After Feudalism: Westernization and National Identity

Meiji period (1868–1912)

Selections from the Collection

In the last century of the Edo period, Japan’s economic and political systems began to fail. Reliance upon rice production and distribution as government stipends made rice the major economic bond between the samurai and agricultural classes who ostensibly formed the upper strata of society. The unpredictability of annual yields, paired with the alternate economies developing amongst members of the merchant and artisan classes placed the government in an inherently weak position. The Tokugawa government’s isolationist policies were also preventing Japan’s populace from gaining access to the latest technological and scientific advances taking place in other countries, and from participating in an emerging global economy. Resultant social unrest placed internal pressures upon the government to reform. External pressure came from foreign nations desirous of finding a new market for trade. In 1853, Commodore Perry arrived with his “black ships” from America with a strong request from the United States government for free trade, and in 1856, the Japanese government signed a trade treaty with America. The unequal terms of the agreement fomented even greater social disenchantment with the shogunal government, and in 1867 Shogun Yoshinobu (1837–1913) was deposed by a group of regional leaders. In his stead, “direct power” was given to Emperor Mutsuhito (1852–1912), and the capital of Japan officially moved to Edo, renamed Tokyo (Eastern Capital) in 1869. Territories formerly controlled by daimyo were reorganized into prefectures, and the samurai class system abolished. The reign name “Meiji” was selected for the new emperor, and his government commenced with a rigorous policy of modernization based on Western models, as well as a campaign to place Japan on equal diplomatic footing with Western nations. Inspired by Western nations, Japan also began to exhibit imperialist tendencies, and waged military campaigns against its neighbors with consequences lasting until the present day. Most notably, as a result of the Russo-Japanese War, Japan gained control of Korea in 1910, which it was to maintain as a colony until the end of World War II.

The new government’s policies had a profound effect on the institutional layout of Japan’s art world. Just prior to the Meiji period, the Tokugawa government had established the Institute for Western Studies (Yogakusho), which was renamed the Institute for the Study of Western Documents (Bansho Shirabesho) in 1856. In 1861, a Painting Division was established there, with the Maruyama-Shijo school trained artist Kawakami Togai (1827–1881) as its chair. In the 1860’s it became the School for Intellectual and Industrial Development (Kaisei Gakko). It was there, at the institution that was to become Tokyo Imperial University in 1877, that the initial Meiji government sponsored study of Western art took place. Kawakami’s student Takahashi Yuichi (1828–1894), who later trained with the English amateur painter and correspondent for the London Illustrated News Charles Wirgman (1835–1891), is known as being among the first fully fledged yōga, or western-style, artists. Another Wirgman pupil, Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915), introduced Western techniques for creating light and dark to traditional Japanese prints, and is especially famous for the realism of his prints detailing Japanese war efforts.

In 1876, the government opened the Technical Fine Arts School (Kobu Bijutsu Gakko) and invited the architect Giovanni Cappelletti (d. ca. 1885), the sculptor Vincenzo Ragusa (1841–1928), and the painter Antonio Fontanesi (1818–1882), who was deeply influenced by the Barbizon school, to teach its students in Western techniques and media. The school’s first class of 60 pupils included six women, a rather large number given the social realities of the time. Fontanesi’s students Yamamoto Hosui (1850–1906), Kuroda Seiki (1866–1924), and Asai Chu (1856–1907) all later traveled to Europe to study academic painting, and are looked upon today as the Meiji period’s greatest producers of Western style paintings (yōga). However, the government continued to look upon the acquisition of Western art techniques as a means of fostering industrial development, as opposed to promoting an appreciation of Western aesthetics or art theory. In 1871, a fact-finding and trade negotiation group known as the Iwakura Mission traveled to Europe and the United States. One of the main fruits of the mission was a gained appreciation for the potentially important role of the museum in society, and the establishment of Japan’s first public museum at Yushima Seido Confucian shrine. In 1881, the English architect Josiah Conder’s (1852–1920) design for the Tokyo Imperial Museum was constructed in Ueno Park, the former site of Kaneiji, the funerary temple of the Tokugawa family. Conder taught at the University of Technology (Kobu Daigakko), of which the Technical Fine Arts School was a branch. His students Tatsuno Kingo (1854–1911), Katayama Tokuma (1853–1917), and Sone Tatsuzo (1853–1937) were responsible for many of the major architectural monuments of the Meiji period.

