Japanese Art After 1392

First Things First...

This lecture covers a long period of Japanese history, when its society went through several drastic transformations. In addition to the canonical works that are commonly discussed in major textbooks, this lesson includes works from the modern period that are often omitted in Western scholarship, which tends to skip the first half of the twentieth century in Japanese art history. This plan aims to fill this gap to some extent and provide comparative perspectives to Western modern art. Modern Japanese art is indeed an underexplored area that anticipates further research and literature in the future. Among the survey books, Manson’s History of Japanese Art includes the lengthiest discussion on this phase.

One theme that continues from earlier Japanese art history is the tension or correlation between international influence and national uniqueness. As before, Chinese culture is still a major foreign influence, but as Japan encounters the Western world, internationalism begins to have wider effects. This theme can be addressed even in the complete absence of international contacts during the Edo period, when the Tokugawa shogunate almost entirely cut off foreign trade. Another theme that can be explored is the role of the artist in society. Since there is more detailed knowledge on individual artists’ biographies compared to earlier periods, students can be introduced to various types of artists from different social classes–whose works were also created for different purposes and audiences. You can encourage students to think about multiple definitions of “art” and “artist” in different historical periods and also to consider how they are different from “being an artist” in Western society.

Since this lecture begins with Zen art and architecture of the Muromachi period, one possible opening exercise is to ask students what they know about this term that has become mainstream in Western culture (but often with misleading implications). Students may come up with such notions as meditation, calmness, and peacefulness, or even relate it to yoga or relaxation practices. Describe some basic concepts of Zen Buddhism and emphasize that it is hard to understand Zen only through verbal explanation, since the teaching defies rational reasoning and ultimately centers on experiential knowledge. (This, however, at least explains why visual art has become important in Zen practice.)

Citing the legendary episode of the first patriarch Bodhidharma, who cut off his eyelids in order to avoid falling asleep during his meditation, or the second patriarch Huike, who cut off his arm to draw the attention of deeply meditative Bodhidharma, may give your students an idea of some intense aspects of Zen. Also show an image of Bodhidharma, who came to be represented abstractly in a single spontaneous brushstroke (referring to his legendary long-term meditation that made his body “rock-like”), to exemplify the unique feature of Zen ink art.

Background Readings

Katsushika Hokusai, Great Wave at Kanagawa, from Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji, c. 1830–2, Edo period, color woodblock print.

In addition to textbooks, for in-depth discussions of historical contexts and individual objects, consult specialized surveys such as History of Far Eastern Art by Sherman E. Lee (covering South, Southeast, and East Asia); History of Japanese Art by Penelope Manson (most extensive on Japanese art); Discovering the Arts of Japan: A Historical Overview by Tsuneko Sadao and Stephanie Wada (concise and well-organized).

Among web sources, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History and Freer-Sackler’s Teacher Resources on Arts of Japan well cover the period up to Edo. For modern periods, the Princeton University Art Museum has useful summaries on their website. John Junkerman’s haunting documentary Dream Window: Reflections on the Japanese Garden includes a section on Zen dry rock garden that can be incorporated into the lecture. BBC’s The Private Life of a Masterpiece on Hokusai’s The Great Wave is a good documentary for students’ homework/pre-lecture preparation, which also covers the subject of japonisme.

Content Suggestions

Image List:

  • Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) temple, (Rokuon-ji temple), original structure late fourteenth century; rebuilt in the 1950s
  • Dry Rock Garden at Ryōan-ji temple, Kyoto, c. 1480
  • Sesshū Tōyō, Winter Landscape, c. 1470s
  • Attributed to Sen no Rikyū, Tai-an tearoom, Myōki-an temple, Kyoto, c. 1582
  • Kanō Naizen, Namban (Southern Barbarians) Screens, 1598–1615
  • Ogata Kōrin, Eight-Planked Bridges, seventeenth century
  • Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave at Kanagawa, 1831–3
  • Kanō Hōgai, Merciful Mother Kannon, 1888
  • Kuroda Seiki, Lakeside, 1897
  • Yorozu Tetsugorō, Nude Beauty, 1911
  • Photographer unknown, MAVO performance, c. 1923–5
  • Miyamoto Saburō, The Meeting of Generals Yamamoto and Percival, 1942
  • Yokoyama Taikan, Japan where the Sun Rises, 1940


Daimyō: upper-class samurai who owns land and functions as the feudal lord of the region.

Gasō: Zen Buddhist priest-painter.

Japonisme: the tendency in modernist art that emerged in the nineteenth-century Europe, in which artists were informed and influenced by artistic forms and styles of Japanese artifacts.

Kabuki theater: a form of performing art fusing dance, drama, and music, which developed and became a popular entertainment during the Edo period.

The Kanō school: the dominant hereditary school of painting, founded by Kanō Motonobu and other members of the family in the Muromachi period and lasted until the Meiji period.

