.
The Rokumeikan was highly criticized within Japan for its unnecessary lavishness. Inoue Kaoru, the driving force behind the Rokumeikan project, was eventually forced to resign from his position as Foreign Minister for failing to rid Japan of the bonds of the Unequal Treaties with western nations, and his so-called ‘failure’ is also seen to be part of the failure of the Rokumeikan.
My interest in the Rokumeikan began when I discovered that it was Nakai Hiromu who, apparently, suggested the naming for the Rokumeikan. It comes from a Chinese classic poem in the collection called the Shi Jing. In the book by Pat Barr, The Deer Cry Pavilion (which is how the word “Rokumeikan” translates into English) quotes the English translation by Arthur Waley of the Chinese poem:
Yu, yu, cry the deer
Nibbling the black southernwood in the field.
I have a guest.
Let me play my zither, blow my reed-organ,
Blow my reed-organ, trill their tongues,
Take up the baskets of offerings,
Here is a man that loves me
And will teach me the ways of Chou.
The poem represents the welcoming of guests, which is exactly what the Rokumeikan was for. The prevailing idea that its purpose was to rid Japan of the bonds of the Unequal Treaties appears to me to be more an idea that came with the after-thought of the contemporary media and critics of the time. The original purpose, I think, was that it would merely be a place to welcome foreign guests. Certainly, if anything positive had come from it regarding the unequal treaties, the Rokumeikan would perhaps not have been so highly criticised, and it could well have been in existence today.
There is an excellent translation by David Rosenfeld (2001) of Pierre Loti’s vicious attack on the Rokumeikan. Loti tells of his personal experience when he was invited to a ball at the Rokumeikan to celebrate the Emperor Meiji’s birthday in 1886. I was absolutely shocked to read his account; his racist attitude seems to know no bounds. To give an example, he calls the rickshaw men that drive the guests to the ball “little black imps”! Need I say anymore?!
I am glad I finally made it to the Edo-Tokyo Museum. As long as you don’t get too excited about seeing the Rokumeikan exhibit as I did, I can really recommend a visit there. It’s a pretty big place and one of the bonuses is that you can use your ticket for multiple re-entry for one day, so if you fancy going to get some “chanko-nabe” (sumo wrestlers’ hot-pot) for lunch you can! Ryogoku is a famous Sumo mecca, of course; home to a number of Sumo stables, restaurants that serve Sumo hot-pots and there is also the famous Sumo Stadium. I always enjoy watching the Sumo on TV; I’d like to go there again to see a tournament. Perhaps by that time, the Rokumeikan model will have a better form of display.