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Studies in Modern Japanese Art History 101: Cultural Identity between Japan and "West"


The Meiji Restoration (1868) marked a period of rapid transformation in Japan, as the country sought to modernize its institutions, industry, technology, and culture. Fine art, including traditional Japanese and Western-influenced art, played several important roles in this modernization process. During the Meiji era (1868-1912), Japanese modern art and national identity were always closely related. The Meiji government aimed, as a national campaign, to redefine "Japaneseness" through the representation of Japanese art by establishing a sense of unity, brotherhood, belonging and patriotism. One of their approaches was to participate in international expositions to showcase to the West the country’s modernization and the Japanese artistic achievements. Furthermore, many scholars and art critics of the Meiji era, such as Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901) and Okakura Tenshin (1863-1913) contributed to the reshaping of national cultural heritage with their texts, addressing the importance of preserving and promoting Japanese craftsmanship. While touching upon the history of Japanese modern art, this series will guide the reader towards understanding how Japanese national identity was strategically shaped by fine art in the Meiji period, and how modern artists and scholars aimed to preserve Japanese culture despite the country’s Westernization.

The series contains the following 7 chapters:

  1. Art and National Identity (1): Fine Art and Museums  

  2. Art and National Identity (2): Universal Expositions

  3. Cultural Identity between Japan and the “West”

  4. Cultural Identity between Japan and the “West”: Nihonga

  5. Art and State Authority: The Establishment of State-Sponsored Exhibitions

  6. Art and Social Critique (1): The Occupation and the 50s

  7. Art and Social Critique (2): The Hiroshima Series by Maruki Iri and Toshi

Arrival of Western-style paintings

Japan’s encounters with Western-style oil paintings in the late 19th century brought in a new era in Japanese art history. Prior to the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan was in a state of national isolation known as Sakoku, which severely restricted contact and trade with foreign countries. As a result, the Japanese people did not have any access to Western-style paintings. However, with the Meiji Restoration, Japan underwent significant political, economic, and social reforms including the abolishment of the isolation policy. The reopening of the international trade increased the interest and curiosity towards western oil paintings. As a result, Western-style painting, known as Yōga in Japanese, rapidly gained popularity and attention from the public (Pickhardt, 2012). As interest towards the West grew among Japanese artists, the government established the Institute for Western Studies in 1862. For instance, Takahashi Yuichi (1828-1894) was a Japanese painter known for his pioneering work in the Yōga art movement in the late 19th century. He joined the painting department of the institute and studied under Kawakami Togai (1827-1881), a specialist in Western-style and literati paintings which are plain ink paintings originally coming from China. By 1889, Kawamura Kiyoo (1852-1934) and Harada Naojiro (1863-1899), who both studied art in Europe, founded the first Western painting association in Japan, the Meiji Art Society. They aimed to make oil painting more widely known in Japan by depicting Japanese landscapes, customs, religious festivals, and well-known Japanese folk stories or allegories (Tsuji, 2018).

Figure 1: Urashima (Yamamoto Hosui, 1893-95)

Figure 2: The Raft of the Medusa (Théodore Géricault, 1818-1819).

The artwork depicted above, Urashima, by Yamamoto Hosui (1850-1909) [Figure 1] is an example of how Japanese artists aimed to incorporate Western art techniques while dealing with Japanese subject matters. Urashima is a reference to a famous Japanese folktale, Urashima Taro, which tells the story of a fisherman who saves a turtle and is rewarded with a trip to an underwater palace. The iconography of Yamamoto’s work depicting the Japanese legend of Urashima Taro reveals deep connections and fractures between Japan and the West (Tsuji, 2018). It is recognized that Yamamoto’s Urashima was inspired by The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819) [Figure 2] painted by Théodore Géricault (1891-1924), a French Romantic painter and lithographer. Théodor’s work which represents a tragic moment of the French Royal naval ship in 1816 inspired Yamamoto’s approach to his oil painting. While using the Japanese traditional subject matter, Yamamoto applied Western techniques such as perspective, shading, and the use of light, which were not used in traditional Japanese paintings. The pyramidal composition of Urashima was taken from The Raft of Medusa, which was often seen in classical Western tradition, suggesting his introduction of Western artistic techniques. Not only the geometric structure, but also the depiction of landscapes and environmental settings in Urashima is similar to how Théodore represents the scene. After the success of Yamamoto as a Western-style painter, a lot of Japanese artists started to be interested in new art techniques from the West, fostering the popularity of Yōga paintings.

