top of page

Studies in Modern Japanese Art History 101: Art and National Identity (2): Universal Expositions


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 art 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 the 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 that addressed 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

Studies in Modern Japanese Art History 101: Art and National Identity (2): Universal Expositions

After Centuries of Isolation

Japan's participation in Universal Expositions in both Europe and the United States in the late 19th century reveals how Japan's sense of nationality and unity were established under the Meiji government. The Meiji period, which lasted from 1868 to 1912, was a pivotal era in the history of Japan since it marked a significant transformation from a feudal and isolated society into a modernized and industrialized nation. Before the Meiji period, Japanese society was ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate, also known as the Tokugawa Bakufu, a centralized military government that exercised absolute dominance and authority over the country. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate in the Edo period (1603-1868), Japan isolated itself from any foreign contacts until the middle of the 19th century.

However, the Meiji Restoration in 1863 marked the end of Japan's two centuries-long isolation. This was a significant event which encouraged Japan's modernization which sought to reform various aspects of Japanese culture, politics, society, economy, and legal systems based on the model of several Western and European nations (Fabbrini, 2019). For instance, Japan's constitution was modeled after the Prussian constitution, and the education system was borrowed from France. However, the primary mission of the early Meiji government was to establish a strong presence in the Western world. One of their methods to achieve this was to participate in International Expositions.

Figure 1: Promulgation of the Constitution at the New Palace (Adachi, 1889).

During the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government welcomed many foreign scholars to Japan. For instance, they invited a group of British architects led by Josiah Conder (1852-1920) [Figure 2], one of the influential English architects at the time, to educate the Japanese artisans. Historically, Japanese architecture was based on timber construction. Before the Meiji era, there were no architects in Japan, instead, there were master carpenters, called Daiku (大工), who specialized in timber construction-operated carpentry, engineering, and architectural design (Fabbrini, 2019).

Wood had long been the primary architectural material in Japan, however, British architects criticized the "vulnerability" of timber buildings (Fabbrini, 2019, p. 144). George Cawley (1848-1937), a notable engineer in the British delegation, criticized Japanese wooden architecture, emphasizing its flaws: "The structural material used in native temples somewhat diminished their beauty due to its relative lack of durability, and contemplating them was often tinged with sadness as thoughts of decay arose" (Cawley, 1877, p. 314). Similarly, architect Ralph Adam Cram (1863-1942), a significant American architect, also pointed out the disadvantage of timber construction, saying "Japanese architecture was whimsical and delicate, lacking merit for scholarly study" (Cram, 1905, p. 35). In the eyes of Western architects, Japanese wooden constructions were not regarded as the architectural style suitable for a modern nation-state (Fabbrini, 2019).

Figure 2: Photograph of Josiah Conder (Anonymous, n.d.).

English architects sent to Japan served as a significant inspiration for Japanese architects, as they brought Western architectural techniques and materials such as bricks and stones to Japan. The Ukiyo-e print by Utagawa Hiroshige III [Figure 3] reveals the new architectural influence that appeared in Meiji Japan.

However, what prompted many Japanese architects in the early Meiji period to embrace these Western architectural conventions? From the European viewpoint, the long-lasting quality of stone construction was considered crucial in preserving its historical legacy (Fabbrini, 2019). Stone monuments, in particular, displayed a nation's historical accomplishments throughout the centuries, passing on a sense of national pride and identity across generations. Unlike traditional Japanese wooden architecture, ancient architectural ruins in the West, for instance, provided tangible evidence of a nation's historical journey and achievements. The stone ruins were, indeed, representations of endurance and permanence rather than connotations of decline and decay, based on Western architectural principles (Fabbrini, 2019). Such ideas did not exist in pre-Meiji Japan. Consequently, being influenced by Western architectural ideas, many Japanese architects in the early Meiji period considered the use of brick and stone, materials that were stronger and more durable than timber, as symbols of civilization and the solidity of the state (Fabbrini, 2019).

Figure 3: 東京府下名所尽 四日市駅逓寮 (Utagawa III, n.d.).