Kannon (Sanskrit: Avalokitesvara; Chinese: Guanyin): the Bodhisattva of Compassion; one of the most popular deities in East Asia; originally a male deity but in Chinese and Japanese popular belief, increasingly feminized to be associated with the role of child-giver or protector.

Namban: literary “southern barbarians,” referring to Westerners who arrived in Japan in the sixteenth century, and the styles of objects and customs brought by them; in addition to art, “namban style” dishes are still popular in Japanese home cooking.

Nihonga: literary “Japanese painting” but more precisely a modernized form of Japanese pictorial tradition, thus translated as “Japanese-style painting,” also to be distinguished from the indigenous yamato-e tradition, which also means “Japanese painting.”

Rinpa: abbreviation of the “School (pa) of Kōrin,” collectively referring to the artists active in the late Momoyama and Edo periods in the traditions set by Tawaraya Sōtatsu (d. 1643) and Honami Kōetsu (1558–1637); many of the artists were from machishū (wealthy merchants) or chōnin (urban populace consisting of craftsmen and merchants) backgrounds and worked for the clients of similar class or wealthy samurais.

Samurai: professional class of feudal warriors.

Shinden zukuri: “palace style” used in the residences of aristocrats during the Heian period.

Shoin zukuri: “studio/study room style” origianlly used by Zen monks in Kamakura period and adopted by samurais as their preferred style of their residences.

Tatami: straw-filled woven grass mat, used in Japanese architecture since the Heian period; the standard size is approximately 6 feet long x 3 feet wide, and it is still common in Japan to describe a room size by the number of tatami.

Tea ceremony: chanoyu (“hot water of tea”) or sadō (“the way of tea”) in Japanese; highly ritualized gathering in which matcha (powdered green tea) is prepared by the host to hospitalize his/her guests; the practice itself does not have a religious meaning but was developed within Zen monastic community and popularized among elite samurais.

Tokonoma: a shallow alcove or niche built in a room, where a hanging scroll painting or calligraphy, and a flower arrangement is displayed.

Ukiyo-e: “pictures of floating world,” or polychrome woodblock prints, mass-produced and widely circulated during the Edo period.

Yōga: literary “Western painting” or a painting created in oil on canvas or any other Western materials; since it is a modern concept coined as the counterpart of nihonga, hence translated as “Western-style painting.”

Wabi-sabi: aesthetic concept borne out of tea ceremony, embracing wabi (honesty, integrity, lonliness, quaint and nostalgic simplicity) and sabi (a preference for the old, rustic and imperfect over the new and pristine).


After the fall of the Kamakura shogunate in 1333, the political center of Japan moved back to Kyoto, where a new seat of shoguns was established by the Ashikaga clan in 1392. While art and culture of the Muromachi period largely inherited the austere and down-to-earth pragmatism of Kamakura samurais, they also absorbed the courtly taste for elegance persistent in the old capital. This admixture of tendencies towards simplification and refinement gave birth to new forms of art, architecture, and theatre. Contact with China, renewed during the Kamakura period, became an important catalyst for the cultural innovations of the time. Among the imports from the Song and Ming dynasties, Zen Buddhism had the most extensive and long-standing influence on Japanese society. Due to its emphasis on immediate awakening gained in everyday experience rather than rational studies of scriptures in a monastic setting, Zen Buddhism was immediately received with enthusiasm by the samurai class.

The Ashikaga shoguns’ active support for Zen made it important in other aspects of cultural and political lives of Muromachi Japan—epitomized in the stylistic and functional eclecticism of the Rokuon-ji temple in Kyoto, better known as Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion). The original building, developed as a unique hybrid of a shogun’s private villa and a Zen temple, was constructed at the end of the fourteenth century for the third shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358–1408), who then was spending his post-retirement life as a Zen monk. However, it was lost in fire in 1950—the incident that became the subject of Mishima Yukio’s novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956)—thus the present structure is a 1955 reconstruction derived from the conservation research conducted in the early twentieth century.

The three-story pavilion encompasses three different functions ascribed to each floor, each designed in a unique architectural style. The first floor, consecrating the statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, follows the “palace” style (shinden zukuri) that had been developed in aristocratic residences in the Heian period, characterized by the raised-floor main building facing an artificial pond to the south. The second floor, gilded with gold leaf, consists of multiple rooms, some residential and some dedicated to Buddha images, and is done in the “study room” style (shoin zukuri) favored by the samurai class. The third floor is designed in so-called “Zen” style, influenced by Song Chinese architecture with an intricate inter-columnar bracket system. The interior of this floor is a single space, with gilded walls and black lacquered floors. This floor contains holy relics thus serving as a stupa. The ruler-turned-monk Ashikaga Yoshimitsu retained his political influence even in his retreat. Thus, during his life, Kinkaku-ji also served as the site of diplomacy and negotiations, where guests were introduced to new kinds of arts such as ink monochrome painting and noh theater.

