Peering at the past through the wrong end of a telescope

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The Independent Online
This is a tale of misunderstandings: some minor, some serious, some long ago, others still playing themselves out. Properly speaking, the story begins in 1863, but I knew nothing of it until I came across a lifesize cut-out of a Guardsman - red coat, bearskin and all - in the far south-west of Japan.

At the town of Chiran, 10 miles further on, a replica of a London bus is parked beside a rocky stream. Chiran is famous for two things: a street of samurai houses with exquisite gardens, and its vast Peace Hall, but neither has anything to do with the Number 37 bus route to Peckham, let alone a red telephone kiosk or a post box labelled "The Chase, Clapham Common". Like the Guardsman, they are there to advertise the Anglo-Satsuma Museum.

The Satsuma peninsula is indeed where the little oranges originally came from, but what more could there be to the relationship between England and a corner of Japan that even the Japanese consider remote? Inside the Anglo- Satsuma Museum, I was greeted by an animated dummy wearing a deerstalker and introducing himself as Sherlock Holmes. He in turn gave way to a series of tableaux celebrating "English" life, only viewed through the wrong end of a telescope and nearly a century out of date: men in plus-fours teeing off at St Andrew's, a cottage kitchen in which the dresser was Welsh and the salt and sugar jars were labelled in German. What was going on?

Mr Richardson must have been just as bewildered in 1863, when he blundered into the retinue of the Lord of Satsuma and was promptly cut down by sword- wielding samurai - a "failure to understand Japanese culture" which had dramatic consequences. The story, forgotten in Britain, is told in a series of framed pages from 19th-century issues of the Illustrated London News. Not only does it explain why the museum is there, but also how modern Japan came to be.

On hearing of the unfortunate Mr Richardson's death, Queen Victoria's ministers demanded an apology and compensation from the Satsumans, but in their isolation they paid little attention to the Shoguns in Tokyo, never mind some monarch on the other side of the world. That was another misunderstanding: a British fleet under Admiral Kuper arrived off the Satsuman capital, Kagoshima.

A contemporary screen in Kagoshima's historical museum shows Admiral Kuper's ships bombarding the city. The Satsumans had cannon of their own - a previous lord, Shimazu Nariakira, had built Japan's first factory to produce them. But he died in 1857, and his modernising ideas went with him.

With much of their capital devastated, the Satsumans apologised and paid up: the receipt, signed by the British charge in Yokohama and dated 12 December 1863, is also on display. The exhibit records what happened next: "They valued old Japanese things and looked down on Western things in Satsuma. But at the same time the Satsuma-England Battle gave an insight to review the achievement of Nariakira, who tried to introduce scientific technology of the Western world."

The result of this reappraisal was typically Japanese. Within two years, Satsuma had sent students to University College, London to learn Western ways. In 1867, supplied with British arms, uniforms and tactics, the Satsumans marched to Tokyo, removed the Shogun and brought Japan into the modern era. One of the UCL party, Ito Hirobumi, became the country's first prime minister, and in less than half a century Japan would sink the Imperial Russian navy with ships built in the Clyde.

No wonder Anglophilia is rife in Satsuma. But it is a bygone England they admire. For Mrs Tanaka, a Chiran doctor's wife, the crowning moment of her first visit was discovering that the Lake District "looked just like the drawings in the Peter Rabbit books". As we took Earl Grey tea and scones on a terrace overlooking the stream - "We call it the Thames" - she explained what had inspired her to create a shrine in which a 19th- century bowler hat and braces are held up for veneration."The Japanese have become very consumerist. They worship new things. I wanted to let them see that the English still use and value old things." Once we showed the Japanese the way into the future. Now, it seems, our role is to teach them how to live in the past.