Even in its initial burst of interest in Western arts and technology, the Meiji government grappled with how foreign forms could be smoothly incorporated into art and architecture that would mirror updated notions of Japanese national identity. Furthermore, as traditional institutions such as temples and daimyo families found their wealth depleted under the new economic policies and nationalist policies favoring Shinto, they began selling artworks from their collections to sustain themselves. The government became concerned for the nation’s cultural heritage and in 1879, a private group of government officials instituted the Dragon Pond Society (Ryuchikai) to protect and promote the country’s traditional arts. The society also introduced a system for designating national treasures that is still in effect today under the auspices of the Agency for Cultural Affairs. In 1884, the American scholar Ernest Fenellosa (1853–1908) joined with his former student Okakura Kakuzo (Tenshin) (1862–1913) and formed another preservationist organization, the Painting Appreciation Society (Kangakai). Resurgent interest in the traditional arts of Japan paired with a wane in the vogue for Western style painting during the late 1870’s and 1880’s, resulting in the closing of the Technical Fine Arts School in 1883, and the opening of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (Tokyo Bijutsu Gakko). The new school, founded in 1889, focused on educating young artists in the traditional arts of Japan as well as Japan’s history of art, and was the forerunner of today’s Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku). In the same year, Okakura founded the art historical journal Kokka (National Flower), which continues to be published today as Japan’s most respected source for scholarly articles on the visual arts. Among the most prominent of the artists of Japanese style paintings (Nihonga) associated with the early years of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, were Kano Hogai (1828–1888) and Hashimoto Gaho (1835–1908). However, also in 1889, a number of yōga painters, some of whom had been associated with the Technical Fine Arts School formed the Meiji Art Society to continue the promotion of Western-style painting in Japan.

Okakura Kakuzo was initially one of the driving forces behind the new school, but after severe differences with the government and the school’s administration, he was forced to resign in 1898, whereupon he formed his own school, the Japan Art Academy (Nihon Bijutsuin). One factor in his departure was the Tokyo School of Fine Arts’ decision in 1894 to include Western style painting in its curriculum. This decision came in response to the return to Japan of the painter Kuroda Seiki, whose powerful position as a member of the social elite and introduction of the concept of “fine arts” to Japanese society drove a revival of Western style painting in Japan from the 1890’s. Kuroda was invited to teach at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, and formed the Hakubakai (White Horse Society) for the promotion and exhibition of works influenced by the French academic and Impressionist plein-air painting styles he had encountered while abroad. He also became president of the Imperial Art Academy, and was a member of the Imperial Art Commission. One of Kuroda’s most prominent students was the painter Aoki Shigeru (1882–1911), who incorporated Japanese legends and histories into his work. In the meantime, the more conservative Meiji Art Society disbanded with the departure of Asai Chu to France.

Asai returned to Japan in 1902, and thereafter taught at the Kyoto Industrial Arts College. His pupil Umehara Ryuzaburo (1888–1986), who also studied with Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), is widely considered one of the most outstanding Japanese artists of the twentieth century. Also in Kyoto, Nihonga artists working in the style of the Maruyama-Shijo school continued to experiment with incorporating elements of Western realism into their paintings, and painters like Tomioka Tessai (1837–1924) produced works in the nanga (Southern painting) style, which found its roots in traditional Chinese literati painting. In 1911, the collector Hara Tomitaro funded artists to live in his home in Odawara for a time to study his art collection and establish a new Nihonga style based on yamato-e aesthetics instead of the Kano school techniques that dominated the work of artists affiliated with the Tokyo School of Fine Arts.

Tension between what continue to be termed Western- and Japanese-style painting was evident not only among artists, the societies they formed, and the operation of the schools they attended, but also in the pattern of the government’s approach to exhibitions. The first national art exhibition, sponsored by the government in 1882, included only Japanese-style paintings, and from that year until 1900, Western style painting was not sent to international expositions. That the situation continued to evolve is evident from the fact that, in 1907, the government founded the Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition (Monbusho Bijutsu Tenrankai, also known as the Bunten), a juried art exhibition consisting of three sections: Japanese-style painting, Western-style painting, and sculpture.

In addition to painters and architects, sculptors also played an important role in the arts of the Meiji period. Naganuma Moriyoshi (18571942), a sculptor who traveled to train in Italy was one of the founding members of the Meiji Art Society. When the Tokyo School of Fine Arts opened in 1889, Takamura Koun (18521934), who worked in the traditional materials of wood and ivory, was appointed professor of sculpture. Higuchi Denchu (18721979), who also worked in traditional media such as wood, founded the Japan Sculpture Society in 1907 with three others sculptors.

Further Readings

Baekeland, Frederick, Imperial Japan: The Art of the Meiji Era (18681912). (Ithaca: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, 1980)

Guth, Christine, M.E., Alicia Volk, Emiko Yamanashi, et al., Japan & Paris: Impressionism, Postimpressionism, and the Modern Era. (Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of the Arts, 2004)

Munsterberg, Hugo, The Art of Modern Japan: From the Meiji Restoration to the Meiji Centennial, 1868-1968. (New York : Hacker Art Books, 1978)

Murakata, Akiko, tr., adapted, with introduction by Bonnie F. Abiko, Harada Minoru, Meiji Western Painting, Arts of Japan 6. (New York: Weatherhill, 1974)

Mason, Penelope E., History of Japanese Art. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993)

Weisenfeld, Gennifer, Mavo: Japanese Artists and the Avant-garde, 1905–1931. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002)

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Andō Jūbei
Cloisonne box and cover
Japan, Meiji period or Taishō period, ca.1910-1920
Cloisonné enamel with silver wire, gilt brass and gold
Diam. 8.2 cm.
Gift of Alice and Bernard Gerb in memory of Pauline Lester
2004-375 a-b