Report on the talk “When Edward Sylvester Morse (1838-1925) met Matsuki Bunkyo (1867-1940)”

Leonard & Co. (Boston, Mass.). Descriptive catalogue of an important collection of Japanese and Chinese pottery, porcelain, bronzes, brocades, prints, embroideries, kakemono, screens, ivories and gold lacquers selected by Mr. Bunkio Matsuki of Kobe, Japan, and Boston. Leonard & Company’s Galleries, 1898.

On the 17th February, our Third Thursday Lecture was joined by the wonderful Professor Nicole Coolige Rousmaniere, currently a professor at UEA, and Research Director and Founding Director of the Sainsbury Institute. The talk consisted of a discussion on an ongoing research project in Salem, Massachusetts, exploring the lives and legacies of renowned zoologist and one of the first Japanologists, Edward Sylvester Morse (1838-1925), and Japanese entrepreneur and dealer, Matsuki Bunkyo (1867-1940), on the subject of the landscape of collecting in early 20th-century New England and beyond.

In recent times, Professor Rousmaniere has found herself in Marblehead, Massachusetts, about two miles from both the house formerly owned by Edward Sylvester Morse, and the house of Matsuki Bunkyo. Using existing research from numerous scholars, especially that of the late Fred Sharf, and over a thousand boxes of archival materials at the Peabody Essex Museum, Professor Rousmaniere has embarked on a project to preserve the memory of Matsuki Bunkyo’s house. It is soon to be sold and redeveloped, making it an urgent task to share the many stories of Matsuki’s work and life in Salem, and how it can shed light on the beginning of thriving Japanese collecting and dealing practices in the US.

Professor Rousmaniere began by introducing us to the life and work of Edward Sylvester Morse, and his extensive contribution to the study of marine biology in the Pacific, establishing its first laboratory in 1877. Morse also contributed to Japanese studies in its infancy, in archaeology, science, and art history. He came to meet young Matsuki Bunkyo while he was a professor at Imperial University (modern-day University of Tokyo), where Morse published the first article on his ground-breaking study of omori shell mounds in the now-Tokyo University Press. They bonded over Morse’s fascination with Japanese ceramics, and Matsuki travelled back to Salem with Morse, attending Salem High School and becoming the first Japanese national to graduate from a US high school in 1901.

Morse considered Matsuki an intern for his ceramics collection, and soon Bunkyo had established his own business, advertising his merchandise by emphasising his Japanese identity and the fact the goods had been selected and brought back from Japan himself. He came to be known by collectors such as Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908) who, just on a side note, was also born in Salem. It was in the wake of this success and recognition that he decided to build a Japanese house in Salem using Japanese tiles, wood carvings, and other crafted goods, so that the downstairs level could act as a tourist attraction and further draw in customers to buy his “authentic” merchandise. Nicole was able to show us photos she had taken of the inside of the house, which has been left practically untouched for decades and still showed many of the details Matsuki had installed. There were many questions and concerns at the end of the talk, mainly on the possibility for funding to save Matsuki’s house from redevelopment, but with only a few months until it is sold, it is unlikely this would happen.

Of course, Matsuki’s life in Salem extended beyond business, and Professor Rousmaniere went on to tell us the tragic story of Matsuki’s family. He married an American classmate, Martha, after graduating high school and they had four children together. Martha had aspirations to teach mathematics in Japan, but ultimately only travelled there once on a belated honeymoon. She also took on some responsibilities in Matsuki’s business as it became more successful, while he was away for business (and pleasure) in Japan. However, there were soon accusations of domestic assault, Matsuki’s multiple affairs in Japan, and the re-mortgaging of the Japanese house after his poor financial decisions. These all resulted in Martha taking her own life. Her children had troubled lives following this traumatic event, with two dying young and none of the four going on to have children, ultimately ending their lineage. Martha’s death made it practically impossible for Matsuki to continue to work in Massachusetts, and he later moved to New York to restart his business but failed to reach the same level of success again.

It was so insightful to hear Professor Rousmaniere’s talk –  it was completely enthralling and a great introduction to her current research and the practice of collecting Japanese goods in early-20th century New England. This February 2022 Third Thursday Lecture was not recorded as the research is still ongoing, but Professor Rousmaniere has promised a follow-up talk on the same topic in the future as her research continues.

Emma Kiey
MA Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies, UEA

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