Back to Main
Emergence of Japan and the U.S. on the World’s Stage:
The Columbian Exposition of 1893

What did the U.S. and Japan aim to gain from the Columbian Exposition of 1893? Howard J. Romanek spoke about “Emergence of Japan and the U.S. on the World’s Stage: The Columbian Exposition of 1893” on July 10 at Holiday Inn Express in Arlington Heights. Romanek is a Board member of the Japan America Society of Chicago and a member of the Program and Education Committees. He is a retired professor of the Illinois State University and currently teaches at the University of New Mexico on a part-time base.

When changes occur in a civilization, society, or country, a driving power emerges and brings people together to move toward a certain direction. Romanek referred to this power as “glue.” For instance, China’s glue was Confucianism in the past, and it may be nationalism now.

England impacted the world by its Crystal Palace in the Exposition of 1851. At the same time, the country solidified its segmented society.
Centennial Exposition of 1876 was held in Philadelphia. The theme was the celebration of 100 years since the American Revolution, and it looked back at the past.
The Exposition of 1889 in Paris focused on the machinery and technology, and the Eiffel Tower dazzled the world.

What did the U.S. want to present with the Exposition of 1893? While celebrating Columbus’s discovery of the New World, the U.S. also wished to show the greatness of America and proclaim its place as a world leader. The message was “passing the world’s leadership from the old world to the new world.” At the same time, the U.S. wanted to promote patriotism because tensions and conflicts among immigrants were accumulating in the nation.
Chicago was a new type of city, whose 20-plus-story buildings must have given a surprise to visitors from the world. Chicago won out over New York and St. Louis.

Japan was the first foreign country to respond to Chicago’s invitation to the Columbian Exposition. The samurai rule ended and the Meiji Restoration occurred just 25 years before the Exposition, so Japan wanted to dispel its savage images and show the world that Japan had learned from western countries and become equally modernized country with them. Japan also wanted to modify unfair treaties with western countries by demonstrating its westernization and modernization. Japan also wanted to take leadership in Asia.
On the other hand, Japan wanted to establish its identity by showcasing its rich artistic heritage such as arts and architectures which were developed in thousands years of history.
Japan agreed to pay $650,000 for the participation in the Expo, and the amount was the largest among the foreign countries. The amount is estimated as $13,650,000 in recent dollar value.

The Columbian Exposition officially opened May 1, 1893, and 27.5 million people visited it during six months. Admissions were 50 cents for adults, 25 cents for children, and free for children under age six. Romanek estimated that a dollar at the time would be valued $24 to $25 today.
The site area was 633 acres. The total cost of the Exposition was $27,245,566.90, which is valued at about $600 million today.

The white-clad buildings were beautifully built. They were brightly lighted in the evening. One of the highlight was Japanese Ho-o-den in the Wooded Island. There was a Japanese boat with phoenix on the lagoon. There was also the Japanese Tea Garden with toro lanterns.

Everything was beautiful in the Columbian Exposition, but it had ugly exhibits such as that of Dahomey, which had a custom of cannibals. The African country was invited to show the visitors the contrast between civilization and non-civilization. It also showed African Americans the advantage they were given in the U.S.

After the Exposition was closed, the Japanese Phoenix pavilion (Ho-o-den) and the Japanese garden were gifted to the City of Chicago as a symbol of friendship between the two nations.
Due to a depression, poor people lived in the buildings in the Expo site, and the fire destroyed most of them on July 5, 1895. It was a great loss even if the buildings were temporarily built.

Ho-o-den in the Wooded Island was saved from the fire, but it was destroyed by an arson fire in 1946, and only four ranma (curved wood panels) survived. They were restored by Janice Katz of the Art Institute of Chicago and are displayed in the Japan Gallery of the Art Institute.

Did Japan achieve its objectives in the Columbian Exposition?

(The full story is available in the Chicago Shimpo’s 2014, July 27th issue.


professor Howard J. Romanek

A ticket of the Columbian Exposition dated October 9, 1893. A collection of Professor Romanek
Ho-o-den in the Wooded Island

Interior of Ho-o-den