As Zen emphasizes meditation as the path to attain enlightenment, unique garden designs emerged in Zen monasteries in Kyoto as an aid to this practice. Often consisting only of rocks, pebbles, and sand, a karesansui (literally “dry mountain and water”) rock garden is a symbolic miniature landscape, in which abstract, geometric lines suggest the flow of water, and forms are created by raking or piles of pebbles. An excerpt from Dream Window: Reflections on Japanese Gardens (1992) (18:00–24:00) visually and verbally summarizes the garden’s connection to nature and landscape and explains how the maintenance of the garden was an important part of monastic practice. The latter part of the excerpt shows a monk meditating upon the celebrated Dry Rock Garden at Ryōan-ji Temple, a twenty-two by ten meter rectangular space filled with white pebbles and fifteen rocks of various sizes grouped in five asymmetrically placed clusters. A visitor to the temple remains inside the main building known as hōjō while viewing the garden. It is believed that the anonymous designer of this garden arranged the rocks so that those in the hōjō could only see fourteen rocks at one time.

The largely restricted palette of Zen gardens points to this art form’s close relation to ink monochrome landscape, introduced from China where the practice of calligraphy and ink painting became an integral part of Zen Buddhist monastic life. Of particular interest in this context is the presence of the Song and Yuan paintings by Chinese masters such as Li, Liang Kai, Shi Ke, Xia Gui, Muqi, and others, brought from China along with Zen Buddhist scriptures during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. These works, many of which are still intact in Japanese collections, enabled the Japanese assimilation of Chinese painting. Reflecting Zen’s attention to direct experience and immediate awakening, quick, spontaneous brushstrokes, often engendering a radical abstraction of forms, became the staples of Zen painting and calligraphy both in China and Japan.

The Japanese Zen community also highly valued secular ink monochrome landscape, the genre also introduced from China at this time, and some temples even created a special rank for a gasō (“painter-priest”), whose primary responsibility was to create these paintings for the monasteries. Sesshū Tōyō (1420–c. 1506) was one of such “painter-priests,” who was active at the Shōkoku-ji temple in Kyoto mid-career and then traveled to China in the late 1460s, probably due to his desire to study advanced painting style and technique on the continent. But contemporary Ming painting failed to impress Sesshū and so, during his two year sojourn in China, he instead focused on the Song and Yuan masters Xia Gui and Li Tang. Sesshū’s mature style, perfected after his return to Japan, is encapsulated in Winter Landscape, originally part of a set of four hanging scrolls (only two extant) depicting scenes of nature in the four seasons.

In this snowy landscape, the viewer observes a tiny figure of a traveler proceeding towards a temple in the far distance amid monolithic mountains. Such a theme was a favorite subject of Song and Yuan landscape painters, but instead of painting a logically constructed gradual recession into space highly valued in the Chinese painting tradition, Sessū rendered his composition with elements that induce a spatial contradition or ambiguity, creating a bold optical sensation. The illusion of spatial depth is indicated by overlapping planes, fluctuating to create a zigzag path. Perhaps the most striking detail in this work is the vertical line that simultaneously countours the overhanging cliff and cuts through the center of the upper half of the pictorial plane. This abstracting effect is further enhanced through empty space: the central vertical line is left unfinished in the uppermost part as if to suggest its disappearance into mist, and the white of unpainted paper is used to signify snow, creating a stark contrast to the dim, gray winter scene.

Sesshū spent last four decades of his life as an itinerant painter in the western and southern regions of Japan, which in fact reflected the social instability of late Muromachi Japan. A dispute over the inheritance of the shogunate escalated to the civil conflicts known as the Ōnin War (1467–77) that devastated the capital of Kyoto. Military collisions among powerful daimyosthe samurais designated as regional feudal lords—continued erupting throughout Japan in the last hundred years of the Muromachi period. The warring states engendered new artistic styles and philosophy reflecting the practical and spiritual demands of elite samurais. The Momoyama period that followed the fall of the Ashikaga shogunate marked the last phase of this warfare before the reunification of the country.

The most prominent novelty in Momoyama art is the new massive scale of paintings that decorated the walls of the new architectural form simply known as castle, a fortified military-residential complex that often functioned as the center of local commerce and administration. The complete opposite pole of this grandiosity can be found in the aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi that was born out of the tea ceremony and embraces simplicity, imperfection, and transience. The custom of drinking powdered green tea was brought from China to Japan by Zen monks in the thirteenth century, and by the end of the Momoyama period, the ritualized consumption of tea as well as collecting teaware became popular activities among samurai class both as a self-discipline and social-political pursuit. (In the politico-military turmoil, in which samurais often changed their master, celebrated teaware became the most treasured rewards that reinforced their loyalty.)