Preparation for the Vienna Exposition

In the context of Westernization, new Western techniques arrived in Meiji Japan. Inspired by Western ideas, the early Meiji government showed a significant dedication to Universal Expositions, which were designed to showcase the achievements of nations in the late 19th century with the Western world and its advancements. The Meiji government placed a high priority on participating in Universal Expositions in the late 19th century with considerable financial aid, even when the domestic financial situation was unstable (Chalklin, 2004). Japan experienced widespread protests against the increasing rice prices, which were imposed by the government to prepare itself for the Universal Exposition. However, even at the risk of significant social riots, the government approved substantial expenditures for the expositions.

The first official Japanese participation in the Universal Exposition was the one held in Vienna in 1873. However, the question arises: why did Austria invite a newly established Meiji government for their universal exposition? This can be traced back to a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in March 1871, where Henrich Ritter von Calice, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Japan, proposed to Nobuyoshi Sawa (Japan's Minister of Foreign Affairs) the idea of showcasing Japanese cultural artifacts at the Vienna Exposition commemorating the 25th anniversary of Emperor Franz Joseph I's accession (Kutsuzawa, 2018). Upon receiving this official invitation, the Japanese government decided to participate in the Vienna Exposition and initiated discussions on what to exhibit. In 1872, the Exhibition Bureau was established for the preparations. The primary goal of the Bureau was to collect traditional Japanese cultural items and crafts from various regions across Japan. In this context, the Wakayama Exhibition was held in 1872 with the specific purpose of assembling suitable objects for the Universal Exposition in Vienna in 1873.

Figure 4: Exhibited Object for 1873 Vienna Exposoition (Anoymous, 1873).

After receiving the request from the central government, the Wakayama prefectural authority announced the Wakayama Exhibition in the report of the Ministry of Finance:

In connection with the Austrian Exhibition, instructions have already been received from the government requiring this prefecture to search out some strange and unusual things; this information has consequently been circulated throughout the prefecture. To search out the said items, it has been decided to hold a small exhibition in the prefecture shortly and to allow even ordinary people to see (Wakayama Shishi, 1978, p. 227).

A printed pamphlet was immediately prepared and distributed to the public to provide information and details of the exhibition. Most notably, the pamphlet provided a detailed explanation of how the valuable objects collected by the individuals would be safely handed over to the local representatives of the Meiji government. The Wakayama prefectural authority particularly emphasized the safety guideline because many individuals felt hesitant about submitting and entrusting their household treasures to a foreign exposition. For instance, compensation in case of loss or damage was carefully addressed in the announcement to encourage people to submit their collections (Kornicki, 1994). Thanks to the full engagement of the Wakayama prefectural authority, the domestic exhibition ran from the 20th of May to the 10th of June, 1872. The Wakayama Exhibition was divided into four sections including possessions from shrines, temples to manufactured products, and took place at the Saginomori Betsuin 鷺森別院, one of the largest temples in Wakayama (Kornicki, 1994).

Figure 5: Objects at the Wakayama Exhibition (Anoymous, 1872).

The great success of the Wakayama Exhibition was reported in a Tokyo newspaper in 1877:

Men and women, young and old, swarmed in, and their cries of delight and admiration as they found this curious and unusual thing filled the whole building. [...] All the items, both the local ones and those from further afield, should be sent to the Austrian exhibition (Kornick, 1994, p. 186).

The daily average of the visitors was more than 3,000. In total over 60,000 people visited the exhibition during the two weeks, which means the number of visitors was greater than the entire population of the town of Wakayama at the time (Kornick, 1994). The Wakayama Exhibition welcomed a great number of visitors from all over Japan and effectively boosted Japanese citizens' interest in their own cultural treasures and art pieces. Regardless of age and gender, this local exhibition provided the Japanese people with the opportunity to appreciate their traditional art and reshape their national pride. Not only did it attract visitors, but it also greatly succeeded in collecting suitable objects to send to the Vienna Exposition, which was the main mission of the Wakayama Exhibition. According to the prefectural authority, there was no shortage of items when the Wakayama Exhibition was opened, and it was a great success in terms of collecting objects (Kornick, 1994) [Figure 5].

