Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 15, 2005
Hiroko Johnson Western Influence on Japanese Art: The Akita Ranga Art School and Foreign Books Boston: Hotei Publishing, 2005. 176 pp.; 57 ills. Cloth $116.00 (9074822649)

Hiroko Johnson has produced the first English-language monograph on the small group of elite men from Akita who, in the free and open days of Tanuma Okitsugu’s period as shogunal chief counselor, embarked on the challenge of integrating Western art practice into that of Japan. Her book is beautifully produced, with the lavish use of photographs and plates associated with Hotei Publishing. Johnson tells the story thoughtfully and intelligently, and even those who consider themselves informed on the subject will still find a great deal of new information here. Johnson has gone through all available publications, and examined all the works concerned. Regrettably, even in a volume as nicely illustrated as this, many works referred to are not reproduced, and often the ones that are will be known already.

Johnson calls the Akita group an “art school,” although she admits from the outset that it was not so at all. The three main members of this ranga (Dutch-style painting) group were Satake Yoshiatsu (studio name, Shozan; 174885), daimyo of Akita; his cousin, Satake Yoshimi (17491800), daimyo of the Akita sub-domain of Kakunodate; and Yoshimi’s retainer Odano Naotake (174980). All were in their twenties at the time. The han (state) of Akita was fiercely proud, and it seems unlikely that the group saw any “national” (i.e., archipelago-wide) ambitions to their activities, as Johnson has it. But the desultory economy of Akita was certainly on their minds. This was the period when rangaku (Dutch studies), fostered by Okitsugu, was being explored to assist in agronomy, mining, and shipwrighting. The Akita group painted to replicate the European idiom, using horizons, perspective, shading, and reflections; yet their aim was not to use these novelties to be merely exotic, but to reinvigorate established genres and themes.

The Akita project dissolved after only a few years owing to the death of Hiraga Gennai, mentor to the group, in 1779, and of Naotake (Gennai’s lodger and, some have fantasized, his lover) the following year. Yoshiatsu lived until 1785, the same year he met the Dutch entourage on their annual trip to Edo (an important fact omitted from Johnson’s book), although he died just ten days later. Yoshimi lived until 1800, but he was more peripheral. A first step toward the Meiji Restoration this was not. After the internationalization that was rangaku, things took a step backwards.

Johnson has chapters on several aspects of the Akita group. After introducing the characters, she discusses the production of “Japan’s first translated anatomy book” (43) in Chapter 2; Chapter 3 periodizes extant paintings. Chapter 4 discusses the influence of Noël-Antoine Pluche’s Schouwtoneel der Natuur (Spectacle of Nature), a hugely popular early eighteenth-century book (published in Amsterdam) that went through many editions, but whose role in Japan has been neglected until now in favor of the grander Groot Schilderboek of Gérard de Lairesse. Johnson shows not only that Pluche’s book was in Japan (which was known already, since Gennai records owning it), and that many of its images were borrowed (which would not be a particularly revealing discovery), but rather that its structure informed Yoshiatsu’s own sketchbooks—an important realization and one that highlights a core friction within ranga: the relative values of empiricism versus copying. While it is common knowledge that the Akita group viewed objects and sketched them—this was a rhetoric of shasei (sketching from life)— it is also known that they used imported books. How then was what they saw mediated and dictated by what they had viewed in books?

