Salem’s “Japanese House”

Ample evidence exists to demonstrate the varied connections between Salem and Japan, both in the past and the present.  Just last week, my next-door neighbor was hosting a group of Japanese filmmakers, here in town to shoot the childhood home and environment of Salem native and Japanese cultural minister Ernest Fenollosa (1858-1907).  The Peabody Essex Museum has wonderful Japanese collections and a beautiful Japanese garden, no doubt due, in large part, to the advocacy of its long-term director, Edward Sylvester Morse (1838-1925).  Morse was also responsible, in a way, for another tangible symbol of the Salem-Japan connection:  the so-called “Japanese House”  on Laurel Street.

This house was designed by the prominent and prolific Boston architectural firm Andrews, Jacques and Rantoul for a young man named Bunkio Matsuki (1867-1940), who arrived in Salem as a teenager, accompanied by a friend and armed with his acquaintance with Morse, whom he had met during one of the latter’s earlier trips to Japan.  Matsuki knocked on the front door of Morse’s house (which is located right next door to the Japanese house; I’ll write about it in a future post once I figure out a bit more about its equally distinctive architectural style) and began a new life in Salem:  graduating from Salem High School, setting up an import business, marrying his landlord’s daughter, and ultimately building his distinct house in 1893.  Below is a photograph from the 1903 publication Prominent Americans interested in Japan and Prominent Japanese in America, and an advertisement for Matsuki’s shop in Boston from the same year.

I imagine that the architects at Andrews, Jacques and Rantoul must have relied on Morse’s 1888 book Japanese Homes and their Surroundings for their design of the Matsuki house, as it is full of plans and detailed drawings.  I know that a Japanese carpenter was employed for its construction; even though he trained to be a Buddhist monk back in Japan, Matsuki was apparently from a family of craftsmen, whose contacts would serve him well over his long career.  His roles as a cross-cultural ambassador, entrepreneur and preservationist of sorts is highlighted in this 1903 auction notice from the New York Times, describing objects which belong to Mr. Bunkio Matsuki, a descendant of the Tategawa family of artist-artisans and builders of temples, who has had the advantage of being a Japanese and a lover of curios.  He has been able to collect objects from dismantled temples and those which were reorganized when an attempt was made from governmental sources to change the religion of Japan.  The Boxer troubles in China have also thrown things his way, and the result is a very curious and interesting lot of things.

The house yesterday, during our first serious snow.

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