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Studies in Modern Japanese Art History 101: Cultural Identity between Japan and the “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 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: Cultural Identity between Japan and the “West”

Threat to Japanese Cultural Heritage 

The Japanese phrase Chanoyu, translated literally as “hot water for tea,” refers to the tradition of preparing and serving green tea in a highly stylized manner, originating from 12th century China. The art of Chanoyu, also called “tea gathering”, was practiced as a highly cultural activity where the people appreciated not only the tea, but also the atmosphere of the tea rooms decorated by fine arts (Guth, 1993). However, from the latter half of the 19th century, the Japanese traditional tea ceremony faced its decline. It was triggered by the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which was marked by the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate and the abolition of the feudal system, including the upper samurai class and the daimyo (feudal lords). These feudal lords were the main supporters of Chanoyu during the Edo period (1603–1867); however, due to the political revolution, they lost the social status which they used to possess and gradually disappeared in the Meiji era (1868–1912). 

Figure 1: Tea room of Masuda Takashi.

The rapid Westernization fostered by the newly established Meiji government, led to the neglect of Japan's rich cultural traditions. At this time, Japan aimed to modernize itself by adopting legal systems, educational models, industrial practices, architectures, and even art forms of the West. Amidst this decline, the traditional tea families who had once thrived in Japan suffered significant danger in the Meiji period. Following the decline of the tea ceremony, several precious tea utensils from temple holdings and old family collections were being sold into the market. In this tumultuous period, influential industrialists and art collectors such as Masuda Takashi (1848-1938), possessing a discerning eye, seized the opportunity to collect those Chanoyu utensils to protect the cultural heritage of Chanoyu which was disappearing due to this social transformation (Guth, 1993). 

Figure 2: Portrait of Masuda Takashi.

The art of Chanoyu raised Masuda's interest in collecting art and provided an environment for the cultivation of visual sensibility. In a time before Japan had any museums, Masuda's tea gathering [Figure 1] played a crucial role as a significant meeting place where his peers, fellow collectors, and art dealers could appreciate his diverse collection of artworks including calligraphy, ink paintings, lacquerware, ceramics, Buddhist paintings and sculptures (Guth, 1993). As Masuda acknowledged the need to protect Japanese cultural heritage, he committed to collect art, and through his tea gatherings, he shared his art collections to his contemporaries. Masuda mentioned his intention to collect Japanese traditional art pieces:

My appreciation of art began long ago in 1879, when Japanese art objects were being sent by the government to an exhibition in France [...]. Of course, I collect art because I like it, but also because I believe that Japanese art is highly developed and we must take great care to preserve and study it in Japan. [...] The modern world is tired of Greek and Roman art, and the number of people in the West who study far eastern art has increased (Jijoden, 217-218).

Figure 3: Japanese display at Philadelphia Exposition of 1876.

In the second half of the 19th century, the Meiji government committed to participate in universal expositions as a part of their modernization campaign [Figure 3]. As Japan was historically isolated from the rest of the world under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate for over two centuries, Japanese cultural objects immediately captured the attention and curiosity of Western art collectors once they began to be exhibited at international fairs. Lacquers especially, along with ceramics and other crafts, gained remarkable popularity in Europe and the United States, becoming some of the earliest commodities, alongside silk and tea. Sir Rutherford Alcock, a British minister who curated a collection of Japanese art for the 1862 London Exposition mentioned how much the westerners were fascinated by the Japanese items exhibited at the fair:

In their porcelain, bronzes, silk fabrics, lacquer, and metallurgy, including a world of exquisite art in design and execution, I have no hesitation in saying that they not only rival the best products of Europe but can produce works in each of these domains that we cannot imitate or perhaps equal (Rutherford, The Capital of the Tycoon: A Narrative of Three Years Residence in Japan, New York: Harper, 1863, 2:243). 

Protecting Art as National Treasures 

In the face of Westernization, Masuda was committed to preserve Japanese art as he believed that their cultural heritage and its aesthetic had an immense value that was essential to be maintained and promoted. However, Masuda was not alone in his enthusiasm for preserving Japanese art objects. Okakura Tenshin (1863-1913), a cultural ambassador who had a significant impact on the field of Japanese art and culture, also aimed to protect Japanese traditional art forms by purchasing them. For instance, when the sacred buildings of Zōjōzi in Shiba, and Kaneiji in Ueno, which were full of important cultural objects, were being sold, Okakura purchased and aimed to preserve them for the Japanese people (Murai, 2012). In 1916, Okakura addressed his intention of collecting Japanese art: 

Later, when the problem of Buddhist-Shinto synthesis arose, Shinto shrines were forced to sell the Buddhist painting and other articles belonging to them. I couldn’t stand the sight of Americans like Fenollosa continually buying and carrying these paintings out of the country, so again I sought to buy as many as I could (Okakura's speech recorded in Takahashi's diary. Bandhoroku, Taisho 51/27. 4:418).

