Post-Meiji Japan: Modernity and Beyond

Taishō period (1912–1926)
Shōwa period (1926–1989)
Heisei period (1989–present)

Selections from the Collection

The Taishō period began with the death of the Meiji emperor in 1912, and the ascension of the emperor Yoshihito (18791926). Seeking control over regional nations and greater involvement in world affairs, Japan entered World War I in 1914, siding with France, Russia, and Great Britain. At the conclusion of the war, Japan was made a member of the League of Nations, but its efforts to be recognized as an influential modern nation remained hindered by the discriminatory policies of Western countries. Japan did not escape the worldwide economic downturn following World War I, and although those in control of the country’s transformation into an industrialized nation saw their lifestyles greatly improved, factory and agricultural workers staged numerous strikes and riots to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with economic conditions. Various organizations devoted to civil liberties emerged, prompting the government to attempt to pass laws to control social movements. In 1923, the Kantō region was rocked by a major earthquake, which also caused extensive fires throughout the capital, thus necessitating a largescale reconstruction campaign. Following an assassination attempt upon Crown Prince Hirohito (19011989) in December of 1923 by anarchist Namba Daisuke (18991924), the government stepped up its efforts to suppress those it viewed as subversive. Hirohito served as regent for the sickly Yoshihito for five years before the latter’s death in 1926. Under his regency, the Peace Preservation Law was enacted to protect the imperial state against anyone attempting its overthrow. Yet, at the same time, the Universal Manhood Suffrage Law guaranteed all men over the age of 25 the right to vote. Thus, the Taishō period can be characterized as an era of tension between an increasingly rightward leaning government and a progressively more liberal population whose aspirations the government sought to curb.

One of the major changes of the artistic world of the Taishō period is captured in the pages of the publication Shirakaba (White Birch), an elite literary magazine that ran from 1910 to 1923. The magazine was responsible for introducing many aspiring artists to the works of European painters such as Vincent van Gogh (18531890) and Cezanne (18391906), and enabled many prominent young painters such as Kishida Ryusei (18911929) to study European painting without traveling to the West. As the result of exposure to new ideas about individualism and non-academic artistic styles such as post-impressionism from the West, artists began to react to the government’s conservative grip on the evaluation of works being produced in Japan. In 1912, a group of painters and sculptors formed the Fusankai (Sketch Society) to rebel against the Ministry of Education’s Fine Arts Exhibition and promote Fauvism. Among its members was the painter Yorozu Tetsugorō (18851927), who painted both Fauvist and Cubist works. In 1914, a group of young artists took similar action by forming the Nikakai (Second Division Society) and holding their own juried exhibit. In the same year, Kishida Ryusei formed a group for the sponsorship of non-Ministry of Education art exhibitions known as the Sodosha, and Okakura Kakuzo’s Japan Fine Arts Academy was reorganized in the wake of Okakura’s death. The school has continued to hold its exhibitions, known as the Inten, into the present day. However, by the end of the Taisho period, even these reformist organizations were viewed by some as outmoded solutions to the conservatism of the arts establishment. In 1923, a group of avant-garde artists known as Mavo and led by the artist Murayama Tomoyoshi (19011977) conducted a public protest before the jury members of the Nikakai. Mavo was guided by Murayama’s theory of “conscious constructivism,” a theory of social and artistic liberation that was in step with the civil rights movements of the Taishō era. Efforts from within the establishment to structurally reform itself led to the reorganization of the Ministry of Education’s Fine Arts Exhibition into the Exhibition of the Imperial Art Academy (Teitoku Bijutsuin Tenrankai, or Teiten) in 1918, but despite the resulting expansion of styles recognized by the exhibition, it continued to be an exclusive organization. Interestingly, two of the most socially active Western-style painters of the Taishō era, Kishida and Yorozu, along with a number of their colleagues, turned away from yōga to styles inspired by traditional Japanese and Chinese painting in their later years.