Development of Yōga, Western-style oil paintings

The history of Japanese Western-style painting witnessed a new shift with Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924), a Japanese painter and teacher, who is known for bringing Western art theory and practice to a wide range of Japanese artists. In 1884, at the age of 18, Kuroda went to France to study under the French painter Raphael Collin (1850-1916). Soon after his return to Japan in 1893, he began to paint Japanese subjects in oil by applying a bright, airy palette, one of the significant elements in Impressionism, a 19th-century art movement prominent in France (Sadao & Wada, 2010). The art techniques that Kuroda learned in France can be seen in his portrayal of the Geisha, Maiko [Figure 3]. His technique in depicting light illustrated the influence of Impressionism on traditional Japanese art, and was referred to as New School or School of Natural Light.

Figure 3: Maiko (Kuroda Seiki, 1893)

In 1896, the Tokyo School of Fine Arts established a department of Western-style painting and appointed Kuroda as one of their first instructors. Kuroda’s reputation as ”the father of modern Yoga” (Tsuji, 2018, p.400) rapidly spread thanks to his artistic contributions at Tenshin Dojo in Tokyo, a private French-style academy (Tsuji, 2018). Not only did he introduce the new medium of oil painting, but he was also passionate for spreading the Western idea of "composition", which can be observed in some of his works (Sadao & Wada, 2010). Kuroda’s Wisdom, Impression, Sentiment (1899) [Figure 4] is a great example of his efforts to study various poses. In the Western world, Michelangelo was one of the most famous artists who produced numerous sketches of human anatomy. Michelangelo's anatomical drawings include human figures in various poses and perspectives, which helped his followers create more realistic and lifelike representations of the human form. Being inspired by Western studies in poses, Kuroda aimed to demonstrate his understanding and ability to portray the human figure in various positions. Kuroda’s work incorporated Western ideas into Japanese subject matter. Wisdom, Impression, Sentiment depicts three ideally proportioned Japanese female nudes standing against a gold background, almost resembling the classical Buddhist statue, called Budda triad, which contains Shaka Buddha, or Shakyamuni, seated on a lotus throne accompanied by the Bodhisattvas, heroic persons that work to attain awakening (Tsuji, 2018). His attempt to introduce Western aesthetic and art techniques while keeping Japanese tradition attracted many young artists, contributing to the establishment of a new form of art in the Meiji period. 

Figure 4: Wisdom, Impression, Sentiment. (Kuroda Seiki, 1899)

As a leading Western-style painter, Kuroda encouraged a new genre of painting, Romanticism. In the late 19th century, Kuroda formed an artistic movement in the visual arts known as the Meiji Romantic School. Participating artists, including Kuroda himself, often engaged with Western artists of European Art Nouveau, an ornamental style of art that flourished between about 1890 and 1910 throughout Europe (Sadao & Wada, 2010). Fujishima Takeji was a driving force in Romanticism and produced many decorative Romantic works in Japan. He challenged the question of how Japanese artists should approach Romanticism and created works that combined the characteristics of Western techniques and materials with Japanese subject matter (Tsuji, 2018). Reminiscence of the Tempyo Era (1902) [Figure 5] is a classic example from Meiji Romanticism, when Fujishima was trying to express feelings transcending time and space. He was inspired by eighth-century Buddhist statues and Shosoin treasures that had captured his heart during a visit to Nara the previous year. The woman standing beneath a paulownia tree in bloom is wearing the traditional Japanese garment from the Nara period (710-784) and holding a Kugo, an ancient type of harp. The figure stands in contrapposto, a relaxed and life-like standing pose in which the body's weight is rested on one leg, originating from ancient Greek sculptures. In his work, Fujishima combined two ancient worlds, East and West.

