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Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012

New window on how Europe viewed Japan


UNDER EAGLE EYES: Lithographs, Drawings and Photographs From the Prussian Expedition to Japan, 1860-61, edited by Sebastian Dobson & Sven Saaler. Iudicium, 2011, 392 pp., €49 (hardcover)

Even casual students of Japan are likely to know something about Commodore Matthew Perry and his role in pressuring Japan to open up to American trade in the middle of the 19th century. But how many will have heard of Count Friedrich zu Eulenburg, who led a similar expedition from the Kingdom of Prussia in 1860-61?

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This mission has received little scholarly attention outside Germany and Japan, despite the fact that in addition to four diplomats, the civilian staff included four scientists, two artists and one photographer, all of whom used a five-month stay in Edo to examine and record a country still little-known in Europe.

To date, most scholarship on the mission has focused on the diplomatic negotiations that led to the signing in Edo of a Prussian-Japanese treaty in 1861.

But with that event recently celebrating its 150th anniversary year as the beginning of German-Japanese relations, a new book documents the Eulenburg expedition's considerable scientific and artistic legacies by reproducing drawings, lithographs and photographs from the mission that have languished in obscurity, or were presumed lost. Much of this official iconography is presented to modern readers here for the first time, with accompanying essays and notes to provide helpful context.

"Under Eagle Eyes," edited by Sebastian Dobson and Sven Saaler with contributions by a number of scholars, will be of most interest to readers with an active interest in the history of this period, but the large graphic content -190 illustrations, almost all of which are in color — makes it accessible to a wider readership who may find it interesting to see how Japan looked at the time, at least to foreign eyes.

In addition to the official iconography, the book includes other material related to the Prussian presence in Japan. There are reproductions of several rarely seen woodblock depictions of Prussians by Japanese artists, for example. An appendix on the official gifts of the Eulenburg expedition to the shogun provides fascinating insights, including the fact that most of the gifts were not kept.

And while it is still widely believed that the first lithographic press to enter Japan was a gift from the Prussian mission, the book shoots that down as myth, arguing that the machine presented was actually a small stamp press designed to emboss the shogunal crest onto paper.

For details, email matsumoto@oag.jp The book is also available online under its German title, "Unter den Augen des Preussen-Adlers."


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