The Rokumeikan

The Rokumeikan, also know as the “Deer Cry Pavilion” or “Hall of the Baying Stag,” was built in Tokyo, 1883 by Josiah Conder, a well-known British architect working in Japan. Commissioned by the foreign minister, Inoue Kaoru, the purpose of this large two-story building was to provide housing for foreign guests of the government and serve as a meeting locality for those Japanese who have had experience living or working abroad.

In 1887, the Rokumeikan became famous for its parties and balls where prominent Japanese figures would assembly every Sunday and be introduced to Western cultures and manners. Men would wear evening suits tailored in London and women would wear fancy ballroom gowns from Paris. They would order food and drinks from menus written in French and dance the waltz or polka. With so many Westernized people occupying it, the Rokumeikan became a potential center for modernization in Japan to blossom.

…But it didn’t. Kaoru intended to impress Western visitors by imitating a Western environment where the Japanese could be seen as cultural equals rather than “natives.” Unfortunately, the Rokumeikan was criticized by many, including Pierre Loti, a French novelist and naval officer. He described the elaborate banquets as “monkey shows” and compared the building to a “mediocre casino in a French spa town.” The more conservative Japanese in society were appalled by the actions of those who resided at the Rokumeikan because they perceived their actions as the degeneration of traditional morals. They were especially offended by how close the men and women would dance with each other (Oh, if only they knew how close people dance nowadays…). Controversies began to arise when gossip of scandalous behaviors involving high-ranking officials surfaced (Although the shady business didn’t occur within the Rokumeikan, this is where they would meet their potential partners to take home). To add to the controversy, people started linking high tax raises to the self-indulgence of the government, accusing them of using the tax money to pay for the expenses of the banquets.

I think the Japanese may have tried too hard to fit in with the Western and European civilization. Just because they wear European suits and gowns, or dance the waltz and polka, or order from French menus doesn’t mean that they’re suddenly not going to be Japanese anymore. I think that instead of trying so hard to assimilate into the Western and European cultures, they should have used the Rokumeikan to share their Japanese culture with the foreign visitors and educate them on how they live; show others that they can live the “Japanese way” and still be just as prominent as others.

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