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From the heart of the Mediterranean to the seas of the East. The secular history that unites Italy and Japan

What binds two very distant countries like Italy and Japan is a story of mutual curiosity, lively interest and unconditional love for their culture. Both these apparently so different realities have found fertile ground in the mutual intellectual, artistic and historical heritage for centuries, increasingly reducing every kind of distance. Japan is among the most loved tourist destinations by Italians, who also study the language and traditions with passion. The enormous influence exerted by Japanese culture on the world from the second post-war period to today [1] is visible in many sectors that are very familiar to us Italians: cinema, literature, cuisine, art and innovation.

Sectors in which Italy has always excelled and is therefore appreciated abroad, especially among the Japanese public. The success of the Made in Italy brand was ambassador of our most beloved strengths, which through the ages have been able to combine tradition and modernity.

A result shared by Italy and Japan, which in the last two centuries have traveled different but parallel paths. Crossed by deep (and painful) transformations between the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, they found the strength to renew themselves once again by successfully projecting themselves into the so-called "Golden Age" following the Second World War. The respective economic booms approached Rome and Tokyo even closer, allowing the new generations a level of mutual interaction never seen before.

The success of this friendship between two peoples with a glorious past to be discovered is witnessed by the numerous cultural institutes, university courses and similar realities that promote the study of Italian culture in Japan and Japanese culture in Italy. Mutual diplomatic relations are characterized by stability and sincere esteem. There are numerous regularly agreed political and commercial agreements shared between the two nations. The beginning of official relations between Italy and Japan dates back to the Treaty of friendship and commerce of 25 August 1866. Ratified in Edo (the current Tokyo), in his first article there is a wish for "perpetual peace and constant friendship between His Majesty the King of Italy and His Majesty the Taicun[2], their heirs and successors". The signing of the treaty began a fruitful collaboration both commercially and culturally, still very strong today. They were the last years of the long and glorious Edo period (1603-1868), passed into history due to the uninterrupted power exercised by the Tokugawa family, dynasty of powerful shōgun[3].taly was one of several foreign nations with which Japan stipulated treaties at that time, marked by the end of secular self-isolation and the reopening of borders [4].

In reality, relations between Italy and Japan had begun much earlier, with evidence of early contacts dating back to the 16th century. Among these, one of the most interesting was the adventurous journey of the famous Tenshō embassy. It was the first Japanese diplomatic mission sent to Europe, departed from Nagasaki in 1582 and which was to visit Portugal, Spain and Italy. Arriving in Rome in 1585, the delegation [5] was received with all honors both by Pope Gregory XIII and by his successor Sixtus V. The commander of the expedition, the young Itō Mancio, was even portrayed by Tintoretto. Another important Japanese delegation arrived in Europe in the autumn of 1614, visiting Spain, France and Italy. Among its members there was also the samurai Hasekura Tsunenaga, a famous explorer who had arrived in Mexico at the beginning of that year crossing the Pacific. The embassy arrived in Italy in 1615 and was received by Pope Paul V. Hasekura received the honorary citizenship of Rome. In the port of Civitavecchia, where the explorer samurai landed, a statue was inaugurated in his honor in 1991, on the twentieth anniversary of the twinning between the Lazio city and Ishinomaki, from where Hasekura had left.

The period dating back to the 1866 Friendship Treaty was full of changes for both countries. In parallel, Italy and Japan were experiencing a social and political transformation that would forever change their stories. A few years had passed since the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy (1861), but the new reality still had to find its stability.

In fact, shortly before the signing of the Treaty of Edo in 1866, the Third War of Independence waged by Italy against the Austrian Empire was concluded. In Japan the era of the shōgunate was closing and that of the Meiji Restoration was about to open, leading to the restoration of imperial power. The Meiji period (1868-1912) will go down in history for the social and cultural renewal that will transform Japanese society from feudal to modern. At this stage Japan will experience an intense approach to Western culture (which in turn will be dazzled).

