Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 6, 2013
Satō Dōshin Modern Japanese Art and the Meiji State: The Politics of Beauty Trans Hiroshi Nara Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2011. 376 pp.; 17 color ills.; 31 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9781606060599)

Originally published in Japanese in 1999, Modern Japanese Art and the Meiji State: The Politics of Beauty (Meiji Kokka to Kindai Bijutsu: Bi no Seijigaku) by Satō Dōshin was hailed as the culmination of the ongoing attempts by some Japanese art historians, including Satō himself, to adopt a more self-reflexive approach to their own discipline.1 Throughout the book he argues that, although the narrative of Japanese art history was constructed as a “self-portrait” to be presented to the West, the implicit significance of its origin and reception were never arduously scrutinized almost fifty years into the postwar period. His study, which revolves around this painfully candid acknowledgment, is itself a portrait of Japanese art history as an academic discipline.

Widely recognized as a classic among historians of Japanese art, this volume’s English translation was much awaited. The introduction by Chelsea Foxwell does an excellent job of spotlighting the salient theoretical implications of this study. Particularly noteworthy is her discussion of Kitazawa Noriaki’s Me no shinden ([The Temple of the Eyes], Tokyo: Bijutsu Shuppansha, 1989), which Satō cites as his major source of inspiration, and her reference to the way in which Satō’s work, grounded in meticulous archival research and making few explicitly theoretical claims, nevertheless succeeds in “pos[ing] a methodological challenge to Japanese art history as usual” (13). Foxwell’s introduction thus helps the reader grasp, among other things, the cultural and historiographical background of not only the present volume but also recent art-historical scholarship in Japan in general.

As Satō notes, the point of departure for his inquiry was his encounter with the various discrepancies that he recognized concerning the discourse and popular perceptions of Japanese art history. Whether they were between Japanese art history as it was known inside and outside of Japan, between the evaluations of the so-called Old School and New School of modern Japanese painting, or between the scholarship on premodern and modern Japanese art, these gaps urged him to reexamine the very foundation of the discipline. He then recognizes the origins of the incongruence not in the objects themselves but in the history and circumstances of their reception and evaluation criteria that were applied in Japan and the West.

Satō adopts two distinct methods, as Foxwell points out: the painstaking research of textual sources; and attention to the ways in which institutions have structured the making, administration, and studies of art. While the intensive study of texts is by no means unusual, Satō particularly emphasizes the “study of words” (kotoba no kenkyū) as a meaningful scholarly inquiry in its own right rather than as sources of supporting evidence. In addition, his analysis of “the system that evaluates” artists and their work evokes the political-scientific method of historical institutionalism.2 “The system” here refers to the institution of art, including the economy, politics, academic studies of art, and the class system; the language used to evaluate art; and the group affiliations that determine the artist’s identity and reception.

Both of these approaches pushed the boundary of the discipline as it stood in Japan in 1999. It is evident that Satō places his own scholarship in the same lineage as works by Kitazawa and Kinoshita Naoyuki, who became renowned for their research of “social systems and functions that provided for the continuing existence of ‘fine arts’” (167). These art historians’ published studies in the 1990s were to an extent an anomaly in Japanese art history as it was conducted in Japan at the time, where so much of the discipline had rested on connoisseurship and visual analysis.3 During this decade, some Japanese art historians began to confront the intertwining of Japanese modernity and the study of Japanese art history, urging their colleagues to be more cognizant of the explicitly discursive nature of their discipline.4 Satō’s work also raised the visibility of modern Japanese art history within the discipline at large, as it clearly demonstrated the continuity between the premodern, modern, and contemporary discourses of art history. His contention that “issues of modernity are inseparably present in all art historical research because such research is a product of a modern Japan” deeply resonated among Japanese scholars, revealing that much of their professional identity had originated in the Meiji period (166; emphasis added).

