WHILE political and economic relationships between the United States and Japan have been thorny since Commodore Perry's ``black ships'' ungently ended Japan's self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world in 1853, the exchange of arts and culture has been enthusiastic on both sides. Of course, the first wave of influence came from the US to Japan in the commodore's wake. Japanese woodblock artists aided the efforts of their government to accustom people to the presence of foreigners among them by presenting witty but sympathetic portrayals of the activities and manners of Americans and Europeans.
Actually, by 1860 there were only 34 foreign merchants residing in the port city of Yokohama, and no more than 250 in 1862.
However, 800 woodblock prints of the costumes and doings of the alien visitors were produced in the single year 1860-61, attesting to the avid and almost immediate interest of the Japanese public in Western culture.
The arrival of the first Japanese diplomatic mission to the US in 1860 brought with it the first return wave of American interest in things Japanese. The informal ambassadors received favorable press coverage, and the climax of their visit was a procession down Broadway in New York City, escorted by a military band and 6,000 honor guards. Walt Whitman was present and immortalized his impression in ``Leaves of Grass'':
Over the Western sea hither from Niphon come, Courteous, the swarth-cheek'd two-sworded envoys, Leaning back in their open barouches, bareheaded, impassive, Ride to-day through Manhattan.
In 1870, however, a young schoolteacher named William Elliot Griffis was denied a life insurance policy before setting out on the long voyage to Japan as venturing into an unknown and possibly dangerous land.
Landing in Yokohama, he was astonished to find that Westernization had preceded him, with banking houses having stone fa,cades similar to those he had left, an American-style small hotel, gaslights in the streets, a photo studio, and a portrait of President Lincoln in a shop window.
By the time Chester A. Arthur was inaugurated as president in 1881, the American fascination with things Japanese was approaching its first crest. Arthur seems to have been remarkably free from racial prejudice. As a lawyer practicing in New York City, he was a defender of Negro civil rights, and while president he vetoed a bill that prohibited Chinese immigration for 20 years, although he could not prevent a lesser bill from later becoming law.
A biography notes that he enjoyed fashionable surroundings and fashionable clothing. But the exact circumstance of this intriguing portrait of a US president decked out in the formal attire of a Japanese samurai is unclear. The caption on the portrait at an exhibit at the Albany (N.Y.) Institute of History and Art on the faddishness of American interest in Japan in the late 19th century notes: ``According to family tradition this portrait was done by the Japanese emperor's artist, who was sent to the United States to paint Arthur's portrait in full Japanese dress.''
But another caption indicates that Arthur commissioned the portrait himself. To me, it is doubtful that an American, no matter how clothes-conscious he might be, could look that much at ease in so strange a costume.
My own theory is that a photograph of the president was sent to Japan, and the artist who signed his name in neat English lettering with the word Yokohama underneath did the rest. F.Nakayama, the artist, must have been unusual at the time, in that he was familiar with both Japanese traditional painting and Western painting and lettering.
The very realistically modeled face and the shadow under the figure bespeak European training, whereas the hands and the clothing are done in the manner of classic Japanese silk painting, which is done with watercolor on well-primed silk. The portrait is so skillful and the rendering of textures so beautiful that he may well have been the court painter. The coloring is elegantly subdued, as befits a mature gentleman of distinguished rank. It is interesting to note that gray and black striped trousers and a dark jacket describe male formal attire in Western terms even today.
The two samurai swords have elaborate guards and hilts. The word ``samurai'' is usually translated as ``warrior,'' but ``knight'' is closer to the samurai's actual functions at the castles of feudal lords. They had codes, which paralleled the various codes of chivalry in England and Europe. These were designed to instill loyalty and also to promote refinement and humane compassion for the unfortunate.
In the president's right hand is a whitish fan with gold touches. Fans are not effeminate in Japanese culture.
In a climate with a hot and humid summer, a fan provides a welcome breeze, regardless of gender. This may even have been a version of a war fan that was used, closed like a baton, by military commanders to direct battle tactics. Because it was surfaced in gold or silver leaf, opened it could deflect sunlight into an opponent's eyes as well as shade one's own, as did highly polished shields in the West.
All in all, President Arthur cuts a handsome figure in his unaccustomed regalia. And while it strikes us as very odd to see an American president decked out in this manner, we are not nearly as surprised to see the Japanese empress in a very chic Victorian outfit.
She is shown in the left-hand portion of a woodblock triptych, with the Emperor Meiji on the right. The portraits are done in traditional woodblock technique with the faces drawn in simple lines without any modeling. The only shading is in the depiction of a handsome screen in wash painting behind them. Strong colors flatly laid in with detail in fine black lines form the figures and objects.
The empress's costume is brown with green trim. A red plume in her modish gable bonnet, red chair back, and red silk tablecloth brighten the color scheme.
The caption notes: ``Prints of Japanese royalty were collected and tacked to the walls with the same mixture of adoration, pride, and curiosity that helps sell pictures of the Prince and Princess of Wales [in England] today.''
Prints like this one of the empress helped the smooth acceleration of the Japanese nation out of almost total isolation into a prominent place among the technological countries.
The portrait of President Arthur in Japanese dress could not have had any influence on American perceptions of Japan, as it does not seem to have been publicly exhibited by him. It remained in the family until 1954, when a descendant presented it to the Albany Institute of History and Art. It played no role in the shuttling waves of culture that have traversed the Pacific so many times in so many ways since then.
But it remains as an unexpected footnote to the administration of Chester Alan Arthur and to the American inclination to the exotic.
A Page 1 box yesterday mistakenly referred readers to ``Samurai Yank.'' The essay is on today's Home Forum page. The Monitor regrets the error.