Figure 4: Interior of the Temple of the Attainment of Happiness.

In the early Meiji era, Buddhist art suffered severe devastation. Ironically, this was caused by a wave of nationalistic fervor that spread through Japan in the late 19th century, which criticized Buddhism, previously supported by the shogunal rulers in the Edo period. In 1868, the government established the official department of Shinto to take extra care of objects housed in Shinto shrines. Unfortunately, this led to the rise of a movement called Haibutsu Kishaku (Destroy the Buddhas), causing the destruction of many Buddhist temples. Under these circumstances, Buddhist temples lost their economic base and were forced to sell precious items to survive. As a result, a lot of Buddhist sculptures were abandoned, losing their cultural significance [Figure 5] (Fischer, 1992). Some of the great daimyo houses that had been disenfranchised with the fall of the shogunate were also in similar economic straits and sold many of their family heirlooms. Thus, many western art collectors, such as Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), were able to acquire important Japanese secular objects.

Fiugre 5: A Mass of Broken Statues (Photograph by Fenollosa, 1880).

As a passionate collector, Fenollosa joined a club called the Ryuchikai (Dragon Pond Society), which was founded in 1879 with the aim to restore and promote traditional Japanese Art. In the summer of 1884, the ministry of education commissioned the members of Ryuchikai , including Fenollosa to survey the art treasures abandoned in the temples of central western areas including Kyoto and Nara (Fischer, 1992). During their investigation, they discovered one of the most important masterpieces of Japanese sculpture, the statue of Kannon [Figure 6], which is believed to protect people from illness. It was housed in the Yumedono hall at the Horyu-ji temple in Nara (Fischer, 1992). Fenollosa mentioned about the discovery of the abandoned treasure in his publication, History of East Asian Art (1886-1887):

I shall never forget our feelings as the long disused key rattled in the rusty lock. Within the shrine appeared a tall mass closely wrapped about in swathing bands of cotton cloth, upon which the dust of ages had gathered. It was no light task to unwrap the contents, some 500 yards of cloth having been used, and our eyes and nostrils were in danger of being choked with the pungent dust. But at last the final folds of covering fell away, and this marvelous statue, unique in the world, came forth to human sight for the first time in centuries (Fischer, 1992, p. 7).

Figure 6: Standing Kannon Bosatsu (552-710).

The discovery of abandoned items urged the Meiji government to enact a law that guaranteed the preservation of old shrines and temples in 1897. This law ensured the protection of architectural structures, paintings, sculptures, and applied arts in sacred places by allocating funds for their maintenance (Guth, 1993). The legislation also introduced, for the first time, the title of “national treasures”, which safeguarded important artworks as the most precious of Japan's tangible cultural properties designated by the government. The notion that the world of art should be considered a national asset was a new concept at the time in Japan. However, the 1897 law had a relatively limited scope as it only applied to works of art within temples and shrines, without guaranteeing the protection of the numerous treasures that were already part of private collectotions in overseas (Guth, 1993).

Figure 7: Landscape (Hashimoto Gaho, 1835-I908).

In addition to the preservation of Japanese art, there was a movement in the early Meiji period to promote Japanese-style paintings, called Nihonga [Figure 7]. This was in response to the Western artistic styles, which started to dominate the artistic circles in Japan. Following this movement, Fenollosa, and several Japanese art educators, founded the Kanga-kai (Painting Appreciation Society) in February 1884 in an attempt to empower Japanese fine art. Kanga-kai organized monthly exhibitions and met regularly to examine Japanese paintings from private collections, including those owned by Fenollosa. Another purpose of the Kanga-kai was the encouragement of artists working in traditional Japanese styles. During this time, Okakura and Fenollosa began to actively campaign for the establishment of a government art school. Their main motive was to develop professional art education in Japan. In the beginning, Koyama Shotaro (1857-1916), who was one of the early Yōga (Western-style painting) artists [Figure 8], was also a part of the committee; however, he was soon fired because his ideas of pro-Western-style painting clashed with Fenollosa and Okakura’s missions to encourage Japanese traditional aesthetic. As a result, Fenollosa and Okakura abolished the educational program of Western-style drawing with pencils and replaced it with the brush and ink painting, motivating the younger generations to learn Japanese art styles (Fischer, 1992). Yet, they found it difficult as the Meiji government began to establish a school of art, which was designated to teach modern European techniques, such as Western-style watercolors, oil painting, and sculpture (Fischer, 1992).

