Emulating Imperialism: Japan at the 1904 World’s Fair

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries World’s Fairs were opportunities for nations across the globe to display and showcase their achievements and project their power. They became spaces where East Asian nations began pushing to represent themselves on their own terms, taking control of narratives which had largely been created by Western countries. A Handbook of Japanese exhibits at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair offers insight into how the nation sought to use the Exposition to project a specific image of itself, as a country both steeped in history, and as aggressively modernising as any of the Western powers.

The last section of the handbook is dedicated to describing the Japanese exhibits at the World’s Fair. In it, Hajime emphasises the natural beauty of the garden that had been created for the Japanese exhibition, saying that placements of trees and other features “add beauty to the garden and make the views from within superior to any in the Fair Grounds” (Hajime, p. 114). Within this description of the exhibition, Hajime highlights the age of the features within it, from the Bonsai trees, “many centuries old”, to the buildings, each designed after aristocratic buildings at least two hundred years old. Hajime’s words make it clear that the exhibit was trying to equate Japan’s history with those found in Europe, displaying the beauty and rich culture that could be seen within the nation’s past.

Within the exhibit however, displays were described to show how modern, and similar to the West Japan had become. Within the education tent were photographs of gymnastic exercises, explicitly described as “similar to those practiced in Europe and America” (Hajime,  p. 116). The exhibition also took care not to give visitors unintended impressions from its exhibits. While the electricity exhibit was small, Hajime asked that “this must not be taken to mean that electricity for all purposes is not in general use throughout the Empire” (Hajime,     p. 121). The intended impression of the overall exhibit was of a nation with a background as culturally rich as any European nation, but one which had been able to keep up with the rapid pace of modernisation, putting it on equal footing with any Western power.

Despite Japan’s clear interest to use the exposition to represent themselves on their own terms, Hajime’s handbook presents a clear contradiction here. He mentions a Formosa exhibit, focused on Taiwan, describing the island as “ceded by China to Japan” (Hajime,               p. 120). By 1904 the island had become a Japanese colony, and as such was unable to represent itself at a World’s Fair such as this. Therefore, while Japan was struggling to display itself to the West, the nation ultimately took control over how its colony presented itself on the same stage. In addition, within Korea exhibitions would later be used to display the importance and success of assimilation (Henry, 2014). These contrasted a weak past with a more powerful present courtesy of Japan – the same stereotype Japan had been trying to overcome when presenting itself to the West. Overall, the imperial nature of such exhibitions meant that, as Japan emulated Western powers with its displays, contradictions such as this arose.

Raizman and Robey argued that, despite being designed to promote international unity, World’s Fairs were spaces where nations could present themselves to the international community (Raizman and Robey, 2017). Japan, like other East Asian nations chose to use these expositions to reject stereotypes of the nation as being underdeveloped compared to the West. Hajime’s handbook of the exhibition emphasises the impressiveness of both Japan’s past and present. The exhibition placed Japan on equal footing to the West following national humiliation in the 1895 Triple Intervention, where Western powers stopped Japanese expansion into China. While future events like the Russo-Japanese War would showcase Japan’s military strength, expositions were a softer way of expressing the nation’s newfound power.



Hajime, Hoshi, Handbook of Japan and Japanese Exhibits: at World’s Fair, St. Louis, 1904.

Henry, Todd, Assimilating Seoul, (2014, Berkeley).

Raizman, David and Robey, Ethan, ‘Introduction’ in, Raizman, David and Robey, Ethan, Expanding Nationalism at World’s Fairs, (2017, London), pp. 1-14.