Rejecting the early Muromachi trend that prized luxurious Chinese porcelain, the fifteenth century teamaster Murata Jukō (1422/23–1502) initiated a new style that emphasized the rustic simplicity that can be found in nature. During the Momoyama period, this approach was perfected by Sen no Rikyū (1521–91), the most important tea master in history who envisioned the tea ceremony as total art that unites architectural space, Zen calligraphy, teaware, and the choreographed movements of the host and his/her guest(s). The tea ceremony, in his view, was the ultimate form of hospitality that could enable one’s temporary withdrawal from ordinary life To him, it could take place only once in a lifetime, as epitomized in the notion of ichigo ichie (“one opportunity, one meeting”).

Tai-an teahouse, built adjacent to the south side of the Myōki-an Zen temple in Kyoto, is the only extant architectural design attributed to Sen no Rikyū and believed to have embodied his artistic vision. The guest approaches this tiny teahouse via a stepping stone path, and arrives at a square-shaped, disproportionately small entrance. Your students will most likely frown or burst into laughter at the sight of this seemingly dysfunctional architectural element that forces the visitor to crawl into the tearoom. But ask them to imagine an experience of going through this “crawling-in entrance (nijiriguchi)” and discuss its possible physical and psychological effects. This can lead them to the artistic significance of this unique design in the tea ceremony philosophy: getting through this small entrance inevitably makes one aware of the smallness of his/her body, hence arousing the sense of humility. It also compels a samurai guest to take off his sword before entering, symbolizing a peaceful break during the warring period and marks the transition from the ordinary world of everyday life to the special occasion of tea ritual. Furthermore, the entrance makes the tiny interior space—two tatami mat size (approximately six by six feet) with a low ceiling—appear and feel larger than its actual size, amplifying the richness of empty space.

Once inside, the guest is greeted by the host who enters the room through the utility entrance connected to the temple, and prepares tea at the hearth equipped in the northwest corner. The teahouse’s interior is stripped of any excessive decoration, with bare walls and ceilings that expose the natural colors and textures of earth mixed with straws and darkened bamboo. The pillar to the left of the tokonoma niche, used to hang calligraphy, incorporates the natural shape of a cedar trunk. The room is only dimly lit through the two shōji-screened windows, but their careful placement—one near the lower end of the wall, illuminating the host and the guest directly sitting on the floor, and the other just above the crawling-in entrance, throwing light on their head—perfectly controls the small amount of light coming into the space.

One historically important phenomenon that occurred in the Momoyama period and that deeply impacted Japanese society was the arrival of Europeans—Portuguese and Spanish merchants and missionaries—who brought with them Western goods, technologies, and religious ideas to the insular country. The firearms, first introduced by the Portuguese in 1543, drastically changed the power balance between the rivaling daimyos. In addition, Catholicism, initially preached by the Jesuit Francis Xavier in 1549, soon had an enthusiastic body of followers, even among samurai elite.

A unique type of painting that reflected the early Japanese encounter with the Western world is known as Namban (southern barbarians) Screens, large-scale folding screen paintings that depict Europeans’ arrival in Japan on a gigantic galleon, often featuring meticulous details and decorative colors accentuated by gold leaf. The Japanese called European travelers “southern barbarians” because they sailed from a southern maritime route via the Strait of Malacca to the port of Nagasaki in southern Japan. Despite such pejorative appellation, these screens demonstrate the Japanese people’s immense curiosity in the exotic appearance of people, animals, costumes, and various objects that arrived from the far side of the world.

A pair of screens by Kanō Naizen (1570–1616)—an artist who belonged to the Kanō school, the longest-lasting and most dominant hereditary school of painters that dates back to the Muromachi period—represents one of the finest examples of about ninety Namban Screens that survive to date. Paintings depicting similar scenes, however, were possibly created in greater numbers in late Momoyama and early Edo periods. Wary of the ever-increasing influence of Europeans, which induced negative incidents such as the Portuguese trade of Japanese slaves, the Tokugawa shogunate, established in 1603 after Japan’s reunification, settled on national seclusion known as sakoku (“chained country”) and banned the majority of foreign trade and Christianity in the country. In light of this isolationist policy, Japanese Christians were harshly prosecuted and a large number of Namban Screens were reported to have been destroyed in the first half of the seventeenth century.

After over a hundred years of civil conflicts, Japan experienced a time of peace and prosperity under the rulership of fifteen generations of Tokugawa shoguns during the Edo period (1603–1868). Except for the limited trade with authorized Chinese and Dutch merchants, Japanese completely cut off contacts with foreign civilization, and this lead to the flourishing of a unique visual culture in the new capital of Edo (today’s Tokyo) in eastern Japan and in the old cities of Kyoto and Osaka in western Japan. In addition to the self-imposed isolationism, another political innovation introduced by the Tokugawa shoguns was the four-tiered social hierarchy, in which the samurai class stood at the top, followed by peasant farmers, artisans/industry workers and merchants.

