How Japan crafted its modernization

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

When Japan ended its isolation in the mid-to-late-19th-century and became part of the global economy, it had lots of disadvantages compared to the other major powers. But one distinct advantage that its isolation had preserved was its craft industries and the skills of its craftsmen.

The other major powers, by industrializing earlier, had lost many of their craft industries, so the skilled hand-made products of Japan — including metalwork, lacquerware, ivory carvings and silk embroidery — had an appeal that extended far beyond mere exoticism. Known collectively in Japan as kogei, these craft arts continue today, with the best craftspeople designated as Living National Treasures.

The latest exhibition at the Mitsui Memorial Museum, “Kogei: Superlative Craftsmanship from the Meiji Period,” focuses on the initial impact these crafts had as the West got to know Japan through the skill of its artisans.

As Japan imported foreign technology and expertise in its effort to modernize, it needed to export something in return. The Japanese state turned to its craft industries, and through participation in a number of international expos it promoted the crafts while paying close attention to which items were popular with foreigners, pushing production into those areas.

At the Vienna World Exposition of 1873, for example, the highly decorative lacquerware of Zenshin Shibata was a big hit. This led the Japanese government to push the production of maki-e, lacquerware decorated with gold powder. The show includes a few examples of Shibata’s work, ranging from the muted wave pattern of “Tea caddy with blue ocean waves” to the more eye-catching “Incense container with sake bottle gourd and cherry blossoms.”

The fact that Meiji Era (1867-1912) kogei was mainly for export means that most of the best works ended up in foreign collections, although there is now a drive to reverse this through the efforts of Japanese collectors. This show is sourced from the Masayuki Murata collection of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.

Because of the need to appeal abroad, one of the interesting points of consideration is the degree to which indigenous Japanese styles were adapted to suit foreign tastes, and the degree to which this fed back into domestic tastes and styles. The lacquerware of Shibata is a good example, seeming more decorative than the true Japanese taste. Some of the other pieces — including ceramics and metalwork — also seem to push in this direction.

But while some craft artists clearly upped the level of gaudy Japanese exoticism to appeal to foreign buyers, others, perhaps unsure of foreign tastes, went for a kind of hyper-realism, creating articulated metal models of animals or lifelike painted ivory facsimiles of fruits and vegetables that would impress anyone anywhere.

“Kogei — Superlative Craftsmanship from the Meiji Period” at the Mitsui Memorial Museum runs till July 13; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 7 p.m.). ¥1,300. Closed Mon. www.mitsui-museum.jp