BEAUTY AND IRONY may never have been better blended than in the magnificent new show of Japanese wood-block prints at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery.
The prints portray the opening of feudal Japan to Western commerce and culture in the mid-19th century, as seen through Japanese eyes. The artists' impressions of Europeans are sometimes ludicrously naive and wildly inaccurate, sometimes embarrassingly acute. In the light of subsequent history, many seem eerily prophetic.
Because the foreigners who followed in the wake of Commodore Perry's 1853 armed intrusion were restricted to the treaty ports of Yokohama and Nagasaki, few Japanese had a chance to see for themselves the white men in black ships who had defied the shoguns' 250-year ban on intercourse with barbarians, as all outlanders were classed.
Inexpensive color prints showing the strange pale foreigners at work and at play were being sold in the streets within a week after the American expeditionary fleet steamed into Edo (now Tokyo) Bay. Ranging from clumsy cartoons to high-order art, such prints were produced by the hundreds of thousands over the first few decades of Japan's explosive emergence into the modern world.
The Sackler show comprises nearly a hundred prints collected by William and Florence Leonhart of Washington during tours of duty with the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. In a sort of benign reverse cultural imperialism, the show is sponsored by the giant Yamanouchi Pharmaceutical Co., which sells us shiploads of medicine but sugarcoats the pill bill with contributions to everything from the San Francisco United Way to the Bioethics Center at Georgetown University.
Sackler curator Ann Yonemura, a third-generation Japanese-American, has produced a clear-eyed presentation that's a model of cultural neutrality and even-handed historicity.
Which is not to say it lacks snap and crackle. The prints are full of humor as well as hints of the tragedy and triumph that would follow this smashing of the lock of Pandora's box. Japanese transliterations of foreign languages and misapprehensions of Western culture and technology were sometimes hilarious, yet the artists' subtle depictions of European posturing and arrogance clearly foreshadow the gathering storm.
All prints had to be approved by the shogun censors, so the portents are muted, but from the vantage point of hindsight they're cruelly obvious. Those drunken Yankees casually violating Japanese laws, ignoring courtesy and custom, dashing their horses pell-mell through crowded marketplaces, cut a trail of resentment that led directly to Pearl Harbor.
But before the Japanese could beat the barbarians at their own game, they had to level the playing field. A "learning center" in the exhibit gives a short course in the art of block printing and several excellent videos on how our meddling triggered Japan's fantastic rise to world power.
Unfortunately, the center is open only from 11 to 3 Monday through Friday. Still more unfortunately, there's only one TV monitor, showing nearly two hours of films -- some of them bloody exciting. The productions are so good, and so valuable in setting the show's context, that it would be worth sacrificing some of the exhibition space to create a screening room.
Even those with a fair knowledge of Japanese history may be startled to be reminded of how incredibly swift and devastating was the response of this remote island people to penetration by America, Britain, France, Russia and the Netherlands (which had long held a tiny trading foothold with the shogunate).
Within 15 years of Perry's visit the shoguns who had ruled for seven centuries were swept away and a single ruler stood at the head of a rapidly industrializing nation. An army and navy manned by commoners replaced the tradition-bound samurai warriers, and just half a century after the black ships violated Japan's home waters, the Imperial High Seas Fleet destroyed the Russian Grand Fleet -- regarded as one of the world's great navies -- at the Battle of Tsushima Strait.
During World War II Japan seized the Southeast Asian empires of all its former trading partners, whipping them so decisively on land and sea that the myth of white superiority was forever dispelled. And while Japan is said to have lost the war, Asia is now Asian and Rockefeller Center is Japanese. We sure taught them a lesson, didn't we?
YOKOHAMA: Prints from 19th Century Japan -- Through Sept. 9 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Open 10 to 5:30 daily. Metro: Smithsonian. TDD: 357-1729.