In reality, this hierarchy contradicted the actual wealth owned by these people: samurais lost their jobs and faced financial difficulties due to the lack of wars and the city dwellers of the two lower social classes thrived in Edo art and culture, fully enjoying the emerging urban lifestyle. The major artistic movement that evolved from these vital townspeople populace is today known as Rinpa (the school of [Kō]rin), collectively referring to the artists from three distinctive generations active from the late Momoyama through the late Edo periods. Although these artists did not have direct inter-generational connections such as master-apprentice relations, recent scholarship entitles them to a single “school” due to their artistic styles commonly indebted to the indigenous yamato-e tradition. Their similar versatile approach brought diverse artistic media together, including painting, pottery, lacquerware, and calligraphy of various formats and functions, thereby turning their hands to all aspects of their clients’ lifestyle.

Ogata Kōrin’s Eight-Planked Bridge (Yatsubashi), a pair of eight folding screens, epitomizes the major characteristics of the Rinpa style in its sumptuous elegance, bold abstraction, medieval literary subject, and interrelation with other art forms. The subject of the painting is derived from a well-known episode of the Heian period literature The Tale of Ise, in which an exiled nobleman—popularly interpreted as the legendary poet Ariwara no Narihira—arrives at a place where eight bridges are built over eight branches of a river, like a spider stretching out its eight legs. Blooming irises surround the bridges, the beauty of which inspires him to compose a thirty-one syllable waka verse, expressing his longing for his wife in Kyoto. The poem also contains a hidden pun, as the first syllable of the four lines read kakitsubata, the Japanese word for iris. Although the painting is devoid of any human figures, a viewer familiar with the celebrated story and poem can connect the textual and visual fabrics embedded in the work and read the flat, gold-leafed empty space as a symbolic reflection of the glowing nostalgia conveyed by the poet. Adopting the same motifs of a lacquered writing box, Kōrin inlayed the bridges, iris stalks and flowers with gold, silver, lead, and mother-of-pearl, enhancing the evocative beauty of the subject in an abstract way.

Another unique Japanese art form that developed during the Edo period is the polychrome woodblock print known as ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” that widely circulated at an affordable price and provided visual entertainment to a wide audience. Pulling from the popular trends in the city of Edo, the sub-genres of these prints include portraits of famous courtesans, kabuki actors, and sumō wrestlers, illustrations of romantic, historical dramas or ghost stories, and explicit erotica specifically known as shun-ga (spring images). The creation of woodblock prints typically involved the main artist (e-shi) who created the image, the woodblock carver (hori-shi), and the printer (suri-shi). The one who controlled the entire production and distribution and profited the most was the publisher.

Despite the prints’ low market value, these artists—considered mere craftsmen at the time—perfected the method to reproduce images with exquisite colors that required multiple printing processes. They also expanded their artistic vocabulary (even adopting Western perspective known through limited visual sources) in order to meet the demand of the urban audience, always hungry for a new kind of visual pleasure. Thus when these prints reached Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, the fineness of the polychrome quality as well as the freshly unusual pictorial principles immediately grabbed the attention of modernist painters. Their impact in the West went beyond the superficial lure of Oriental exoticism and gave rise to the artistic phenomenon of japonisme.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) is one of the most celebrated ukiyo-e masters from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries, and his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series (1831–5)—thirty-six renditions of Japan’s tallest mountain beloved by the people of Edo—established his commercial success and artistic reputation and also increased the popularity of the landscape sub-genre known as meisho-e (scene of a popular place). Like all other images from the series, The Great Wave at Kanagawa (1831–3) depicts a scene based on an actual location: Mt. Fuji seen across the Bay of Sagami to the south of Kamakura. The image shows three boats packed with human figures sailing from right to left (following the traditional narrative order of Japanese painting), just about to collide into the gigantic wave assaulting them from the exact opposite direction.

If one disregards the irregular spatial distance, the wave’s threatening force appears to hit the tiny Mt. Fuji in the background, dwarfing the otherwise lofty mountain. Vigorous dynamism is further enhanced by the bold geometricization of natural forms, such as the destabilizing swirling curves of the wave and the solid pyramidal shape of the mountain, also echoed in the smaller wave in the foreground. The work has invited various interpretations, as some read it as an allegory of (perhaps the artist’s own) life filled with struggles while others attempt to see it as a sociopolitical metaphor alluding to the drastic change about to affect the entire Japanese society. Asking students about their own interpretations may be a good topic for class discussion or a writing assignment.

