The gifts that were exchanged between the Ottoman and Japanese empires as a symbol of friendship are presently on display in various exhibitions and venues. While 2019 was declared “Turkish Cultural Year” in Japan,the exhibition The Treasuresand theTraditionof ‘Lâle’ in the Ottoman Empire, that bears the marks of the historical friendship between the two countries, opens first in Tokyo and then at the Kyoto National Art Center.

The deep friendship between the Ottoman and the Japan Empires started with one present: a carved ivory petroleum lamp that was sent from Japan to Sultan Abdülaziz in 1873. Fukuchi Genichirö, the diplomat who was appointed by Kirino Toshiaki, an important founder of the Meiji government, came to the palace to meet Sultan Abdülaziz so that he could gather information about the legal structure of the Ottoman Empire. This was at a time when Japan was newly opening up to the rest of the world. The visit to the palace and the ivory carved petroleum lamp were the first spark of a friendship that would continue for many years.

In 1887, this door of friendship was reopened. This time the guest was even more important. Prince Kumatso Akihito, a member of the imperial family, came to meet with Sultan Abdülhamid II, accompanied by his wife and a delegation. He brought with him greetings, and a present from his country. The Japanese “Order of the Chrysanthemum” was sent by Emperor Meiji to be presented to Sultan Abdülhamid II. The sultan presented Prince Akihito, his wife and his delegation with a variety of military ranks and medals. They were treated with great honor, and Göksü Pavilion was allocated to them for the duration of their stay.

The sultan, who wanted to continue the relationship that began with the exchange of gifts between the two empires, decided to send the Ertuğrul Frigate to Japan with a delegation headed by Osman Pasha; they were to take with them a variety of presents and a medal to give to the emperor. The delegation set off on July 14, 1889, with a large ceremony. The people turned out to see the ship off. The Ertuğrul set sail accompanied by cannon fire.

The frigate, which carried the name of Ertuğrul Gazi, arrived in Japan after an 11-month journey; this was a difficult but unforgettable journey. The journey was difficult because the ship ran aground in the Suez Canal and was caught up in two different storms. The journey was unforgettable because the ship was met with great joy by Muslims at every port it stopped by. The ship remained for days in the Bombay port, and the interest of the large number of people who came to see the ship was both surprising and pleasing. The interest and admiration shown to them was even reported in the newspapers of the period. In fact, Sultan Abdülhamid II particularly wanted Osman Pasha to stop in ports where there was a large Muslim population in the eastern regions to establish unity and togetherness in the Islamic geography. As a result, by the end of this grueling and dedicated journey that lasted for 11 months, the delegation and the Ertuğrul had called at Izmir, Port Said, Aden, Bombay, Colombo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Fuzhou, Nagasaki, and Kobe. Finally, the frigate arrived in its ultimate port, Yokohama, on June 7, 1890.

 Here the Japanese people and Emperor Meiji welcomed the delegation with great joy and interest. When official duties had been completed, it was now time for the delegation to return. However, due to a cholera epidemic which had broken out, the crew had to wait one more month before making the return journey. They waited; however, when the cholera epidemic waned, it was the storm season. This was a dangerous time to start a journey. Despite the warnings of the Japanese authorities, Osman Pasha decided that the ship should set sail. With hindsight, it is easy to say, “If only they had stayed a little longer.” This journey lasted only one day; the Ertuğrul was caught up in a violent typhoon, was driven onto the rocks and sank. Osman Pasha and 527 members of the crew drowned, and 13 died from cholera. Only 69 people from the crew survived. The Ertuğrul Frigate’s sad story awoke a deep passion in Japan. The Japanese people made great efforts to bury the dead. Emperor Meiji ordered that in 1891 the 69 survivors be sent back to Istanbul on two battle ships, the Hiei and the Kongo.

This tragic event made the friendship between the two countries, thousands of miles apart, even stronger. Unable to forget what happened, the Japanese people even launched an aid fund for the families of the victims, led by Torajo Yamada and the journalist Shotaro Noda. Yamada, a tea mentor in Japan came to Istanbul in 1892 to present the money collected for the families of the victims to Abdülhamid II. The sultan was deeply moved by this noble action; he wanted Yamada to stay in Istanbul and teach a group of Ottoman officers Japanese. Yamada accepted this offer and with Shotaro Noda he began to teach the Japanese language to a group of officers. When Yamada returned to Turkey in 1931, Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic met with him and reminded Yamada that he remembered him from his school days.