Figure 5: Reminiscence of the Tempyo Era (Fujishima Tekeji,1902)

In 1905, Fujishima went to France and Italy to study the works of the European modernist Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). While abroad, he produced paintings that displayed expressive brushwork, and a cheerful decorative motif such as Black Fan (1908-1909), clearly showing the western influence on his artistic techniques. After returning to Japan in 1910, he aimed to to merge the western technique of oil painting with the traditional Japanese interest in decoration. His ambition is embodied in his later works featuring sublime landscapes. In 1928, Fujishima was commissioned to create an oil painting to decorate the Showa Emperor's study room and created Sunrise over the Eastern Sea (1934) [Figure 6]. He chose “sunrise” as a suitable theme for his work that would symbolize the emperor’s accession, as the emperor was restored to the supreme position during the Meiji revolution. Fujishima’s interest in landscape paintings inspired the next generation of painters. 

Figure 6: Sunrise over the Eastern Sea (Fujishima Takeji, 1934)

Revival of Japanese-style paintings

In 1882, Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), an American art historian of Japanese art gave a lecture at a governmental art association called Ryuchi-kai, advocating for the revival of a traditional Japanese painting, in particular that of the declining Kano school (Tsuji, 2018). He argued that the Kano school is suited for the expression of ideas and its traditional aesthetic should be appreciated (Fischer, 1992). As Fenollosa found the preservation of Kano paintings to be significant for Japanese traditional art, he began to support one of the Kano school painters, Kano Hogai (1828-88). The new style inaugurated by Hōgai in the early 1880s was called Nihonga (Japanese-style painting), a category introduced to indicate paintings that give a modern reinterpretation to traditional Japanese artistic practices (Tsuji, 2018). Nihonga rose as a counterpart to the Yōga movement. Fenollosa, who recognized the beauty of Japanese art helped the revival of Nihonga painting together with Hōgai (1828-1888) and Hashimoto Gahō (1835-1908). 

Figure 7: Ni-o Capturing a Demon (Kano Hogai, 1886)

Thanks to financial support from Fenollosa, Hōgai produced many Kano paintings and exhibited his works at the second Paris exhibition of Japanese paintings in 1884. Moreover, as a patronage, Fenollosa also supplied Hogai with Western pigments for his paintings such as Ni-o Capturing a Demon (1886) [Figure 7]. The application of Western pigments to the Japanese traditional Kano painting suggests Fenollosa’s ideals for the modernization and revival of traditional Japanese art in the Meiji period. The Painting Viewing Society (Kanga-kai), an art appreciation society of Japanese traditional art forms highly awarded Hōgai’s Ni-o Capturing a Demon, as it contributed to the revival of the Kano school painting by adding new elements (Murakami, 2013). Hōgai’s works inspired other significant Japanese-style painters, such as Maeda Seison (1885-1977), who contributed to the Nihonga movement in the 20th century. Maeda’s most famous work is Chinese Lions Screens (1935) which emphasizes the pictorial surface and the idea of “super flat” introduced by contemporary artists in the 19th century in Japan (Tsuji, 2018). Similar to Hōgai, Maeda as a Nihonga artist, aimed to not simply follow the traditional art techniques followed by the Kano School, but also introduced some contemporary elements to add new essence to traditional Kano painting. 

Figure 8: Cherry Blossoms at Night (Yokoyama Taikan, 1929)

Okakura Kakuzo was another significant Japanese art critic, who promoted a critical appreciation of Japanese traditional art forms during the Meiji Restoration reform. In 1898, Okakura founded the Japan Art Institute (Nihon Bijutsuin) with his followers, including Yokoyama Taikan (1858-1958), Hishida Shunso (1874-1911), and Shimomura Kanzan (1873-1930), who all shared the same passion for protecting Japanese traditional aesthetic (Hanley & Watanabe, 2019). The new institute’s first project was to organize the Inten Exhibition in 1898, which aimed to foster the modern form of Japanese painting known as Nihonga (Nagahiro, 2012). In 1906, Okakura opened his studio in Izura, Ibaraki prefecture, to offer a place for Japanese-style artists to work together. Over the subsequent decades, many artists who worked and lived together in Okakura’s studio became fundamental leaders in the Nihonga movement  (Tsuji, 2018). Yokoyama’s work, titled Cherry Blossom at Night (1929) [Figure 8], exhibited in Inten in the late 1920s, was one of his most celebrated paintings representing his artistic style as a Nihonga painter. This work is a pair of six-fold screens in which the cherry blossoms appear to be glowing in the light of a full moon. The night sky is beautifully illuminated by blooming cherry blossoms and the golden background. His Cherry Blossom at Night exemplifies Yokoyama's skillful use of traditional Japanese painting technique in the Kano School, particularly in capturing the beauty and ephemeral nature of the cherry blossoms. The cherry blossom holds a significant cultural and symbolic importance in Japanese society, representing the beauty of nature, and Yokoyama appreciated its traditional aesthetic in his art.

