Daily Archives: 14 February 2009

Changing Court Costumes under Meiji

From “Cultural Change in Nineteenth-Century Japan,” by Marius B. Jansen, in Challenging Past and Present: The Metamorphosis of Nineteenth-Century Japanese Art, ed. by Ellen P. Conant (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2006), pp. 40-41:

The need for practicality and efficiency affected cultural policy in many ways. The early Meiji years saw the court trying to do business in the garments of antiquity. Albert Craig writes that “when the government structure was first promulgated, officials rushed out to secondhand bookstores to buy copies of the commentaries on the Taiho code (702) so they would know what the new office titles meant.” Many adopted Heian-period names, and “[e]ven the clothing worn by the councilors at certain court ceremonies was dictated by the new ethos. High-ranking samurai officials were required to dress as nobles; and all, including nobles, were required to wear swords. On one occasion the Saga samurai Eto Shinpei, late for a ceremony, dashed into the court uncapped by an eboshi—a small, black, silly-looking hat that perches forward on the head. A noble asked him, ‘Where is your hat?’ Eto retorted, ‘Where are your swords?’ Both hastened out for the proper accouterments.”

But the work of modernization could not be carried out at a costume party. In 1870 the Daigaku Nanko, ancestor of the Imperial University of Tokyo, still ruled out Western clothing, but that same year the imperial court appointed a Western-clothing specialist to its staff. By 1874 Kido Takayoshi, hero of the Restoration and powerfully influential government minister, was agonizing in his diary over the pain caused by “my shoes.” A year later Mori Arinori (1848-1888), natty in a Western suit, was bantering with the Qing statesman Li Hungzhang. Did he not find it unpleasant to wear such foreign clothes? Li asked solicitously. Had not Mori’s ancestors preferred Chinese costume? Yes, answered Mori, but he was doing as his ancestors had done by choosing the better garb. And, he went on, had Li’s ancestors worn Manchu robes like those his host had on? No, was the reluctant answer, they had not.

Before long the Meiji emperor’s Western military uniform was made court dress, and things moved so rapidly that at a birthday ball in 1885, itself remarkable, only two of the ladies did not appear in Western dress. Westerners usually thought this regrettable. In 1887 Herr von Mohl, a specialist in Western protocol hired for the court, suggested going back to Japanese dress for formal occasions but found that “Count Ito let me know that in Japan the costume question was a political issue in which the imperial household advisors had no voice; he requested that the matter should be viewed as settled and not to waste further time in discussing what is, in fact, a fait accompli.”

By the time the Meiji constitution was promulgated in 1889, Tokyo newspapers reported that Western-style tailors were being swamped with business by prefectural officials who had come crowding into the capital. Eboshi had given way to top hats, which alternated with bowlers in the uneasy combination of dress and footwear that is recorded in many Meiji photographs.

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