With the start of official relations on 1 January 1867 (when the Treaty came into force), not only commercial but above all cultural exchanges intensified. In 1876, at the invitation of the Tokyo government (new name of the city of Edo since 1868), three Italian artists arrived in Japan: Antonio Fontanesi, Vincenzo Ragusa and Giovanni Vincenzo Cappelletti. The painter, sculptor and architect played a crucial role in the artistic renewal desired by the emperor Mutsuhito in the context of the Meiji restoration. Italian art and culture represented an interesting reference model for the new Japanese society, and the three masters were able to share techniques and knowledge with the host country, influencing each other. The young model and painter Kiyohara Tama moved to Italy in 1882 following the sculptor Vincenzo Ragusa, whom he married after several years. During his Italian experience in Palermo[6], Kiyohara produced several works both as a painter and as an illustrator. Many of these are still preserved in the Sicilian capital. The one between the Italian sculptor and the Japanese painter was a long love story between two completely different worlds, but eager to join in one great experience of emotional and artistic life. An idyllic synthesis born of that specific historical context, full of changes and new discoveries.

In 1888 the Association of Studies on Italy (Igaku kyōkai- 伊 学 協会) was founded at the instigation of Alessandro Paternostro, legal adviser in Japan and awarded the order of the Rising Sun by Emperor Mutsuhito. After various vicissitudes, the institution finally established itself in 1940 in the current Italian-Japanese Association (Nichii-Kyokai - 日 伊 協会), which since 1956 has been a non-profit organization under the aegis of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Education. The inauguration of the Institute of Italian culture in Tokyo dates back to 1941, reopened and rebuilt following bombings in 1959. Just a few years later (1962) the Japanese Cultural Institute was inaugurated in Rome. The cultural understanding has progressed in the years to come, up until the 1998 Memorandum, which laid the foundations for the largest exhibition of Italy ever organized in Japan, which would take place between 2001 and 2002. The agreement was signed between the Italian and Japanese governments following the success of the "Japan in Italy 95/96" exhibition. In 2016 the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of friendship between Italy and Japan was celebrated. For the occasion, in both countries, numerous cultural events and events were held. In Italy the exhibitions on masters Hiroshige, Hokusai and Utamaro have been extremely successful[7]. In Japan there has been equally enthusiasm for the works of Tiziano, Bellini, Botticelli and Caravaggio.

Also next year will see an important anniversary. It was 1920 and under the auspices of two great poets, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Harukichi Shimoi, an adventurous air journey between Rome and Tokyo was planned and carried out. Eleven aircraft departed from the Italian capital on February 14th, but only the one driven by Arturo Ferrarin and Guido Masiero eventually reached Tokyo on May 31st, after an incredible crossing with many intermediate stops[8]. Ferrarin had the great honor of being received by Prince Hirohito and Empress Teimei. Harukichi Shimoi has had a very strong bond with Italy. He moved there to continue his studies until he held the position of professor at the “L’Orientale” University of Naples. He enlisted in the Italian army during the First World War and, when the conflict ended, he founded the Japanese literature magazine Sakura in 1920. The poet first met D’Annunzio and, after the war, the writer Indro Montanelli[9]. To Harukichi we owe the spread of the works of Dante Alighieri and D’annunzio in Japan, which he himself translated, and the knowledge in Italy of authors such as Matsuo Bashō and Akiko Yosano, whose writings he also translated.


By Mario Rafaniello

[1] In reality, a previous phenomenon had occurred between the 18th and 19th centuries. The interest in Japanese culture spread thanks to the objects brought to Europe by Dutch merchants, the only ones authorized to trade in Japan during the period of isolation begun in 1641 and ended in 1853. This phenomenon took the name of Japonisme, and found the its maximum expression in the works of the great European painters.

[2] In the Edo period, it designated the shōgun in the diplomatic function of relations with foreign countries.

[3]Comparable to a modern military dictator, it was the highest authority in the ranks of the army. Following the victory of Sekigahara (1600), the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu began a dynasty that would exercise supreme power (bakufu) over Japan until the Boshin war (1868-69).

[4] With an edict of the shogun of 1641, Japan closed contacts with foreign populations (except for the Dutch and Chinese), probably following the Christian revolt of Shimabara (1637). The sakoku ("armored country") will be forcibly broken in 1853 by the US commodore Metthew Perry.

[5] The members were personally chosen by Alessandro Valignano, an Italian Jesuit and creator of the expedition.

[6] In the Sicilian city there is the Liceo Artistico - Vincenzo Ragusa Otama Kiyohara, of which the Japanese artist directed the women's section at the end of the 19th century.

[7] Masters of the ukiyo-e art movement ("floating world").

[8]Including Thessaloniki, Izmir, Aleppo, Baghdad, Calcutta, Hanoi, Canton, Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul.

[9] Montanelli will stay in Japan between 1951 and 1952 and will write The Bonsai Empire.


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