Meiji Modern

This Beauty (Kono bijin)

Meiji Modern: Fifty Years of New Japan celebrates the first 50 years of the Japanese Art Society of America (JASA). Founded by a small group of print collectors in New York in 1973 as the Ukiyo-e Society of America, JASA has expanded into a national and international organisation with the mission to promote the study and appreciation of Japanese art broadly through public programmes, guided collections visits, and a peer-reviewed journal Impressions.

The Meiji era, which lasted from 1868 until 1912, was a tumultuous period of unprecedented cultural and technological transformation. the fall of the isolationist military government created by the Tokugawa shogunate, the country’s new leaders built a constitutional state and began to modernise infrastructure, encourage industrialisation and manufacturing.

The arts of Japan, including many of the works in Meiji Modern, were introduced to American audiences during the World’s Fairs in Philadelphia in 1876, in Chicago in 1893, and in Saint Louis in 1904. This unprecedented intercultural exchange was the impetus for many Americans to begin building major collections of Japanese art, a story that JASA, as one of the earliest organisations to bring together Japanese art collectors, scholars, curators, and enthusiasts.

Following the two centuries of limited international trade, new connections with foreign cultures inspired dynamic new forms of artistic expression. The profound cross-cultural impact of the country’s developing relationships with the wider world is evident in the collection of 80 objects that comprise the exhibition that includes paintings, prints, photographs, sculpture, and examples of enamel, lacquer, embroidery, and textiles – all evidence a blending of cultures and techniques and the innovative interchange of old and new. Also on display is a selection of both export wares and items made for display in Japan, reflecting the diversity of tastes and aesthetic discourse during the Meiji period.

Rather than proceeding strictly chronologically, the exhibition introduces five themes encompassing works in a variety of media, exploring the changing attitude of Japan to the outside world and protecting Japan’s unique heritage and culture, as well marking the emergence of the new Japan from the isolationist past.

The first section of Meiji Modern, ‘Crafting a Modern State’, highlights the emergence of a country opening up to the outside world through prints and other objects depicting Western scenes and motifs. There are depictions of Meiji rulers in Western clothing and portrayals of American dignitaries in Japanese clothing, including American presidents George Washington and Ulysses S Grant and Benjamin Franklin, which emphasise these new international connections.

When Japan’s coastal cities opened up to foreigners, such as Yokohama, Nagasaki, and Kobe, the ports served as models for the modernisation of other large cities in Japan. Here, Western architecture was adopted for official buildings, banks and department stores; a new type of hotel is designed to accommodate the growing number of foreigners visiting the country with these tourist hotels pointedly set up to enjoy Japan’s beautiful landscapes.

At this time, one of Japan’s main export products was grège (raw) silk and France was their biggest customer. The Tomioka Silk Mill was established in 1872 and marked the beginning of production on an industrial scale, which then went on to influence other industries.

Communications are rapidly developing and the Meiji era sees the beginnings of railways in Japan (with the opening of the first line from Yokohama to Tokyo in 1872), as well as the expansion of the telegraphic system. The prints of the time record these rapid changes particularly well, illustrating the ‘twilight zone’ between letting go of the past and embracing the future. This fascination with a city on the cusp of change is recorded by Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915), who produced a series of prints at the time. The setting of Summer Night at Asakusa Kuramae (1881), depicts north of Asakusa Bridge, the former location of shogunal rice granaries at which Kiyochika’s maternal family had been employed. The artist’s image is a return to this place of childhood – at dusk, during the magic hour when streetlamps were lit one by one.

