The Art of Emperors: Professor Ben Ami-Shillony

On a sultry July evening, a large crowd congregated for the annual Carmen Blacker lecture at London’s Oriental Club. The promise – an expert insight into the machinations of majesty; a talk on the art and history of the Imperial Family from Professor Ben Ami-Shillony.

From the outset, the audience was entertained with tales of courtly intrigue and artistry. Professor Shillony covered a vast span of history, from the origins of the Imperial Household through to its present day incarnation. The seam of artistic talent that has run through centuries of the dynasty was closely examined, with details of the diverse arts engaged in by past emperors and their households. Whether discussing the sword-forging prowess of Emperor Go-Toba or the prolific poetry of Emperor Meiji, a rich tapestry of artistic endeavour was evoked.

Professor Shillony also explored the remarkable survival story that forms the backdrop to Japanese Imperial history – a tale of adaptability, compromise and a resourceful ability to endure. In concluding, he fittingly turned to the words of Carmen Blacker herself who, when speaking on the modern relevance of the Daijo-sai ceremony (an ancient Imperial inauguration ritual), steadfastly defended its place as a final connection to the ancient world, a ceremony that bonds us with a distant past we are all too likely to forget in the immediacy of the 21st century.

The lecture incited the curiosity of the crowd and the Q & A session that followed covered myriad topics, such as the feasibility of writing 90,000 poems in one lifetime and the survival of a 1500 year old gene. Professor Shillony exhibited the range of his Imperial expertise, giving examples from 770 to 1970, ancient and contemporary Japan alike. The audience were encouraged to probe deeper into the many mysteries that remain in the story of Japan’s Imperial Family.

 

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