The “great wave” that Hokusai may or may not have been aware of in the 1830s, but was surely hitting Japan soon, was the wave of imperialist politics from other countries, from which the Tokugawa shogunate had successfully maintained a distance from for over two-hundred years. In 1853, the “Black Ships,” or the U.S. fleet led by Commodore Matthew Perry, anchored just outside the Bay of Edo and demanded under threat the opening of the port. Following the treaty with the United States, Japanese signed a series of unequal trade treaties with Russia, Britain, the Netherlands, and France. This inevitably brought anxieties to Japanese society as conservatives resisted foreign involvement. But many others were excited to encounter Western culture and technological advancement. In 1868, the Meiji Restoration overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate, terminated the feudal rule under the samurai class that had lasted over six-hundred and fifty years, and established the new government under the restored authority of the Emperor Meiji.

While Meiji Japan aimed to reinvent itself as a modern nation-state, joining imperial powers, the assimilation of Western artistic styles and techniques—which Japanese often considered more as “modern” technologies rather than artistic expressions—began to bear an increasing importance. Established in 1876, the short-lived first national art institution Technical Art School (Kōbu Bijutsu Gakkō) only taught Western oil-on-canvas technique and entirely dismissed the artistic traditions of Asia, reflecting the cultural inclination towards excessive Westernization. However, the 1880s also saw the rise of reactionary national artistic values, advocated by two influential ideologues, the American Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908) and Okakura Kakuzō (Tenshin) (1862–1 913). The brainchild of Fenollosa and Okakura, the new national art academy Tokyo School of Fine Arts (Tokyo Bijutsu Gakkō, today’s Tokyo University of the Arts), replacing the Technical Art School, omitted any pedagogy on Western art from its curriculum at the time of its foundation in 1889. Such extremist oscillation did not last for long, as the School soon established a Western-style painting department in 1894, headed by Kuroda Seiki (1866–1924), a painter who had just returned from Paris the previous year.

Yet the institutionalized division between yōga (Western-style painting) and nihonga (Japanese-style painting), constructed from these circumstances, would become a long-standing influence on Japanese modern art. The two categories of painting are primarily defined by a work’s format and materials (e.g., oil on canvas versus hanging, ink and color on paper), rather than pictorial style or subject matter. While experimental artists have attempted to break the boundary between the two, the majority of Japanese painters from this time until today typically choose either style at the beginning of their artistic education, and adhere to that choice in their career. In this way, these artists largely restrict their activities to their niche market, exhibitions, and discourse.

Such stylistic segregation may appear retrogressive from the viewpoint of (Western) modern art, and even paradoxical, since both styles, as later discussed, actually fused influences from both Japanese and Western traditions. But in this phase of history, art in Meiji Japan was closely tied to, or took part in the national project of modernization. Thus the tension between nihonga and yōga can also be seen as the convoluted search for a new modern national identity—an identity that would embody Japan’s new status as the first and only non-Western imperial power (Japan had won two international wars, the Sino-Japanese War (1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5) and acquired Taiwan and the Korean peninsula as their colonies.)

A representative of early nihonga, Kanō Hōgai’s Merciful Mother Kannon (1888) [the link is the first version of the painting] depicts a traditional Buddhist subject, Kannon or the Bodhisattva of Compassion. In the East Asian tradition, this bodhisattva, originally a male deity, came to be widely recognized as a fertility goddess, and Hōgai’s composition, pairing Kannon and an infant floating in midair, was probably derived from existing Chinese imageries. Yet some details, such as Kannon dropping water on the infant, do not seem to have any precedents, and thus were possibly Hōgai’s own innovations inspired by Christian iconographies. As discussed above, what defines this painting as “Japanese-style” is its format (hanging scroll) and materials (mineral pigments on silk), yet what separates it from pre-modern classical works is the unprecedented proliferation of color. Polychromy is a major characteristic of modern nihonga, initially developed in response to the artistic taste of Fenollosa who, in his early career, did not care for the ink monochrome tradition of Asia. In one account, Fenollosa even suggested importing some Western pigments for Hōgai so that he could explore new colors in his nihonga, yet recent research reveals that the artist only used conventional mineral pigments in this work.

Kuroda Seiki (1866–1924), the most influential proponent of yōga in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries due to his position at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, studied painting in Paris between 1886–93. His teacher Raphäel Collin was a conservative academic painter, but Kuroda also became sympathetic with the radical vocabulary of Impressionists during his French years and so, his mature style shows the mixed influence of juste milieu Naturalism and modernist Impressionism. In Lakeside (1897), Kuroda combines a non-chalant and contemplative portrayal of his wife with a landscape of a popular summer retreat in cool blue palette. Although some of his other works show more obvious influences of Impressionism, he applied thin layers of light colors rather flatly in this work, which creates unique tonal airiness in the background. This flat application of color, along with the diagonal arrangement in the foreground, also recalls the geometric compositions of some ukiyo-e masters such as Andō Hiroshige. This resemblance to Edo-period works may have been unintentional but possibly resulted from Kuroda’s affinity with Impressionists, who in turn had been looking at Japanese prints, hence Japonisme’s circling back to Japanese yōga.