In 1893, Yamada, an entrepreneur opened the first and only Japanese store on İstiklal Avenue; the store was called Nakamura Shoten. Great interest was shown in the objects including silk, porcelain dinner services and furniture from Japan sold in this store opened in the Beyoğlu region, which was popular with Western merchants. Yamada, who began to go back and forth to Japan to purchase products to sell in this shop, took on the duty of ambassador between the two countries. The goods that he brought to Istanbul and sold attracted the attention of Sultan Abdülhamid; with the encouragement of Yamada the first trade agreement between Japan and the Ottoman Empire was signed. The sultan had a Japanese pavilion built as a part of the Yıldız Palace. Many Japanese objects and furniture pieces were used in both the buildings. The Yamada family even presented Sultan Abdülhamid II with a 300-year-old set of Samurai armor and sword as a token of their friendship. In a statement he made when he returned to his country Yamada said, “Sultan Abdülhamid planted the saplings I took there in the palace and pavilion gardens. He wanted me to make a Japanese style building. Now I am growing old in Japan, but the trees that I took there are growing, and this makes me very happy.”

Just like Yamada said, yes, this friendship grew like the trees in the palace and pavilion gardens, and like them, bore fruit. One of the fruits of this friendship was apparent on March 18, 1985, at the time of the Iran-Iraq War. When the Iraqi government of the time announced that it was going to carry out an air attack on Iran, 215 Japanese engineers and technical personnel were stranded in Tehran Airport. The Japanese government was unable to send a plane within 24 hours. The prime minister of the time, Turgut Özal, gave instructions for a plane belonging to Turkish Airlines to set out for Tehran. This plane, arriving just before the attack, took the 215 people and brought them back safe and sound to Istanbul, where they were welcomed.

In March 2019, Turkish Airlines once again took off in the name of friendship between the two countries. Turkish Cargo, the air cargo brand that belongs to Turkish Airlines and which sends cargo to 124 different countries, acted as the sponsor carrier for the exhibition called The Treasures and the Tradition of ‘Lâle’ in the Ottoman Empire. This exhibition is part of the 2019 Turkish Culture Year declared in Japan. Turkish Cargo has carried 175 works of art from Dolmabahçe, Yıldız and Topkapı Palaces to the capital of Japan, Tokyo, and then onto Kyoto. The gifts given during visits between these two countries have been protected for many years in the palaces.


 The main theme of the exhibition, which consists of three sections, is “Lâle (Tulip) in the Ottoman Palace.” The exhibition depicts the palace gardens and the tulip, an indispensable part of Ottoman art which has changed and developed over time, via works from the 16th to 19th century from the palace collections. Rare objects that are symbolic of the Ottoman imperial dynasty, like the tughra, belt, ceremonial flask, bow and arrow, make up the section called “The Sultan in Topkapı Palace.” The third section, called “Turko-Japanese Relations” comprises of gifts exchanged between the two countries during the reign of Emperor Meiji and Sultan Abdülhamid II including the Samurai armor and sword that were presented to Sultan Abdülhamid II by Yamada and vases, furniture, porcelain dinner services and other works that were created by skilled Japanese artisans that are kept in the Ottoman palaces, and the Ottoman gifts that are kept in the Japanese Imperial Collection Museum (Sannomaru Shozokan).

All of these objects that were on display in Tokyo until 20 May, will be accessible to audiences at the National Art Museum in Kyoto from June 14 to July 28.

At the opening of the exhibition attended by Japanese Princess Akiko of Mikasa and many names from the Japanese business world, the Turkish Minister for Culture and Tourism, Mehmet Nuri Ersoy, reminded those present that many works from Japanese culture can be found in the Turkish palaces. He invited the Japanese people to visit Turkey where they would be able to see both the works from their own culture, and the kaftans, thrones, tughras, aigrettes, ceremonial flasks, arrows, bows, prayer mats and carpentry tools that belonged to the Ottoman sultans.

The exhibition The Treasures and the Tradition of ‘Lâle’ in the Ottoman Empire, organized as part of the activities of the 2019 Turkish Culture Year in Japan, will provide important opportunities for the people of both nations to become better acquainted. Today, this sound friendship, which began with the compelling difficulties of sea travel, has strengthened even further thanks to air travel. We will continue to embrace our friends who visit our country to see these works with warmth and sincere friendship.

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