The Taishō period was a difficult time for traditional print artists, who found their work increasingly marginalized, and who sought ways to survive in a changing society. In 1918, Onchi Koshiro (18911955) led the formation of the Sosaku Hanga Kyokai (Japan Creative Print Society) that aimed to infuse new life into the practice by encouraging print artists to personally handle each stage of the production process, as printmakers did in Europe. Between 1915 and 1940, Watanabe Shosaburō (18851962), who had decided foreigners in Japan and abroad might be a new market for beautiful women prints (bijinga), established and led the new print (shin hanga) movement. He recruited the printmakers Hashiguchi Goyo (18801921), Yoshida Hiroshi (18761950), Itō Shinsui (18981972) and Kawase Hasui (18831957). A number of artists, painters and print makers alike, made new names for themselves in newspaper illustration in both the Meiji and Taishō periods.

The Shōwa period began in 1926, with the death of Yoshihito. Crown Prince Hirohito, who had in fact been ruling the country on his father’s behalf for the latter part of the Taishō era, officially became the emperor. He reigned until his death in 1989, making him the longest reigning emperor in the history of Japan. He would lead Japan into war with China and World War II, with disastrous effects, and see the country through the aftermath of the nuclear aggression of the United States.

The beginning of the Shōwa period marked the emergence of a new art movement centered around the production of traditional folk crafts and arts. The art historian Yanagi Muneyoshi (18891961) called the movement mingei, which may be translated literally as arts of the common people. In the 1930’s, the Japan Folk Crafts Museum (Nihon Mingeikan) opened in Tokyo. Among the most famous artists associated with the mingei movement are the potters Kitaōji Rosanjin (18831959), who designed and created works for well-known restaurants, and Hamada Shoji (18941978), who was well-known as a friend and associate of Yanagi and the English potter Bernard Leach (18871979). In 1955, Hamada was named a Living National Treasure, an honor awarded to Japanese citizens who work in traditional Japanese art forms, and contribute to their preservation.

In the years leading up to World War II, the government became increasingly concerned with any elements of society that might threaten its power. This included arts organizations, especially those with potential links to Communism. Japan’s Proletarian Art Movement, for example, managed to survive only from 1926 to 1934. Individual artists who engaged with social issues in their work were routinely arrested. Nonetheless, there was a proliferation of avant-garde art societies focused around the styles and ideologies associated with Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, and Surrealism in the early Shōwa period. Abstraction took a foothold as well, but was not to become a major movement until after the war. In 1935, the Teiten, which had replaced the Bunten, went through yet another metamorphous when it was abruptly reorganized by the Minister of Education into the relatively unsuccessful Reformed Imperial Arts Fine Arts Academy Exhibition (Taizo teiten), and then in 1937 into the New Ministry of Education Fine Arts Academy (Shin bunten). The more successful Shin bunten had the goal of reasserting governmental control over the art establishment. It was from around the start of this latter exhibition format that avant-garde artists’ societies were forced to become far more circumspect about voicing their opinions or presenting them in an easily identifiable manner in their works. Again, some of the more senior artists simply withdrew from the art scene, and produced works in seclusion from the political turmoil of the era. Some among this latter group, such as the Nihonga painters Kawabata Ryushi (18851966) and Maeda Seison (18851977), reemerged in the post-war period to produce some of their most important works. During the war itself, artists were recruited by the government to depict battle sites. Among such artists were a fair number of figurative artists from the New Production School Association (Shin seisakuha kyokai).

One artist who thrived in the ultra-nationalist pre-war environment was Yokoyama Taikan (18681959). Born at the beginning of the Meiji period, Yokoyama trained with Okakura early in his career. In 1931, he was appointed as artist to the imperial household, and produced numerous works that drew upon Japanese historical and literary themes. These he presented in a traditional style that drew upon the decorative styles of the Rinpa school and Momoyamaera screen painting. In 1943, Taikan became the chair of the Japan Art Patriotic Society (Nihon Bijutsu Hokokukai), which was set up by the Ministry of Education in an attempt to control the creative output of the country’s artists and put it in the service of its war-time ideology. Taikan in fact joined a number of other prominent artists in choosing to demonstrate his patriotism by contributing the profits from the sale of his works to the military effort.