The book consists of three sections, each of which addresses one component of the aforementioned “system” of evaluation. First, one of the arguments that Satō consistently emphasizes is that Japanese art historians of the late 1990s had not “come to terms with the prewar state of affairs” in their own discipline. This “state of affairs” as described by Satō certainly consists of multiple factors, but perhaps the most important is the transition in the ideological foundation of Japanese art history as an academic discipline. Satō argues that “the system of the ‘history of Japanese art’ constructed before the war did not undergo a new reorganization as a result of a new principle; instead, it succeeded to the postwar era with its basic structure still nearly intact” (166). Although art history was advocated as one of the humanistic sciences (jinbun kagaku) in postwar Japan, the imperialist view of history (kōkoku shikan) that dominated its prewar discourse was never adequately critiqued nor fully replaced. As a result, objects produced to support the prewar imperialist ethos continued to be discussed in the postwar democratic context, reaffirming much of the canon formed in prewar Japan (318–19). This situation also perpetuated the gap between the accounts of Japanese art history in and outside Japan. As Satō makes clear, however, the problem lies not in such inconsistency but in the failure to properly acknowledge it. Calling for a more multivalent approach to Japanese art history, he states: “the diverging elements represented by these two perspectives [Japanese and Western views of Japanese art and its history] may be said to constitute two fixed locations that will enable us to conduct a ‘two-point survey’ when we continue to think about the reality of Japanese art history” (135).

Second, Satō’s discussion of how art and its surrounding discourse helped define Japan’s relationship with tōyō (East Asia) is extremely evocative. China was consistently an important determining factor of Japan’s cultural identity before the modern period. Though that role was taken over by the West in modern times, the concept of tōyō “as a general cultural sphere” remained crucial in modern Japan, and the Japanese continuously tried to redefine and thereby own tōyō in various ways (177). In chapter 4 of part 1, Satō shows that art was a powerful tool for this endeavor, exemplified in the collection of the former Qing Dynasty objects, popularity of literati painting in the early Meiji period, compilation of the history of Eastern art, and courses developed on the subject at Tokyo Imperial University and the Tokyo School of Art, institutions that trained future artists, scholars, and art administrators. Satō then points out the overdue reexamination of the prewar worldview that positioned Japan at the center of Asia against the West in various fronts, including the discipline of art history:

The postwar view toward the East has tended to be either silent and indifferent or it has been frozen, in deference to the East’s prewar role. In many parts of East Asia, the basic political structure held over from Cold War days is still maintained. For that reason, Japan’s view of the East has not yet changed fundamentally, but we must also acknowledge that it is impossible for Japan to remain untouched by today’s international political trends. If that is true, then in our effort to look back at historical views it seems eminently useful to examine the change of worldviews in Japan from, at the least, the final years of the Tokugawa shogunate and the modern era to the present. (180)

This passage has renewed relevance today. As Satō correctly assesses, the vector of globalization is no longer strictly westward; in many cases, the familiar “Enter the West, Leave Asia” (datsua nyūō) slogan has been reversed, replaced by “Enter Asia, Leave the West” (nyūa datsuō). Since this volume was published in Japan, there has been an even greater impetus for “entering Asia” among Japanese art historians. There have been numerous symposia, exhibitions, and publications5 that attempt to place modern Japanese art within the context of contemporary East Asia, in which scholars articulate the ambivalent positions that Asia has occupied in modern Japanese culture, whether it was “‘the Other’ on the inside” or “‘the Self’ on the outside” (168).

Third, the book offers ample evidence illuminating the amorphous nature of art in modern Japanese society. The transfer of art administration from one ministry to another during the early to mid-Meiji period, which is vividly described in part 1, illustrates how the role of art morphed as the state changed its policy according to its economic, political, and ideological needs. Satō further elaborates on this issue later in the book, using the concept of “nation-state theory” (kokumin kokkaron), which views modern nations as “organizations based on commonly shared illusions (kyōdō gensō) that combine statehood and nationhood” (320). Culture of a modern nation is thus formed to reinforce such a collective illusion, and modern Japanese art was also expected to do just that—to present “both internationalism and ‘Japaneseness’ as well as modernization and tradition” (320). Satō makes the above point in reference to Kanō Hōgai and other artists affiliated with the Tokyo School of Art, but one can certainly argue that it applies to most, if not all, of modern Japanese art. As he adroitly reveals in chapter 4 of part 2, nude painting and historical painting, which were given crucial roles in nation building and the creation of Japan’s image as an advanced, civilized state, are notable cases in point.6 Furthermore, art retained its amorphousness into the postwar era. The shift in ideology—albeit incomplete—necessitated that the Japanese redefine “internationalism” and “Japaneseness,” two important concepts that art was expected to address, as well as art itself. Now one of its primary roles was to extol Japan as a newly arising democratic nation that had high appreciation for the arts.7

