Sunday, May 22, 2011

So interesting to read about the Meiji period (1868-1912) in Japan in Ian Buruma's book - and when I reached the passage quoted below, I was, quite unexpectedly, reminded of the Turkish history:

Writing almost a century later, the novelist Mishima Yukio could still work himself into a rage about the superficial primness of the Meiji years. Prohibitions on public nudity, mixed bathing, and other embarrassing signs of "the coarse and the mean" stemmed less from native prudery than from fear of foreign disapproval.

I was even more surprised to run into a mention of Pierre Loti in the subsequent paragraph: the French novelist's Istanbul "headquarters" on top of the hill in Eyüp offers a great view of the Golden Horn/Haliç and is a lovely place to visit. Turns out Pierre Loti had recorded some of his observations - "supercilious and probably quite accurate" - of the Japanese "Europeanization" attempts in 1885, well before Turkey took a similar path:

The exterior of the [Deer Cry Pavilion], designed by a British architect in a mixture of high Victorian, French Empire and Italian Renaissance styles, was likened by Loti to a provincial French spa. He thought the Japanese gentlemen, dressed up in suits of tails, looked like performing monkeys, and the ladies, lining the walls like tapestries in their hoops and flounces and satin trains, were, well, "remarkable." Doing their best to strike the proper European attitudes, gentlemen puffed Havana cigars and played whist, while others picked at the truffles and pâté and ice-cream sorbets laid out on the buffet tables. A French orchestra struck up operetta tunes, while a German band played polkas, mazurkas, and waltzes. Loti: "They danced quite properly, my Japanese in Parisian gowns. But one sense that it is something drilled into them that they perform like automatons, without any personal initiative. If by change they lose the beat, they have to be stopped and started all over again."

And then this - which brings to mind the more recent Turkish history:

It is easy to laugh at all this with Pierre Loti. But the intention behind the entertainment was serious. Inoue Kaoru was foreign minister in his friend Ito Hirobumi's cabinet. They hoped that rapid Westernization would make foreign powers treat Japan as an equal and thus agree to relinquish their privileges under the unequal treaties. [...] To critics of this kind of thing, Ito's government became known as "the dancing cabinet."

And, finally, this:

When it became clear that Western diplomats and writers were quite willing to dance, but not to revise the treaties as a result of Inoue's hospitality, the foreign minister's star began to fade. His policy was discredited, and in 1889 the Deer Cry Pavilion was sold to a private club. A backlash against all the Westernizing had already begun by then. The building, alas, is no more.

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