Also under the spell of Impressionism, Kuroda advocated painting en plein air, and dismissed the use of black probably in favor of the effect of optical mixing of lighter shades à la Renoir in Le Moulin de la Galette (1876). In this way, the yōga style of Kuroda and his followers became known as Plein-airism (gaikō-ha) or the School of Purple (murasaki-ha) in the Japanese art world. However, although this method could be conceived as his own artistic style, it inevitably became canonized given his significant role at the only art academy of the country. By the end of 1900s, the emphasis on the style felt dogmatic and constrictive among some rebellious students at the school. This generation no longer associated their artistic pursuits with the notion of national duty. Instead of academic idealism, they were lured by the emphasis on individualist liberation of more recent modernist movements.

One of these younger painters was Yorozu Tetsugorō (1885–1927), who exhibited Nude Beauty (1912) as his thesis work upon his graduation from the School. Due to the use of dark black in the model’s face and hair, as well as the harsh treatment of the female nude (in Japan, it was still a controversial painting subject, with which even Kuroda caused multiple scandals), Yorozu ranked the sixteenth among nineteen graduating students. The impact of contemporary European artists is obvious in Yorozu’s use of bold organic lines and vivid colors, as he himself noted that he had created this painting “under the influence of Van Gogh and Matisse.”

If you have already covered modernist art with your students, compare Nude Beauty to European works and discuss what he assimilated from Western modernists and what aspects he developed himself. It may also be important to consider the fact that, in the 1910s, Japanese artists rarely had a chance to see modern European paintings unless they traveled abroad. Their only source of information was low-quality black-and-white reproductions in Western publications. While the influence of the Post-Impressionist, Fauvist, and Expressionist tendencies is unmistakable, this work unusually positions the reclining nude vertically. This creates a unique perspectival sensation: standing in front of this painting, one may feel as if he/she is simultaneously looking down at and looked down by this near-life-size nude.

The year Yorozu exhibited his Nude Beauty coincided with the end of the Meiji era (marked by the death of the Emperor) and the beginning of the Taishō period, characterized by progressive social change collectively termed as “Taishō democracy.” Although Japan entered World War I as early as August 1914, their military involvement was limited to the German colonies in China. By the end of the war, the country even achieved economic advancement due to the lack of European competitors. In the 1920s, an unprecedented number of artists had opportunities to study abroad, and while their most popular destination remained Paris, there were some new influences from Germany and the Soviet Union in this period.

Murayama Tomoyoshi (1901–77), an artist who had been a regular contributor of illustrations to a children’s magazine since the age of ten, spent one year in Berlin in 1922, where he was exposed to German Dada and Constructivism (the latter introduced to the city by the large-scale exhibition of Russian art organized by El Lissitzky). Upon his return to Tokyo in the next year, Murayama formed a short-lived experimental group MAVO (1923–5) with other young artists. While only lasting one year before and after the Great Kantō Earthquake that devastated the metropolitan area, MAVO’s diverse activities, in line with Soviet Productivism, included publications, graphic, architectural, and theatre set designs, and the staging of exhibitions and performances.

One rare photographic record of a MAVO performance, probably organized at Murayama’s home, reveals a striking anti-gravitational composition, in which the performers’ bodies are fragmented and re-arranged into abstract vertical, horizontal, and diagonal axes. The entire image, with a flattening effect of geometric planes in the background, is reminiscent of El Lissitzky’s or Kurt Schwitter’s geometric abstractions, both of which Murayama was familiar with from his time in Berlin. While its creator is unidentified, this photograph itself was intended as a stand-alone visual interpretation of Murayama’s artistic theory of “Constructivism of Consciousness.” In this concept, he called for the artist’s conscious reversal of an established beauty to its opposite, and to construct the dynamic force caused by the oscillation between the two polar values. The inscription visible in the left hand side of the photograph refers to the young German dancer Niddy Impekoven (also famously featured in Hannah Höch’s monumental Berlin Dada photo-collage, The Cut with the Kitchen Knife). Her performance had an enormous impact on Murayama and made him aware of the potential to use his body as artistic medium, moving him away from the traditional art form of painting.

In 1925, with the passing of the Taishō Emperor, Japan entered the first phase of the long Shōwa period (1925–89). While the embracement of liberalism continued to dominate the visual and material culture of the second half of the 1920s, the economic crisis that resulted from the Great Kantō Earthquake worsened with the onset of the Great Depression and the trade barriers set by Western nations. This context steadily propelled a right-leaning tendency in politics and growing militarization. In the years leading up to the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45) and the Pacific War (1941–5), experimental art in Japan was gradually suppressed, often due to its potential links to Communism. As the nation entered total war under the National Mobilization Law (1938), some artists were recruited to create propaganda paintings that illustrated the scenes of war, coined as the War Campaign Record Painting (sensō sakusen kiroku-ga).

