Fantasies and Foreign Contact in the Art History of Japan: Timon Screech in Conversation with Yukio Lippit

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Yukio Lippit: Your most recent publication, Obtaining Images, is a sustained study of how pictures - both paintings and prints - generated meaning in Japan's Edo period (1600 to 1868). ' It reads as a sophisticated primer for the art of this era and appears to bring together nearly all of the intellectual concerns you've pursued over the past twenty years. What do you continue to find interesting about the Edo period as a context for art making? How has your understanding of it changed over the years?

Timon Screech: The Edo period was long - more than two hundred and fifty years - with huge developments and changes. Moreover, it is not sufficiently realized that Japan is a very large country. It is also very rough and difficult to move through. I often tell students that Japan's topography is basically Switzerland extending from Stockholm to Naples - how preposterous to imagine such a place can be culturally unified. Indeed, the myth of Japanese unity likely comes from its crushing absence in fact. The period's fascination lies in the diversity engendered by this temporal and spatial extent and, along with this, the frequent attempts to deny spatial and temporal diversity and propose a fantasy of cohesion and stasis. Just one little example: the Japanese capital, Kyoto (then called Kyö), burned down in 1788. Barring a couple of survivals, there is nothing pre-1 788 in the city at all. Yet hardly anyone knows this. Visitors to Kyoto are told only of the antiquity. Some institutions have ancient roots, but really you find more old buildings in Boston. As a historian, 1 am fascinated by the mythic overlay and how it does or does not map out what modern historical analysis reveals. Of course, my own work (all of our work) will also be revealed as myth in due course, assuming the world lasts a bit longer.

My focus until now has been on the later part of the period, mostly about 1770 to 1800. This has always been known as a time of significant art production and radical innovation, though mostly analysis of discordant areas has been rendered unproblematic by shunting them off into the orbits of "play" or "popular art." I tried to make them more central - to make the innovations and challenges grate against the period's polite norms. This was one of the aims of The Shogun 's Painted Culture, which sadly did not have a United States edition, only a British one (though it was translated into Japanese). That book had a second aim, which I will mention later.

I am now moving back into the early Edo period, about 1600 to 1650. It is intriguing to contrast the two eras. Although known as "the Edo period" and even at the time proposed as a kind of continuum, being under the same political system, on close comparison, the period turned out to have undergone huge mutations. Also, geographically, power and authority slid to a new part of the country between 1600 and 1800, from Kyö (and the unhistorical homogenization of the city's name as Kyoto is another aspect of the continuum myth) to Edo (modern Tokyo - that city is allowed in the historiography to change name since its doing so, at the "opening" of Japan, is the one caesura that is accepted). In short, Edo offers the opportunity for meditations on stillness and motion within history.

That is one big concern. There is a second (alluded to above), and it is the perennial issue of what is claimed as Japan's unique historical trajectory in early modern times. The Edo period, being the time when much of what we (meaning both Japanese and nonJapanese people) think of as Japanese culture, came into being. This is proposed as a time of quintessential Japaneseness and, as such, pure and unsullied by foreign contact. And yet it was absolutely shot through with foreignness. As a non-Japanese scholar, my one single overarching goal (if that doesn't sound too pretentious) has been to insert the foreign back into the Edo period. Not an attempt, as it were, to write a book called "international Edo" but to write one called just "Edo" that embedded the foreign within it and knocked the myth of isolation on the head once and for all. …