With nearly 165 years of bilateral ties between them, Japan and the UK have enjoyed a flourishing relationship over decades. Although relations between the two countries go back to as early as the 1600s, with British explorers arriving on Japanese shores, migration did not start until much later. The first wave of Japanese settlers in the UK dates to the late 1800s, with a recorded 264 Japanese nationals living in Britain in 1884. They came for various reasons, but mostly for business and trade, and to pursue education at Britain’s top universities.
The influx of Japanese settlers over time has birthed thriving Nikkei communities across the UK; predominantly, in populous areas of Great Britain such as north and central London, as well as counties in which Japanese corporations have a significant presence. In 2021, the latest available data from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows that there were 63,659 Japanese residing in the UK, as of October that year.
As a result of the migration, cultural exchange flowed freely, evidenced in many aspects of British society — from food and fashion to arts and aesthetics, among other areas of daily life. This exchange likewise conceived what is known as the Anglo-Japanese style of design. Because it was unlike anything the English were accustomed to, Japan’s art had a significant impact on British culture in the mid-nineteenth century. For its ethereal uniqueness, timeless philosophies, symbolic wealth, and stunning beauty, Japanese art became a major source of inspiration for many English painters and designers between 1850 and 1900.
With nearly 165 years of bilateral ties between them, Japan and the UK have enjoyed a flourishing relationship over decades.
The Anglo-Japanese awakening
The style even found its way to the works of the great Pre-Raphaelite painters across Europe; notably, in the pieces of poet and painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His fascination with the Japanese aesthetic gave rise to a cult following within the art community in the UK. Pre-Raphaelite British artists Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, Simeon Solomon, and Albert Joseph Moore were among those whose works were heavily influenced by Anglo-Japanese principles. The style craze would eventually sweep throughout the rest of Western Europe and to North America, as well, where it became known as Japonisme (also spelled Japonism), with American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler at the forefront of the movement.
In fashion, designers in London and Paris began to incorporate kimono fabric and kimono-inspired designs into their own creations, resulting in a stylized version of a Nikkei classic. Japanese-inspired motifs and textiles eventually became a fashion trend (and now, a staple) across Western Europe, owing to the English and Parisian fashion houses.
“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.”
Confluence of creativity
English novelist, short-story writer, poet, and journalist Rudyard Kipling once said: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.”
While there are, indeed, major differences between Eastern and Western principles and philosophies, overall — including in the areas of design and aesthetic sense — there are movements that have successfully bridged the two divergent schools of thought. The Anglo-Japanese style is among such movements, calling to mind not only the creative appeal of the Japanese aesthetic but also the power of a sense of shared humanity.