While both nihonga and yōga painters were involved in the production of war art, ultimately yōga was considered more appropriate as art for the people because of its large size and durability. But despite the militarist regime’s interest in a systematic propaganda program in the domain of fine art, there was no clear commandment or consensus as to the subject matter or the artistic style to be deployed in these works. Many yōga painters, as a solution, turned to the academic realism of nineteenth century European tableau d’histoire, such as Alphonse Gros’ depictions of Napoleonic campaigns. On the one hand, this discloses the inherent paradox of Japanese war art, which was largely dependent on Western artistic traditions despite the ultranationalist ideology that in other domains of culture prohibited the usage of Western forms. On the other hand, it compelled Japanese artists to engage with the classical origin of Western art for the first time. Since the academic canons of Japanese yōga had been derived from Kuroda’s own artistic training, fusing late nineteenth century conservative Naturalist-Realism with Impressionism, returning to the art of the further past brought in a new phase of yōga history. Ironic and paradoxical as it may sound, this return to figuration, classicism, and academic realism, after the brief burgeoning of radical artistic experiments in the interwar period, precisely parallels the contemporary situation of many other countries including France, Italy, Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States.

Miyamoto Saburō’s Meeting of Generals Yamashita and Percival (1942) demonstrates an exemplary appropriation of Western history painting in its stylistic and iconographic system of representation. Depicting the moment that determined the fall of Singapore when General Yamashita demanded General Percival to accept the term of surrender, it achieves a modern sense of documentary realism with no obvious elements of over-dramatization. While Miyamoto faithfully painted the entire composition from a photograph documenting this event, the subtle changes and additions of details, such as Yamashita’s understated but determinately firm gesture of raising his bent left arm, the slim silhouette of the British general’s profile, and the Union Jack laid over a white flag in the corner of the room, unmistakably proclaim the declining power of the West.

In contrast to yōga painters who determined realism as the status quo of war art, nihonga artists worked on various genres and subject matters—ranging from straightforward depictions of soldiers, war crafts, or other military activities, mythic or historical narratives, and symbolic landscapes—to explore diverse ways to address the current war situation. Yokoyama Taikan (1868–1958), one of the first students of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1889 and one of the most talented protégé of Okakura Kakuzō, became the most influential nihonga painter of the twentieth century. Throughout the 1930s till the end of the war, he closely worked with the Imperial Household and the regime’s Ministry of Education. One theme that he almost obsessively depicted in this period is the image of Mt. Fuji, often appearing above misty clouds as if soaring in the sky, sometimes accompanied by the rising sun. Japan where the Sun Rises (1940) is one of his numerous Mt. Fuji paintings, painted on a monumental scale of eight by fifteen. The title is clearly derived from an ancient text: Prince Shōtoku’s letter to a Chinese emperor that is believed to have been closed with the phrase: “from the prince of where the sun rises to the emperor of where the sun sets.”

According to the legend, the implied political metaphors of the “rising sun” and the “setting sun” infuriated the Chinese emperor. By adopting this well-known phrase to the title, Yokoyama Taikan also references the Japanese imperial house whose ancestor is believed to have been the sun goddess Amaterasu, and magnified the emblematic symbolism of Mt. Fuji as the embodiment of national spirit. Yet, if taken out of the historical context and simply seen as a landscape painting, such ultranationalist iconography can be neutralized. Probably because of this, when the U.S. Occupation Army confiscated a number of yōga war paintings and several leading yōga artists were ostracized for their wartime activities, there was no outcry against Yokoyama. He continued to create Mt. Fuji paintings that amounted to nearly a thousand by the end of his life.

At the End of Class...

Photographer unknown, Unidentified MAVO performance, c. 1923–5.

In the lecture, students have studied two different images of Mt. Fuji, created by two Japanese artists, Katsushika Hokusai and Yokoyama Taikan, from different periods. Ask students to work in pairs or small groups and discuss: what kind of artists they were (their roles and statuses in society, and their clients and audience), and if their different natures are reflected in their artistic styles.

Also, in both artists’ works, the titles play an important part (in Hokusai, it refers to a specific location and in Yokoyama, ideological implications). Show some addtional images of Mt. Fuji by both artists and ask students to examine these works without knowing the titles or any other background knowledge. Also ask them to explore a way to completely change the message of a work by giving it a different title.

Ikuyo Nakagawa (author) is a PhD Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her dissertation examines all aspects of the career of Japanese-born painter Tsuguharu Foujita in the international context of the historical avant-garde.

Amy Raffel (editor) is a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has a Master’s degree in Contemporary Art history from the Institute of Fine Arts (NYU) and has taught Introduction to Modern Art as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Lehman College since 2010. Currently, Amy is a genome contributor for Artsy and editor and contributor of Art History Teaching Resources.