The Vienna Exposition of 1873

Following the collection of the items in the Wakayama Exhibition, the selected artifacts finally departed from Yokohama in January 1873 and reached Trieste, Italy after a 40 days journey, accompanied by administrative and delegation members, and technicians (Kutsuzawa, 2018). From Trieste, they were transferred to Vienna by rail. The opening ceremony of the Vienna Exposition finally took place on the 1st of May, 1873 at Der Wiener Prater Park (Kutsuzawa, 2018). According to Kutsuzawa Nobutaka, Japanese historian at Tokai University, the opening ceremony hosted an estimated tens of thousands of visitors and participating countries such as Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, the United States, China, Turkey, and Persia. To stand out from the rest of the exhibits, Japan strategically displayed large-scale exhibits (Kutsuzawa, 2018). The large objects included the golden dolphins from Nagoya castle [Figure 7], a life-size replica of the great Buddha of Kamakura, a thirty-seven-foot bronze statue from the 13th century, and a model of the pagoda of the Yanaka-Tennoji temple in Tokyo. In addition to these large-scale objects, the Japanese pavilion also exhibited traditional and decorative artworks such as ceramics, cloisonne ware, lacquer ware, and textiles, all items that were collected through the Wakayama Exhibition. However, the most striking monument that attracted the most attention from the visitors was the Japanese garden [Figure 6], which was exhibited separately from the main display.

Figure 6: The photograph of Japanese garden at the 1873 Vienna Exposition (Viennese Photographers Association, 1873).

On the 3rd of June, the Tomomi Iwakura Mission, a group of Japanese diplomats who traveled all over the Western nations to renegotiate a treaty in the middle of the 19th century, arrived in Vienna and visited the Universal Exposition. Kunitake Kume (1839-1931), who was part of the Iwakura Mission to officially document the voyage, recorded in his report how the Japanese exhibits were appreciated by Western visitors. Kume highlighted that Japanese pottery, lacquerware, inlay works, straw crafts, and dyed leatherwork especially received positive reactions from the Western audience. Notably, the folding fans drew the interest of local Viennese manufacturers, encouraging them to produce their own versions of the fans (Kutsuzawa, 2018).

Kume also noted that Japan was awarded an honorary certificate and received a total of 218 prizes at the exposition. Although it was Japan's official debut at the Universal Exposition, the country undeniably achieved great success and left a lasting impression on Western viewers. After 186 days, the Vienna Exposition concluded on the 2nd of November.

Figure 7: View of the Japanese Gallery at the 1873 Vienna Exposition (Viennese Photographers Association, 1873).

Preparation for the Chicago Exposition in 1893

The Chicago Exposition of 1893 was the largest fair of its time [Figure 8]. At the previous Universal Exposition in Vienna in 1873, despite great success, Japan was still overlooked and regarded as a backward and exotic nation. However, in Chicago, Japan finally succeeded in establishing itself in the eyes of Western audiences as a modern and civilized country. The management of the Chicago Exposition was operated by the Imperial Commission, with Mutsu Munemitsu (1844-1897), who was an influential Minister of Foreign Affairs in the 1890s. As a director, Mutsu aimed to present Japan's cultural heritage and "Japaneseness" by displaying Japanese traditional objects.

As noted by Snodgrass, Mutsu emphasized in the Japan Weekly Mail in October 1891 that only "truly Japanese" items, officially authorized by the Commission for their authenticity, would be allowed to be exhibited at the Chicago Exposition (Snodgrass, 2006, p. 84). Furthermore, Japan invested over $630,000, which was one of the largest expenditures among all of the countries participating in the exposition (Rydell, 1984, p. 48). This substantial investment secured Japan one of the best locations to exhibit, as the Japanese government wished to fully engage in the Chicago Exposition under the most favorable circumstances.

Figure 8: A view of the central aisle of the Agricultural Building, Chicago Exposition (Campbell, 1894).

Japan had a total of 16 exhibition venues. They occupied 40,000 square feet within the Hall of Manufactures, 2,850 square feet in the Fine Arts Palace [Figure 9], and some more spaces in the Women's Building. Japan's exhibits were situated on the ground floor, alongside other Western nations such as Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Austria. However, unlike these nations, Japan was given extra spaces adjacent to the Assembly Hall and the Model American Kitchen. Additionally, Japan exhibited traditional Japanese art at the Women's Building (Snodgrass, 2006).