The publication of Modern Japanese Art and the Meiji State: The Politics of Beauty is a monumental landmark in the English-language scholarship on Japanese art history. It will promote even more active dialogue among Japanese art historians around the globe. In addition, it will be an extremely useful resource for experts on modern art in different parts of the world, as it paves the way for transcultural investigations of modern art. As I have noted above, this study itself is a portrait of Japanese art history as a discipline. Unlike the Histoire de l’art du Japon (1900), the first survey of art history compiled in the Meiji period, however, it was originally presented to Japanese readers as a mirror image of themselves. Now translated into English, it will no doubt show facades of Japanese art objects, their history, and the history of the discipline that readers outside of Japan have not seen before.

Mikiko Hirayama
Associate Professor; Art History Program; School of Art, College of Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning; University of Cincinnati

I would like to thank Mary Hancock and Maki Kaneko for their input.
fn1. Throughout this review, I will use the term “historians of Japanese art” to refer to scholars of Japanese art history in general, and “Japanese art historians” to those based in Japan.
fn2. “Historical institutionalists address big, substantive questions that are inherently of interest to broad publics as well as to fellow scholars. To develop explanatory arguments about important outcomes or puzzles, historical institutionalists take time seriously, specifying sequences and tracing transformations and processes of varying scale and temporality. Historical institutionalists likewise analyze macro contexts and hypothesize about the combined effects of institutions and processes” (Paul Pierson and Theda Skocpol, “Historical Institutionalism in Political Science,” Political Science: State of the Discipline, Ira Katznelson and Helen V. Milner, eds., New York: Norton, 2002, 695–96; emphasis in original).
fn3. The following description of the Western art-historical discipline in 1971 by Linda Nochlin was largely applicable to the field of Japanese art history in Japan before the early 1990s: “It is no accident that the crucial question of the conditions generally productive of great art has so rarely been investigated, or that attempts to investigate such general problems have, until fairly recently, been dismissed as unscholarly, too broad, or the province of some other discipline, like sociology” (Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays, New York: Harper and Row, 1988, 153; emphasis in original).
fn4. Email correspondence with Maki Kaneko, January 22, 2013. I am citing the three scholars above as major authors whose books have been widely considered “game changers,” but there were certainly many others who shared their perspective. A number of multi-volume series published during the 1990s and the 2000s further advance the paradigmatic change in the field, such as E wa kataru (Pictures Talk), 14 vols., Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1993–96; Kindai nihon no bijutsu (Modern Japanese Art), 10 vols., Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 1996–97; and Kōza Nihon bijutsushi (Lectures on Japanese Art History), 6 vols., Tokyo: Tokyo daigaku shuppankai, 2005.
fn5. Such scholarly endeavors have been numerous in Japan in the last few decades. Some of the notable symposia are: “The 38th International Research Symposium: Questioning Oriental Aesthetics and Thinking: Conflicting Visions of ‘Asia’ Under the Colonial Empire,” International Research Center for Japanese Studies, 2011; and “Sinpozium: Kindai higashi ajia no bijutsu shigaku, kenchiku shigaku, kōkogaku no seiritsu: bunkazai gyōsei to sono shūhen” (Symposium: The Rise of the History of Modern East Asian Art, Architecture, and Archaeology: Administration of Cultural Properties and Related Issues), International Research Center for Japanese Studies, 2001. See also exhibition catalogues such as: Japanese Crossing Borders: Asia as Dreamed by Craftspeople, 1910s–1945, Tokyo: Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art, 2012; Images of Modern East Asia: How Modern Japanese Art Has Portrayed Asia, Tokyo: Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, 2009; Cubism in Asia, Tokyo: Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art, 2005; and Oil Painting in East Asia: Its Awakening and Development, Shizuoka: Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, 1999.
fn6. See the partial translation of Ōgai’s essay in Mori Ōgai, “On Toyama Shōichi,” trans., Mikiko Hirayama, in Not a Song Like Any Other: An Anthology of Writings by Mori Ōgai, J. Thomas Rimer, ed., Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2004, 103–119.
fn7. This postwar situation seems to shed light on how prominent artists such as Umehara Ryūzaburō and Yasui Sōtarō survived the ideological shift. Despite their fame and the patriotism that dominated the art community, they had made few explicitly political statements during the war. Therefore, postwar critics tended to elevate them even more as the paragons of artists who consistently stood by the ideal of art for art’s sake.