Mortimer Menpes: his own private Japan

In his 2001 essay “My own private Tokyo” William Gibson argues that the people of Japan went on a rapid journey like a trip on a rocket sled from 1854 when the two hundred year period of “self-imposed isolation” in a “feudal dream-time” ended with the arrival of American ships. They went through sudden industrialisation “in kit form”, militarism and imperial ambitions, a disastrous war ending “in the light of a thousand suns” followed by a “cultural re-fit”. By end of the 20th century Japan had absorbed the tropes of Western popular culture and fashion and created its own hybrid versions of them all.

Mortimer Menpes would not have realised any of this when he made his first trip to Japan in 1888 but the ride had already begun, was already thirty years old. The illustrations to his book “Japan: a record in colour” (1901) concentrate on the traditional and picturesque but Menpes was already thinking about the way Japan had changed and would carry on changing. He was aware that some commentators were already worried about those changes.

They will lose individuality and degenerate, they are adopting Western methods, and it will kill their art, they complained. How foolish this is! The Japanese have merely changed their tools—exchanged the bow and arrow for the sword; they are just as artistic and just as intelligent as in the bow-and-arrow days;

When I tried to write about the illustrations to his book, I kept thinking of adjectives to do with light: limpid, lambent, pellucid. And qualities like serenity. The marvellous title of a novel by Ryu Murakami (the other Murakami): Almost Transparent Blue. But that wasn’t getting me anywhere. You can’t talk about Japan without thinking of the present day country. The cities, the comics, the films whether it’s Lost in Translation or My Neighbour Turturro. I went back to the text of the Menpes book, transcribed from his musings and memories by his daughter Dorothy, the other author of the book. The words seem to apply to all the Japans.

Here is Honeysuckle Street:

Honeysuckle Street

Shoppers browse in a busy street. Just as they do in the modern shopping zones of Tokyo.


Material for pictures surrounded me at every step. I wanted to make pictures of every pole and signboard that I came across.

The stall by the bridge

Like his former master Whistler, Menpes loved river views.

Osaka is the city of furnaces, factories, and commerce,—the centre of the modern spirit of feverish activity in manufacturing and commercial enterprise.

The Ajikawa is still the Ajikawa of the olden time, and on the eastern side of the city is the Kizugawa, into which—thanks to the shallowness of the bar—no steamer ever intrudes, while the city itself is intersected by a vast network of canals and waterways, all teeming with junks and barges, and crossed by graceful wooden bridges which lend themselves admirably to line.

The Venice of Japan

Over the bridge

Japan is not being Westernised in the smallest degree: she is merely picking our brains.


Night in Japan fascinated me almost more than anything—the festoons of lanterns crossing from one street to another, yellow-toned with black and vermilion lettering.

A street scene, Kioto

By the light of the lantern


I shall never forget my first rainy day in Japan. I went out in the wet and stood there, hatless but perfectly  happy, watching the innocent shops light up one by one, and the forest of yellow oil-paper umbrellas with the light shining through looking like circles of gold, ever moving and changing in the purple tones of the street.

You wonder which set of pictures the words accompany.

Umbrellas and commerce

In those city streets Menpes recorded women walking, like a modern day street style photographer.

A street in Kioto

The streets are more crowded now. Some of the women still carry parasols.

2 japan street pics

She delights in her own delightsomeness; she wants frankly to be as charming as nature and art will allow; she wants to be beautiful; and she honestly and assuredly wants me and you and the stranger artists to think her beautiful.

Miss Pomegranate

……..there is still a living art in Japan at the present day in the designs of the silk dresses that they wear. They are so modern, so up-to-date, and yet so characteristic of Japan. The women are very extravagant in their dress…….


Menpes called these women butterflies.


Gibson concludes his essay by saying that the Japanese  have “made it out the far end of that tunnel of prematurely accelerated change.” and that they were “Home at last in the twenty-first century.”

Fete day


I think Menpes would have understood what he meant.

An avenue of lanterns


You can find the full text and pictures from Japan: a picture in colour at Project Gutenberg. ( )

My own private Tokyo is in Gibson’s collection Distrust that particular flavour (2012). Do I really need to tell you to read it, and all his others? Having got Michael Moorcock into this blog a couple of weeks back I wanted to get my current favourite author into a post as well. Gibson is one of the few American authors who can write convincingly about London. I thought his characters didn’t often enter Kensington and Chelsea. Cayce Pollard visits Portobello Road and Harvey Nichols in Pattern Recognition but that was about it. Then I remembered Kumiko Yanaka in Mona Lisa Overdrive (a long time since I read that one) , I’ve started reading it again since I drafted this post and found that she’s all over Notting Hill and Earls Court.Maybe there is some scope for a Gibson in Kensington post. Are there any other locations?

The images of modern Japanese cities were found by putting place names like Shinjuku and Harajuku into Google. Try it yourself. I wish I could have included the Hello Kitty bus. is the address of the Japanese Streets street style blog, a guide to what the modern boys and mobile girls are wearing in in Tokyo.

Thanks once again to Alex Buchholz and Peter Collins of Westminster Central Reference Library for loaning me their physical copy of Japan. (Kensington had several of his others but not that one.)

3 responses to “Mortimer Menpes: his own private Japan

  • merriank

    I thought you might like to know that The Grainger Museum at the University of Melbourne will be having an exhibition: “An artist’s utopia: Mortimer Menpes in Japan” 22 July 1014 to March 2015. Evidently Menpes befriended and promoted the young Australian virtuoso pianist and composer, Percy Grainger.

    • Dave Walker

      Thanks. We contributed some photographs to another Menpes event at the Art Gallery of South Australia ( ) and received an excellent book on Menpes related to the exhibition. I couldn’t make it to the private view unfortunately – I couldn’t persuade the Library to send me. But it sounds as though Menpes is getting a lot of attention in the city of his birth.

      • merriank

        The wonders of the internet means I would never have heard of Menpes if not for following The Library Time Machine all the way from the other side of the world. I love your blog!

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