In particular, what motivated the Japanese government during the Meiji period to prepare for these global events with this much enthusiasm and commitment? Under the Meiji restoration, the central government set the national policy, named the "industrial promotional policy" (殖産興業政策), a key slogan that aimed to incorporate advanced European industries and manufacturing technologies to modernize Japan. Most importantly, the government had a vision that participating in Universal Expositions would not only allow Meiji Japan to learn from the latest developments in the West but would also enable Japan to showcase its potential as an emerging nation in the East. The objective of participating in the International Exposition was, therefore, to represent Japan as a civilized country to the Western world. Because of the centuries of isolation that Japan had experienced in the past, the engagement with the international community was the approach that the Meiji government considered to be important in establishing national pride among Japanese citizens (Haung, 2015).

Figure 9: Entrance to Japanese Department of the Palace of Fine Arts (The Bancroft Company, 1893).

The Chicago Exposition of 1893: Ho-o-Den

Japan's most significant achievement at the Chicago Exposition was the creation of a modified version of the Ho-o-Den (Phoenix Hall) [Figure 10], a wooden temple located near Kyoto, Japan. The opinions among the Japanese architectural community were initially divided. Some architects considered that the Japanese pavilion at the Chicago Exposition should represent Japanese traditional wooden architecture while others emphasized the importance of adopting the styles of Western "modern" nations (Fabbrini, 2019, p.151). However, in the end it was agreed that a wooden construction was suitable for Japan to exhibit at the Exposition. The construction of the Ho-o-Den had, therefore, significant importance because its wooden structure, based on temple architecture, served as a prominent representation of Japanese architectural heritage.

At the beginning of the Meiji Restoration (1868), Japan aimed to modernize itself by imitating Western architectural styles taught by English architects, such as the use of brick and stone. Many Japanese architects were, therefore, encouraged to use more durable materials for construction and abandoned traditional Japanese wooden structures. However, in the early 1890s, the Meiji government began to question this previous practice of copying Western architectural models. As a result, in the Chicago Exposition, Japanese architects aimed to rediscover the essence of traditional Japanese architectural styles and reused timbers for their construction instead of following Western architectural styles (Fabbrini, 2019).

Figure 10: The Japanese Ho-o-Den on the Wooded Island (Fred. Klein Co, 1893).

Fabbrizni explained why Ho-o-Den, as a traditional form of Japanese architecture, played an important role at the Chicago Exposition:

The Western attitude that had characterized the first phase of the Meiji nation-building project was replaced by the rediscovery of the values of Japaneseness. The Japanese elite started to realise that the identity of a strong nation could not be based on the imitation of foreign systems. Japan needed to mobilize its history and its tradition to shape a distinctive identity, culturally independent from Europe. [...] The rediscovery of Japaneseness has a strong impact on architecture (Fabbrini, 2019, p. 146).

The Meiji government assigned Masamichi Kuru (1855-1914), a prominent Japanese architect during the Meiji period, as an architect of Ho-o-Den. His mission was to create a building for the Chicago Exposition that would adhere to Japanese architectural forms, materials, and techniques (Fabbrini, 2019). The original inspiration for the Ho-o-Den was the temple in Uji, designed by Yorimichi Fujiwara in the 11th century, which was considered to be an archetype of traditional Japanese wooden construction. Displaying a replica of the Ho-o-Den with nearly a thousand years of history, was one of Japan's strategies to challenge Western biases against wooden construction as a less advanced form of architecture (Fabbrini, 2019). Ho-o-Den was prepared in Japan using traditional wooden materials, and it was transported to Chicago in numbered pieces. Japanese craftsmen were then sent to the site and assembled the Ho-o-Den using their traditional tools to complete the construction (Snodgrass, 2006).

Figure 11: Photograph of the interior of the Tokugawa room in the Ho-o-Den’s central hall (Anoymous, 1893).

Figure 12: Plan of Ho-o-Den (Anoymous, n.d.).

The Ho-o-Den was constructed on a wooded island, separated from the rest of the Chicago Exposition. The pavilion comprised a central hall flanked by two identical structures on either side, symbolizing the head, body, and wings of a phoenix [Figure 12]. According to Fabbrini, the phoenix, a mythological creature known for its ability to rise from its ashes, served as a symbol of the revival of Japanese architecture following the Westernization policies of the early Meiji period.