The essay Crafting a Modern State, in the accompanying catalogue for Meiji Modern, references Kobayashi Kiyochika’s prints, ‘While in the tradition of the meisho-e (famous views) of artists such as Utagawa Hiroshige III (1842–1894), these views of Tokyo, especially those set at night, made by Kiyochika in the late 1870s and early 1880s, are focused more on the effects of light and shadow than on depictions of well-known locales. Taken together, the views also document, at times only subtly, the modern changes that were altering the experience of Japan’s capital as well as Kiyochika’s apparent fascination with these changes. The careful attention to the effect of light in these prints, which are sometimes known as kosen-ga, or ‘ray of light pictures’, is like the many gas lamps first installed in Ginza in 1874, evidence of the many modern changes and influences altering Japan’s cities – and Japan’s artists – in the Meiji period. Kiyochika ceased making works like this in 1881, before gas lamps were widely replaced with electric bulbs’.

Japan’s artistic and industrial image to the world is also represented in the late 19th-century universal and international exhibitions. After exhibitions in London (1862) and Paris (1867) – where Japan and its products had aroused great curiosity – the young imperial government became aware of the role that these exhibitions could play in redressing a difficult economic situation at home due to the disappearance of the patronage of the large and influential aristocratic families. Artistic production played a vital role in enhancing the reputation and prestige of the nation and helped to redress the trade balance caused by the cost of modernisation. The imperial government carefully selected the artists and the objects to represent Japan in these exhibitions in Vienna (1873), Philadelphia (1876), Paris (1878, 1899 and 1900) and Chicago (1893). To emphasis the uniqueness of the country, the Japanese pavilions were modelled on traditional buildings. These universal exhibitions brought great commercial success, as the Western audiences were not only fascinated by the appearance of this long-isolated country onto the international scene, but were also entranced by the objects that were exhibited, not only at an advantageous price, but also completely different and so utterly appealing to a market that was always looking for new ideas.

In the Meiji era, due to the rapid march of science and industrialisation, the newly developed skills and tastes were married with a remarkable progression in many techniques in the fields of metalwork, lacquerware and cloisonné works of art. The government played a vital role in the development of these technical skills, by encouraging and sponsoring education and technical schools and teaching, as well as organising National Industrial Exhibitions in all the main cities of Japan to encourage competition and growth in its domestic industries. The first National Industrial Exhibition was held in Tokyo in 1877, featuring products appropriate for the integration of Western technologies into Japanese industries.

In ‘Navigating Changing Seas’, Meiji Modern emphasises the continued cultural importance of the sea and conveys its role in bringing the outside world to Japan, and bringing Japan to the outside world. An intricately embroidered, monumental silk folding screen depicting an expanse of rough-looking seas is a highlight of this section of the exhibition. This realistic four-panel screen by Hashio Kiyoshi (1888-1964), Morning Sea (1915) was shown at the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915, where it was awarded a medal of honour. According to exhibition literature, it was one of two embroideries by Hashio (the other was a scene of a lion and lioness made with Nagara Yozo (born circa 1873). Hashio was one of several master embroiderers employed by Iida Shinshichi III (1852–1909), the director of the Takashimaya Department Store (established 1831), who oversaw the complicated and lengthy production of embroidered works – a process that could take three years or more per piece – that replicated in intricate detail works of nihonga painters, among them Takeuchi Seiho (1864-1942), Tsuji Kako (1870-1931), and Yamamoto Shunkyo (1871-1933). Another screen illustrates the popular motif, umi no sachi ‘the bounty of the sea’ as the subject matter of a turn-of-the- century two-panel screen by the little-known artist Ganho.

The debate on how Japan identified itself in this changing world is explored in ‘Fashioning the Self’, which assesses the beginnings of a new Japanese identity as a non-white, modern nation-state, and considers the changing gender roles of the period, the end of samurai status, the creation of a Meiji bureaucracy, and the growing embrace of modern conveniences and fashion. This interaction is captured in prints such as Telephone Call: A Merchant’s Wife. In the related catalogue entry, the author writes, ‘During the Meiji period the concept of the self was widely regarded as twofold (nijyu seikatsu), consisting of a public, outwardly facing half – one’s public appearance and behaviour, and a private, predominantly concealed half – one’s personal feelings and emotions.

