Photographs Eliza Scidmore took in Japan are going on display at the National Geographic Society in Washington starting today, accompanying an exhibit on samurai. The exhibit features two dozen of Eliza’s hand-colored photos from the early 1900’s. Some were published in National Geographic in the early 1900’s, others are from the Society’s archives.
Eliza was affiliated with the Geographic for nearly 20 years as a writer, editor, photographer and member of the board. Her illustrations accompanying a 1914 story titled “Young Japan” are the first time the magazine carried photographs taken by a woman.
The related exhibit offers a very different view of samurai than the image we have of feudal warriors of great military prowess who served noble families from the 12th to the early 19th centuries.
Their privileged status and prestige faded after the return of the emperor to the throne in 1867, known as the Meiji Restoration. As Japan embarked on a widespread program of rapid modernization, the sons of many distinguished samurai families got a Western-style education that prepared them for roles as statesmen and cultural ambassadors who helped build bridges between Japan and Western countries like the United States.
In a 1926 newspaper article describing the events that led to the planting of Washington’s cherry trees in 1912, Eliza Scidmore referred to the major contributions of Dr. Jokichi Takamine, an eminent Japanese chemist who lived in New York City (with his American-born wife) and offered to pay for 2,000 cherry trees as a gift to First Lady Helen Taft for her landscaping project. Of his gesture, Eliza wrote: “It was an admirable samurai retort to those first anti-Japanese demonstrations in California.” On the West Coast, measures were being introduced to exclude Japanese (like the Chinese before them) from education and citizenship and restrict their immigration.
Not all samurai became members of the country’s elite. Some had to enter household service to survive. At a hotel in Yokohama during one of her many trips to Japan, Eliza interacted regularly with Tatsu, a former samurai who “had the face of a Roman senator, with a Roman dignity of manner quite out of keeping with his broom and dustpan, or livery of dark-blue tights, smooth vest and short blouse worn by all his class in Yokohama.”
She had him translate correspondence for her, and she sought his advice on the purchase of ceramics and artifacts that agents brought to her hotel for consideration. Once when she received a card for a garden party at the imperial place, Tatsu “sucked in his breath many times,” bowed low and translated thus: “Mikado want to see Missy, Tuesday, three o’cock.”
The samurai followed a strict code of conduct that came to be known as bushidō, or “Way of the Warrior-Knight.” Loosely analogous to the concept of chivalry, it stressed virtues like frugality, loyalty, honor, wisdom and the martial arts.
An 1899 book by Nitobe Inazō, titled Bushido: The Soul of Japan, was influential in introducing the concept to the West. Eliza knew Nitobe and his wife, who was an American Quaker from Philadelphia. They lived part of the year in Geneva for Dr. Nitobe’s work at the League of Nations. Eliza Scidmore, then in the final years of her life, also lived there at the time. The Nitobes were close friends of hers, and they were among the last people to see her before her death in 1928 after an emergency appendectomy.
The samurai exhibit runs March 7 to Sept. 3, 2012, at National Geographic’s Explorer’s Hall in downtown Washington. Tickets ($8 for adults) are required for admission.