The Ho-o-Den was composed of three rooms, each representing different historical eras. The first room was themed after the Heian period, ruled by the Fujiwara Clan from the 9th to the 12th century, and was modeled after the Uji temple and the Imperial Palace of Kyoto. The second room was inspired by the Silver Pavilion of Kyoto and represented the Muromachi period, governed by the Ashikaga Clan from the 14th to the 16th century. Lastly, the third room, situated in the central hall of the Ho-o-Den, was a replica of the Edo Castle, symbolizing the Edo period under the rule of the Tokugawa Clan from the 17th century to the Meiji Restoration in 1863 (Fabbrini, 2019) [Figure 11]. Each room featured Japanese painted screens, walls, and ceilings, with many of the objects designed by the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (Snodgrass, 2006). The Japanese architect, Kuru, intentionally designed the Ho-o-Den with these three distinct historical periods to showcase Japanese architecture as a representation of the country's extensive history and cultural heritage, spanning four hundred years before the European discovery of America (Fabbrini, 2019).

Figure 13: Helsey Ives’s Photographs of the Dedication Ceremony of the Ho-o-den (Ives, 1889).

In May 1893, the Ho-o-Den was officially inaugurated in an opening ceremony at the Chicago Exposition. A photograph [Figure 13] captured during the inauguration, filmed by Professor Halsey Ives (1847-1911), the head of the Department of Fine Arts at the Chicago Exposition, tells how the ceremony was conducted. In the photograph, a group of Japanese men are seen wearing traditional Japanese clothes with a white cross on their backs, denoting their status as traditional master carpenters. The architect, Kuru Masamichi, is positioned in the center of the image in Western clothing and a top hat. Notably, he was the only Japanese individual dressed in Western attire among the others. According to Fabbrini, Kuru's Western clothes highlight that the role of an architect was still seen as a Western profession in the Meiji era. Before the Meiji Restoration, the concept of an architect as a professional figure did not even exist in Japan. In contrast, the attire of the Japanese workers reflects the deep-rooted connection of carpentry with traditional Japanese timber construction practices. The contrast in clothing, therefore, underscores the struggle in Meiji Japan to find a balance between embracing Western models and preserving Japanese identity. Yet, by representing such a traditional architectural form at the Chicago Exposition, Japan succeeded in presenting itself as a modern nation with a unique cultural heritage and history. Therefore, Japan's participation in a Universal Fair in the West gave Meiji Japan a significant opportunity to reappreciate Japanese artistic tradition and reshape their national identity and unity.

Bibliographical References

Cawley, G. (1877). Some Remarks on Construction in Brick and Wood and their Suitability for Japan. Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan 6: 291-317.

Chaiklin, M. (2008). The Fine Art of Imperialism: Japan’s Participation in International Expositions of the Nineteenth Century. Japan Studies Review, 12, 1-7.

Cram, R.A. (1905). Impressions of Japanese Architecture and the Allied Arts. New York: Baker and Taylor.

Fabbrini, S. (2019). Architecture and National Identity in Meiji Japan: What’s the Matter with the White City?. OPEN JOURNAL OF HUMANITIES, 2, 139-173.

Haruhiko, F. (2001). Notomi Kaijiro: An Industrial Art Pioneer and the First Design Educator of Modern Japan. Design Issues, 17(2), 17-31.

Huang, P. (2016). Early museological development within the Japanese Empire. Journal of the History of Collections, 28(1), 125-135.

Ives, H. C. (1893). The Dream City: A Portfolio of Photographic Views of the World's Columbian Exposition (Vol. 1). Published weekly by ND Thompson Publishing Company.

Kornicki, P. F. (1994). Public Display and Changing Values. Early Meiji Exhibitions and Their Precursors. Sophia University Press, 49(2), 167-196.

Kutsuzawa, N. (2019). The 1873 Vienna World Exposition and Japan's Participation: Focusing on Japan's Industrial Promotion Policy in the Early Meiji Period. 文明, 23, 7-13.

Rydell, R. W. (2013). All the world's a fair: Visions of empire at American international expositions, 1876-1916. University of Chicago Press.

Snodgrass, J. (2006). Exhibiting Meiji modernity: Japanese art at the Columbian exposition. East Asian History.

Tachibana, S., Daniels, S., & Watkins, C. (2018). Japanese gardens in Edwardian Britain: landscape and transculturation. In Culture and Society (pp. 109-139). Routledge.

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Kotono Sakai

Arcadia _ Logo.png

Arcadia has an extensive catalog of articles on everything from literature to science — all available for free! If you liked this article and would like to read more, subscribe below and click the “Read More” button to discover a world of unique content.

Let the posts come to you!

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page