In such a system, carefully coded modes of appearance, including hairstyle, clothing, and behaviour take on great significance, especially during this time of rapid change and internationalisation. Self-presentation during the Meiji period was made even more complicated and fraught with meaning in light of the government’s self-conscious efforts – undertaken through legislation, decree, or imperial example – to present a modern and civilised society to European and American visitors, many of whom had recounted their shock at shared bathing for men and women, nearly nude jinrikisha (rickshaw) drivers, and the blackened teeth and shaved eyebrows of married women – three ubiquitous aspects of pre-Meiji society that were strongly discouraged or banned outright. New laws and policies enacted during the Meiji period did offer, at least to some, much greater freedom and increased social mobility when compared with the rigid caste systems and sumptuary laws of the Edo period.

Against this backdrop of immense social change (and increased imports from abroad), fashion and appearance were forced to evolve, with much clothing assuming coded and widely understood meanings, most obviously, at first, in the case of uniforms and courtly dress. In the 1870s and 1880s, official uniforms were established via formal edict for members of the court and the new kazoku peerage system, as well as for civil officials. The various styles of formal wear were based on European military uniforms of the 1870s, as were the uniforms of rank-and-file soldiers. For women, courtly formal wear, also based on European models, was prescribed in 1886, following the first public appearance of the empress in a Western-style gown at a graduation ceremony of the Kazoku jogakko (Peeresses’ School). Soon thereafter she, along with her entourage, were seen in public only in Western dress, emblematic of their roles as modern heads of state. The following year the empress would go on to issue a referendum, echoing the imperial command of the previous decade, in which it was asserted, by way of encouraging their adoption, that Western-style formal gowns were similar to women’s clothing in ancient Japan’.

The fourth section, ‘In Making History, Enshrining Myth’, explores the importance of a national religion, which is examined along with traditions and myths relating to the formation of a modern nation-state. It also considers how a self-conscious reinterpretation and re-articulation of the past helped inform a contemporary nation and its global future through unique new expressions. Throughout this period objects were often decorated with Buddhist and Shinto imagery, as well as popular folk tales and plays.

In the face of Western modernisation, a movement grew up in Japan in response to this change into a modern country, which sought to define and affirm its cultural identity by turning to his past. There was renewed interest in such art schools as Rinpa, which had been in decline at the end of the 19th century. The art of the Meiji era also reaffirms Japans own identity through producing arts and crafts that are deeply reverential to its past. This can be seen in the traditional images often chosen for surface decoration, such as samurai, or Edo-period courtesans from the floating world, memories from an earlier age that were used on modern commercial products for export.

The Meiji period also saw Japanese painting (Nihonga) develop in a new way – works that use techniques and materials of traditional Japanese painting as opposed to Western-style paintings. Nihonga was inspired by Japanese traditions and Chinese ink paintings, but also integrates Western influences, including Western perspectives and shading. The movement also created an artistic community where painters, enamellers and ceramicists often worked together with the Tokyo University of Fine Arts, founded in 1885, playing a vital role in the Nihonga movement. At the same time, other cultural institutions such as museums, art schools, and art history magazines were established all supporting the culture of Japan and its ancient cultural past and helping to bring about a revival in such crafts as lacquerware, enamelling, and basketry. The lure of Japan’s past sold well in the West.

The final section, ‘Cultivating a Modern Aesthetic’, examines traditional themes of plants and animals as the motifs and subject matter most eagerly embraced by foreigners and therefore commonly made for export. Such artistic production translated to diplomatic soft power as well as a lucrative way to fund industry. This also fuelled Western expectations for and definitions of ‘Asian tradition’, setting precedents for cultural and geopolitical relations and tensions that continue to unfold in the global arena today.

Linked to this rise in interest from abroad for all things Japanese, the craze of Japonisme was born and signalled the globalisation of Japanese taste – and the success of Japan’s transition from a medieval society to a country that continues to rank as a major world power today.

Meiji Modern, until 7 January, 2024, Asia Society, New York,