The honeymoon phase of Japan and the West

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Often, when two cultures meet, it can be very messy and lead to a lot of unpleasantness. The continuing inability of the West and Islam to understand each other suggests itself as a convenient example. This kind of conflict often boils down to a question of who will be master and who will be man, with the benefits of synergy and learning from each other lost or reduced.

While cultures have often clashed in the past, there are also notable cases where two distinct cultures have come together and got on rather well. Perhaps one of the best examples of such an intercultural “love story” is that between the West and Japan during the Meiji Period (1867-1912).

This cultural affair is the subject of “Double Impact: The Art of Meiji Japan,” an exhibition at the Tokyo University Art Museum, which is sourced from the university’s own collection and that of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Once the ice had been broken by Commodore’s Perry’s fleet in 1854 and a few diplomatic wobbles, it was very much a case of love at first sight, with strong mutual attraction on both sides.

Japan was clearly fascinated by Western science and know-how, and, in quick succession, fashion, art and leisure. The West, too, was amazed by Japan, which it tended to see as an equivalent to its own lost and romanticized feudal age. “Double Impact” has plenty of evidence of Japanese interest in the West but less of the opposite, although one section does focus on the appeal of traditional Japanese craft pieces, such as gold-lacquered boxes and an impressive articulated model of a dragon.

The start of this great cultural romance is captured in sepia-toned photographs and ukiyo-e woodblock prints — one of which shows Perry’s ship. Interestingly this holds an important clue as to why Japan’s fascination with the West was reciprocated. While the photographs — taken by the Italian photographer Felice Beato — demonstrate the West’s technological lead, in this exhibition they simply can’t compete with the astounding colors and visual inventiveness of the woodblock prints.

Several of these prints, such as Kawanabe Kyosai’s “Repelling the Mongol Pirate Ships” (1863) and “Congratulations on Maritime Security for All Eternity” (1863), also express Japan’s concern with naval security during the year that the British Royal Navy bombarded Kagoshima. The latter work shows the Chiyodagata, Japan’s first domestically built steam warship, revealing the speed with which Japan was adapting to the modern world.

The section of the exhibition titled “The Blossoming of Westernization” shows how Western fashions in clothes and leisure were also catching on. A number of woodblock prints by Yoshu Chikanobu include “Illustration of the Command Performance of the Great Chiarini’s Circus” (1886), a representation of a Western-style circus, and “Singing by the Plum Garden” (1887), with Japanse women dressed in Western clothing and playing Western instruments.

Works like these may give the impression of Westernization sweeping across the land unopposed, but we should remember that an artist such as Yoshu had a particular interest in focusing on novelties, as they would be more likely to sell. Sometimes the representation of a theme in art is testament to its oddity and scarcity rather than its pervasiveness. But there can be no doubt which way the wind was blowing.

In any love affair, it is always important to show a little reserve and pride. To throw oneself entirely at the feet of the beloved may simply breed contempt. Thus it is not surprising that Japan’s wholehearted embrace of all things Western also generated a counter movement. This becomes clear in the exhibition’s sections titled “Japan and Western Instruction in the Arts” and “The Creation of a New Japanese Art.”

These look first at the influence of Western artistic techniques on Japanese artists, followed by the artistic counter movement of nihonga (Japanese-style painting). In the same way that the colorful woodblock prints outshine the sepia-toned photographs, the nihonga — including works by Okakura Shusui, Hashimoto Gaho, Hishida Shunso, and Taikan Yokoyama — are of much greater interest than the tentative early experiments in Western-style painting. These are often too dark. Rather than showing the excitement of exploring a new way of painting, they seem weighed down by the task of emulating impressive role models. The nihonga works also benefitted from a sense of national reawakening that was both stimulated by the inrush of Western know-how and empowered by it.

The last section “Japan Comes of Age — the Assertion of a New National Identity” is presided over by Takenouchi Hisakazu’s giant wooden statue of “Emperor Jinmu” (1890), and the artworks show themes of Japanese national identity: national myths, portraits of the Emperor Meiji and scenes from the Sino-Japanese War.

The best examples of Western-style painting are also in this section, suggesting that the relationship was about to get more complicated.

“Double Impact: The Art of Meiji Japan” at The University Art Museum, Tokyo University of the Arts runs till May 17; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,500. Closed Mon. It then moves to the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

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