Figure 8: Quenching Thirst with Raw Sake at a Shop in the Autumn Countryside (Koyama, 1889).

Fenollosa's views were not shared by all of his contemporaries. As a result, he faced much animosity from Japanese painters specializing in Western styles, as he viewed their work as a hindrance to the revival of Japanese style paintings. Moreover, Fenollosa's attempt to regenerate Japanese paintings led artists influenced by Western styles, such as Koyama, to be rejected from exhibiting their works at exhibitions, not based on their quality, but simply because they resembled paintings of Western origin (Murakata, 2023). This created a severe situation. Both Japanese and Western style artists should have had equal opportunities to showcase their works for the exhibitions; however, the conflict between the two factions became entangled with politics, portraying advocates of Japanese-style paintings as patriotic and those supporting Western paintings as unpatriotic (Murakata, 2023). 

Hindering the Western Japanese Collectors 

There was a great conflict between preserving tradition and pursuing modernization. Some Meiji officials argued that exhibiting Japanese crafts in the West was significant for Japan’s modernization. Others rejected this notion, arguing that instead of promoting Japanese art in the eyes of Westerners, Japan should have attempted to educate Japanese people about their own cultural heritage (Guth, 1993). However, most of the treasures belonging to daimyo households were being inevitably sold abroad, as few people in Japan could afford traditional art. Ironically, the English collector James Bowers said, “the future generations will have to study the best forms of their art in foreign countries, for there is no doubt that many of the finest examples have been sent abroad” (Guth, 1993). Recognizing the Westerners who were interested in Japanese art, Okakura aimed to protect the Japanese cultural pieces from being acquired by foreigners. As Okakura strongly believed that the Japanese should appreciate their own cultural heritage and beauty through the engagement with art, he collected as much as he could to preserve the traditional pieces within Japan [Figure 9] (Guth, 1993).

Figure 9: The deities Brahma and Indra (730–750).

Unfortunately, despite Okakura's effort, western art collectors found their ways to purchase Japanese objects. The letter from the 27th of September in 1884 from Fenollosa to his friend, Morse, for instance, expressed the intensity between Japanese and western collectors:

Already people here are saying that my collection must be kept here in Japan for the Japanese. The Japanese as yet don’t know that I have them. I wish I could see them all safely housed forever in the Boston Art Museum (The original letter from the collection of the Peabody Museum, Salem).

Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919) was also considered as a serious rival by Masuda. He purchased a rare set of paintings depicting the sixteen Arhats, disciples of the Buddha, now firmly attributed to the 14th century Japanese ink painter Ryozen (Guth, 1993). Japanese art collectors were not pleased by his acquisition, and eventually attempted to get them back from Freer's collection. This was clearly mentioned in the letter to his contemporary during Freer's trip to Japan in 1907:

I spent this afternoon with Mr. Masuda, the richest collector of Japan and he invited a few other Japanese collectors to meet me. [...] The loss of these famous sixteen paintings to Japan created great excitement and now they stand ready to make great sacrifices to get them back. Fortunately for America, I could not return them even if I wantedthey are in the Smithsonian lot (Letter from Charles Freer to Colonel Hecker, May 6, 1907. Charles Lang Freer Papers).

Figure 10: Freer in Japan (Yokohama, 1907).

In 1906, the Buddhist temple, Kofukuji, in the city of Nara, needing funds for repairs, decided to sell seventy-seven items from its collection, with a total asking price exceeding 300,000 yen (Guth, 1993). Masuda observed Freer’s desires to purchase them, and wanting to hinder him, he collaborated with Nara dealers to form a consortium for a collective purchase. Behind Freer’s back, Masuda impeded his attempts to purchase the collections from Nara Kofukuji. In Freer’s letter to his friend, Colonel Hecker, he described the strange occasion where he was refused the acquisition of the items without any valid reasons:

Today I have word that the great Kofukuji temple of Nara is considering selling a tremendously important set of sixteen paintings given to the temple centuries ago by Prince Konoe. [...] I would have liked to have had a chance, but the authorities would not let me. As a consolation they told me they would soon sell some more of the famous set of Rakans of which I already possess two (Letter from Charles Freer to Colonel Hecker, June 15, 1907. Charles Lang Freer Papers).