Perhaps the core moment when empiricism and copying were thrown into conflict came during the famous viewing of the autopsy of Aocha-baba in 1771. This is the stuff of Johnson’s second chapter. Three forward-thinking doctors (not of the Akita group, though soon to be linked to them) viewed a dissection for the first time. The previous year they had received an important European treatise, Caspar Bartholin’s Anatomia Nova, and an unimportant one, Johannes Kulmus’s Ontleegkindige Tafelen (Anatomical Plates), from the Dutch physician Ikarius Kotwijk (whom Johnson garbles as “Katijk”). The doctors looked from the body to the book, and expressed amazement at how realistic the pictures were. At least this is the narrative as first expounded decades later by one of the doctors present. But it is an arrant myth. European anatomical pictures of the period never look like actual autopsies. It was their purpose to explain, not to depict. Those who have viewed an autopsy (I assume Johnson has not) know they are very hard to master visually, and certainly impossible when viewed for the first time, especially when conducted without modern aids. Johnson goes on to explain that the three doctors, with other assistants, determined to translate Kulmus’s book (which was the shorter of the two), with Naotake enlisted to copy the pictures. This was eventually published in 1774 as the Kaitai Shinsho (New Anatomy—they applied Bartholin’s title to Kulmus’s text). This is said to be the “Japan’s first translated anatomy book.” True, Japanese textbooks always refer to it as such. In actuality, it was not so: the team only translated a portion of Kulmus (less than half), and they did not translate it into Japanese, but into academic pseudo-Chinese (kanbun). Moreover, it was not the first anatomy text to be translated in Japan. I make these points not to twit Johnson, for she has produced a superb study by which the English reader can learn the idées récus of Japanese scholarship, and she has found new information that fits a similar vein. But the text tends to shun issues that art historians engage with today—about what “influence” is, about competing visualities, or about how power shapes regimes of seeing.

Johnson’s decision to restrict herself to the Akita samurai group will be helpful for English-language readers who so far have had much more access to the chônin (commoner) side of the story, via Calvin French’s now-classic Shiba Kôkan (New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill) from 1974 (surprisingly not cited in Johnson’s bibliography). We therefore need to know how the two groups interacted. Johnson devotes some space to this, and holds that they worked together “harmoniously.” In support of this thesis, she reproduces a collaborative diptych by Yoshiatsu and Kôkan, which is a very interesting piece of data. But there is also evidence of vitriolic exchanges between the samurai and chônin collectivities, as has been investigated by Reinier Hesselink in “A Dutch New Year at the Shirandô Academy: 1 January 1795” (Monumenta Nipponica, 50, no. 2 (1995): 189234), whose work does not figure in Johnson’s bibliography either). The claim that Naotake produced megane-e (optical views) is offered to show how the samurai could engage with more popular media, but actually there is no evidence for his having done so, and Johnson can adduce only one very late claim and one image, which is a somewhat unlikely attribution.

The full story of this late eighteenth-century cultural encounter is exciting. It seemed to hold a heady promise, as heroic innovators battled to change their world. Johnson repeatedly talks of “courageous” acts. She is clearly a great enthusiast for ranga and its ideologies. Her book is a wonderful positivist story of progress towards the present. But everything suddenly came to naught. The abrupt, early deaths of the protagonists, one after the other, were a major problem. But there could have been successors; in certain cases, other artists were also adopting the manner. How Akita Ranga could disappear so completely needs to be addressed as much as how it suddenly rose to prominence. The wide picture (literally) is not provided here, and remains to be considered.

Finally, a few significant errors need to be duly noted: there was no “British” East India Company, and no country called “Britain” at the time that Johnson asserts; the English East India Company actually pre-dated the Dutch (or technically the “United”) one. Emperor Go-Mizunoo (r. 1611–29), who is perhaps the only Edo-period emperor whose name one really ought to know, appears as “Go-mizuo.” One cannot translate the Japanese term kapitan (head of the Dutch trading station) as “captain” (in English he is called “chief”).

Despite these objections, Johnson’s book will be useful to students of Japanese art history and especially of East/West relations in the Edo Period. She has also done a valuable service by translating in appendices Yoshiatsu’s two treatises on Western art. Hotei is to be congratulated too, for offering a book that is both beautifully produced and academically credible. Hotei can add this format to its new dissertation series, Academia Neerlandia. This is especially welcome when other presses are abandoning art history, or Asian studies, or both.

Timon Screech
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

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