Figure 9: Nude (Murakami Kagaku, 1920)

Nihonga artists in Kyoto

In the late 1920s, Nihonga also flourished independently in Kyoto. Murakami Kagaku (1888-1939) was a leading Japanese-style painter of the Kyoto circle (Sapin, 2004). Throughout his artistic career, he produced numerous Buddhist-themed paintings and brought an advancement in the techniques of Nihonga paintings in the early 20th century. He was mainly active in the Association for the Creation of National Painting, also called Kokuga Sosaku Kyokai in Japanese, an advanced art society to promote new Japanese-style paintings mixed with Western arts and Asian aesthetic (Tsuji, 2018). The society’s occasional exhibitions contributed to increasing his reputation as a Nihonga artist. Nude (1920) [Figure 9], is one of his most celebrated works representing Buddhist influence. This painting portrays a female figure, reminiscent of Buddhist sculptures and suggests a physical spirituality lacking in traditional Japanese paintings, often featuring traditional subjects such as landscapes, flowers, birds, and animals; therefore, the depiction of female nudity was a new concept brought by Kakagu. 

Figure 10: Serving Girl in a Spa (Tsuchida Bakusen, 1918)

Tsuchida Bukusen (1887-1936) was another Nihonga artist who began to portray female nudity in his paintings. Serving Girl in a Spa [Figure 10] depicts a young woman serving tea or refreshments in a spa or hot spring resort setting. The painting is characterized by its delicate brushwork, rich colors, and attention to detail, typical of the Nihonga style. The image captures a serene moment in a tranquil spa environment, conveying a sense of relaxation and traditional Japanese hospitality. The use of traditional Japanese motifs and setting reflects Bakusen's commitment to preserving and celebrating Japanese cultural heritage within his artwork (Sapin, 2004). Yet, the depiction of female figures with erotic poses was a new motif compared to previous Nihonga paintings. 

Modern taste in Japanese style-paintings

By the end of the 1920s, Nihonga changed in its artistic styles, which became more harmonious and soft in atmosphere. To describe this new artistic trend in Nihonga, an art historian, Uemura Takeo (1940-2014), coined the term Japanese New Classicism, meaning a New Conservatism aligned with the taste of the middle- and upper-classes (Tsuji, 2018). The work of Uemura Shoen (1875-1949) is representative of Japanese New Classicism. Most of his works were highly inspired by Japanese classic literature and dramas from the Heian period (794-1185), one of the most culturally rich periods in the history of Japan. The Heian period witnessed the flourishing of Japanese aesthetics, particularly in its literature. It was during this time that the iconic work Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu was written in the 11th century. Tale of Genji presents a vivid portrayal of Heian-era court life, customs, and aesthetics, but also beautifully follows the life and romantic adventures of Prince Genji, a fictional character of noble birth, and his descendants. As Uemura highly appreciated the Japanese traditional aesthetic fluorinshing in the court life of the Heian period, he included figures from Tale of Genji in his paintings.

Figure 11: Noh Dance Prelude (Uemura Shoen, 1936)

Flame is one of the most influential works by Uemura presenting his interest in Japanese classical themes and aesthetics. The painting portrays Lady Aoi, the heroine of Tale of Genji and the first wife of Prince Genji. Shoen’s choice of this classical figure reflected his admiration for the refinement of court culture, which was once predominant in Kyoto. Noh Dance Prelude [Figure 11] is another example of Uemura’s approach to New Classicism (Tsuji, 2018). The painting depicts a woman dressed in the elaborate costume of a Noh, a classical theater that originated in the 14th century in Japan. The female dancer in the painting is poised as she prepares to begin her dance. The use of rich colors, intricate patterns, and delicate brushwork imbues the painting with a sense of elegance and serenity. Uemura's Noh Dance Prelude is celebrated for its evocative portrayal of the timeless depiction of feminine beauty and grace. It reflects Shoen's lifelong dedication to preserving and celebrating Japanese artistic traditions in his Nihonga paintings, contributing to the success of New Classicism.

