Japan 1868-1945: Art, Architecture, and National Identity

By Guth, Christine M. E. | Art Journal, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Japan 1868-1945: Art, Architecture, and National Identity


Guth, Christine M. E., Art Journal


This issue was prompted by the conviction that there is a need for critical reflection on developments in Japanese art and architecture between 1868 and 1945, as well as by the desire to engage both specialists and nonspecialists of Japan in this emerging field of study. During this roughly seventyfive-year period-embracing the reigns of the emperors Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-26), and Showa (1926-89)-Japanese culture underwent far-reaching changes, many of which had profound implications for the formation of modern Japanese national identity. The role of art and architecture in this dynamic and extraordinarily complex process has never been systematically explored. One cannot do justice to such a broad topic in the space allotted here, and the seven articles that follow do not attempt to present a seamless or coherent narrative. They aim instead to pull the reader into some of the vigorous artistic and ideological debates of the period by examining the activities of those who, individually and collectively, addressed this sensitive issue. While the articles encompass a variety of topics, media, and approaches, all throw light on the symbolic means used to shape and sustain the myth of a shared culture and the effects of this process of representation on those who either challenged or did not participate in it. In seeking to rectify the often stereotyped and narrow reading of the art of this period, they also illuminate its many incoherencies and contradictions.

Japan is often relegated to the margins of European and American art historical discourse. Even developments after 1868, which unfolded within full view of the outside world and whose character simultaneously shaped and mirrored those in the West, are often ignored or treated in a parochial manner. Japanese art, when it is included in Western art historical discourse about the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is often valued only in as much as it contributed to japonisme. And yet, just as it is important to study Japanese art during this period in relation to developments in Europe, so too an understanding of those in Japan is essential to assessing the nature of the Japanese impact in the West.

The role of art and architecture in the construction of Japanese national identity is a particularly fertile field for such cross-cultural exploration since Japanese developments throw light on many of the problems attendant on the creation of modernity in other parts of the world. Many of the strategies adopted by Japanese cultural authorities to advance their interests, moreover, closely paralleled or were informed by those in Europe and the United States. Although the authors in this issue do not try to make the West the measure of interpretation or explicitly include a comparative perspective, they do raise compelling questions that transcend national boundaries.

While cultural developments are not necessarily synchronous with political ones, the accession of Emperor Meiji in 1868 is a useful starting point for a consideration of national identity because it was during his reign that the modern concept of nation (kokka) first gained currency in Japan. Meiji Japan's emergence as a cohesive political entity does not mean that an awareness and expression of native identity were lacking before this time. A keen sensitivity to the issue, framed in such dichotomous terms as yamatoe (pictures of Japan) and karae (pictures of China), was manifest in Japanese writings as early as the ninth century and, fueled by nativist writers, continued to animate the thinking of artists and intellectuals well into the modern era.1 In many respects this dialectical relationship with China, Japan's traditional cultural mentor, set the stage for Japan's response to the West.

The Meiji era witnessed intense efforts to transform Japan into a modern nation, a process that went hand-in-hand with efforts to mold a sense of nationhood as a means of stabilizing the country and instilling pride and loyalty in its citizens. …

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