As one result of the post-war United States occupation, which lasted from 1945 to 1952, a new national constitution reduced the political authority of the emperor to that of a figurehead. At the same time, people were exposed to foreign influences on an enormous scale. Art thrived in this new environment, and many exhibitions of modern art made their way to Tokyo from abroad. The Shin Bunten, which could not even hold exhibits by the end of the war, was renamed the Nitten (Japan Art Exhibition), and in 1958, sponsorship of the organization transferred from the government to a private group called Nitten, Inc. The Nitten continues to operate in this form today. Following the United States occupation, Japan made a tremendous economic recovery, and was fast becoming one of the world’s leading economies. In the 1950’s and 60’s, Japanese artists flourished, and while they worked in a variety of styles and media, among the most prominent movements were –Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism. Two of the best-known Japanese artists who began working in abstract styles in the post-war era are Okada Kenzo (19021982), who settled in New York in 1950, and Sugai Kumi (19191996), who moved to Paris in 1952. The avant-garde group of artists known as Gutai (concrete form) that formed under the artist Yoshiwara Jiro (19051972) in the 1950’s also had a large impact on the post-war art scene in Japan. Printmaking experienced a renaissance in the post-war period, with artists working in both abstract and more conventional styles. Perhaps the most famous modern Japanese printmaker is Munakata Shiko (19031975), who became the first print artist to become designated as a Living National Treasure. Japanese filmmakers also began to break into the international scene in the 1950’s, led by Kurosawa Akira (19101998), who continued to make world famous movies into the 1990’s. Likewise, Japanese photographers such as Domon Ken (19091990) have made their mark.

The emperor Hirohito’s death in 1989 seems to have marked the beginning of an era of decreased certainty in Japan’s post-war identity as a model of economic success, and the Heisei period, which began with the ascension of Hirohito’s son Akihito (b.1933) has witnessed a Japan pondering all manner of social and political issues, from the role of the country’s self-defense forces to the problems of an aging society, privatization of governmental organizations, immigration, and the gender of the future head of Japan’s imperial family. At the same time, Japanese popular culture, especially in the form of manga and anime, has captured the imaginations of people all over the world, and Japanese artists in all manner of media, old and new, continue to be very visible on the world stage. In light of the devotion of Japan to nurturing the creativity of its artists and a respect for the arts within society, it seems fitting that the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art in New York is based on the design of Japanese architect Taniguchi Yoshio (b.1937).

Further Readings

Alexandra Munroe, et al., Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky. (New York : H.N. Abrams, 1994)

Brown, Kendall, et al., Taisho Chic: Japanese Modernity, Nostalgia, and Deco. (Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of the Arts, 2001)

Cardozo, Sidney, and Masaaki Hirano, The Art of Rosanjin. (New York: Kodansha International, 1987)

Conant, Ellen P., et al., Nihonga, Transcending the Past: Japanese-style Painting, 18681968. (St. Louis, Mo.: Saint Louis Art Museum; Tokyo: Japan Foundation, 1995)

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)

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

Munsterberg, Hugo, The Art of Modern Japan: From the Meiji Restoration to the Meiji Centennial, 18681968. (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1978)

Weisenfeld, Gennifer, Mavo: Japanese Artists and the Avant-garde, 19051931. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002)

Yanagi, Sori, ed., The Woodblock and the Artist: The Life and Work of Shiko Munakata. (New York, Kodansha International, 1991)


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Kitao Rosanjin
Brazier with grass decoration
Japan, Modern period, ca. 1949 - 1959
Stoneware with ash glaze and underglaze designs
h. 21.7 cm. (without lid), diam. 21.5 cm.
The John B. Elliott, Class of 1951, Collection
1998-827a-b