Figure 12: Carp (Fukuda heihachiro, 1931).

Not all the artists followed the artistic styles of Neoclassicism developed by Uemura. Fukuda Heihachiro (1892-1974), instead embraced the styles associated with Modernism. Fukuda Heihachiro's artworks often depicted landscapes, flowers, birds, and scenes from nature, rendered with meticulous detail and a delicate touch (Tsuji, 2018). He was acclaimed for his ability to capture the beauty and serenity of the natural world in his paintings. Throughout his career, Fukuda Heihachiro received numerous awards and accolades for his contributions to Japanese art, including recognition from prestigious institutions such as the Japan Art Academy. Carp (1921) [Figure 12] is one of Fukuda Heihachiro's most notable works. Carps are often associated with prosperity, having significant symbolic meaning in Japanese culture. The depiction of carp reflects Fukuda’s mastery of traditional Japanese painting techniques and his ability to convey the essence of traditional Japanese subject matter with elegance. 


The era of Meiji saw the most significant social and cultural transformation in the history of Japanese art. The artistic world was divided into Western-style paintings, called Yōga which was dominated by oil paintings, and Japanese-style paintings named Nihonga which followed the aesthetics of the traditional Kano School. Due to the rapid Westernization, many Japanese artists who followed traditional styles, such as the Kano school artists, suffered from a loss of patronage and less attention from the public. As oil paintings were a completely new art technique that Japanese people had never seen before, public attention immediately went to the new form of art, overshadowing traditional pieces. To achieve the revival of Japanese art and protect its aesthetic, Nihonga painters aimed to modernize the Kano school paintings while maintaining its essence of traditional beauty. Despite the influx of Western influence during the Meiji era, Nihonga artists successfully integrated modernization with traditional Japanese aesthetics. They adopted Western artistic materials, such as Western pigments, while maintaining a Japanese artistic identity, blending innovation with tradition in their artworks. By adding new artistic elements, they drew inspiration from Japanese literature, history, and nature, celebrating the beauty and richness of their cultural heritage through their artworks. Therefore, Nihonga art contributed to the development of national identity and pride in Japanese cultural heritage. Through their paintings, Nihonga artists expressed a deep connection to the land, people, and traditions of Japan, reflecting the country's unique cultural identity and values.

Bibliographical References

Fischer, F. (1992). Meiji painting from the Fenollosa collection. Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, 88(375), 1-24.

Foxwell, C. (2012). New Art and the Display of Antiquities in Mid-Meiji Tokyo. Review of Japanese Culture and Society, 24, 137-154.

Hanley, K., & Watanabe, A. (2019). Kokka, Okakura Kakuzō, and the Aesthetic Construction of Late Meiji Cultural Nationalism. Doctoral dissertation, Waseda University. 

Lippit, Y. (2015). Since Meiji: Perspectives on the Japanese Visual Arts, 1868–2000.

Nagahiro, K. (2012). Okakura Kakuzō as a Historian of Art. Review of Japanese Culture and Society, 24, 26-38.

Pickhardt, J. B. (2012). Competing painting ideologies in the Meiji period, 1868-1912. Doctoral dissertation,University of Hawaii at Manoa. 

Sadao, T and Wada, S. (2010). Discovering the Arts of Japan. A Historical Overview. Abbeville Press.

Sapin, J. (2004). Merchandising Art and Identity in Meiji Japan: Kyoto Nihonga Artists' Designs for Takashimaya Department Store, 1868–1912. Journal of Design History, 17(4), 317-336.

Tsuji, N. (2018). History of Art in Japan. Columbia University Press.

Image References

1 Comment

The introduction of Western-style oil paintings marked a new chapter in Japanese art history, opening doors to creativity and innovation. Through figures like Takahashi Yuichi and the establishment of the Meiji Art Society, Japanese artists embraced Western techniques while staying true to their cultural roots.

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Kotono Sakai

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