Contribution of a Western Art Collector 

Masuda’s objection toward Freer changed after he visited the United States in October 1907. There he witnessed Freer's Japanese collection for the first time at the Smithsonian Institution, and was impressed by Freer’s passion and his great contribution to the spread of Japanese art in the West (Guth, 1993). Upon returning to Japan, he reportedly informed his peers that as long as Japanese art was carefully protected and preserved, Japanese collectors should support Freer's Japanese collections for the sake of the world’s good (Guth, 1993). This shift in attitude perhaps mirrored the growing awareness among Japan's more cosmopolitan industrialist collectors, that a museum showcasing Japanese art in the West could foster a deeper appreciation of Japanese art in the Western world. Masuda and Freer collaborated for an exhibition dedicated to Japanese and Chinese art in New York (Fischer, 1992). Here, Masuda pledged to curate a collection of ancient Chinese and Japanese objects from the emperor's collection and other prominent collectors in Japan. Although the exhibition was never held, Masuda and Freer maintained their connection for many years, working together to spread the Japanese cultural heritage in the western world.

Figure 11: Ernest F Fenollosa at Miidera temple in with Japanese (Freer Gallery of Art, 1909).

In addition to Freer, Fenollosa also actively contributed to the acknowledgement of Japanese art in the West, devoting himself to educate Japanese people (Fischer, 1992). Despite the previous backlash against his acquisition of Japanese art, it must be noted that Fenollosa was without a doubt a leading figure in Japanese art education, who made significant contribution to the preservation of traditional art within Japan. He noticed that Japan was abandoning their artistic traditions in the rush to modernise, and attempted to warn the Japanese people about the danger that their native art was facing (Pak,1989). Notably, his lecture at the Ueno Education Museum, known as "True Theory of Japanese Art," became one of the most remarkable discussions by Fenollosa (Murakata, 2023), urging the Japanese to acknowledge the value of their traditional art. He spoke:

Japanese art is really far superior to modern cheap Western art that describes any objects at hand mechanically, forgetting the most important point, of how to express Idea. Despite such superiority the Japanese despise their classical paintings, and, with a deep adoration for Western civilisation, admire its modern paintings which are artistically worthless and imitate them for nothing. What a sad phenomenon it is! The Japanese should return to their nature and its old racial traditions, and then take, if there are any, the good points of Western paintings (Ernest Fenollosa, 'Truth of Fine Arts', delivered to the Ryuchi-kai, Tokyo, 14 May 1882).

Figure 12: Image of Freer displayed in a tokonoma setting, Kōetsu Temple (光悦寺), Kyoto, Japan, May 9, 1930.

Fenollosa arrived in Japan when western culture and systems were actively embraced as part of its modernization campaign. Even in the realm of art, the Japanese people welcomed Western influence, while neglecting their own traditions. Throughout his art education, he urged the Japanese citizens to appreciate their cultural heritage and its beauty. Following Fenollosa's return to the United States in 1890, his endeavors took a different path, dedicating himself to spreading the beauty of Japanese art in his own country. In the summer of 1892, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Fenollosa arranged an exhibition of about 172 works from the collections of Hokusai, one of the great masters of Ukiyo-e prints (Fischer, 1992). He overviewed the index brochure for this Ukiyo-e exhibition in Boston, using his rich knowledge of Japanese traditional art forms. Notably, the Hokusai exhibition stood out for gathering original paintings of Hokusai's works in the United States (Feltens, 2020). During the dramatic social transformation in the Meiji era, Japan witnessed a clash between the Westernization and preservation of cultural heritage. Yet, Japan's cultural beauty and traditional art forms were protected for the people's enlightenment thanks to the tremendous efforts of not only Japanese but also western art collectors, including Fenollosa and Freer who had acknowledged the cultural beauty of Japanese art (Feltens, 2020).

Bibliographical References

Feltens, F. (2020). Hokusai: Mad About Painting. Art of Asia.

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

Guth, C. M. (1993). Art, Tea, and Industry: Masuda Takashi and the Mitsui Circle. Princeton University Press.


Kakuzō, O., & Goddard, T. U. (2012). Kokka (1889). Review of Japanese Culture and Society, 24(1), 176-183.

Meech-Pekarik, J. (1982). Early collectors of Japanese prints and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum Journal, 17, 93-118.

Mostow, J. S., Bryson, N., & Graybill, M. (Eds.). (2003). Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field. University of Hawaii Press.


Murai, N. (2012). Okakura's Way of Tea: Representing Chanoyu in Early Twentieth-Century America. Review of Japanese Culture and Society, 24, 70-93.

Murakata, A. (2023). Ernest F. Fenollosa Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art: An Outline History of East Asiatic Design (1921). In Masterpieces on Japan by Foreign Authors: From Goncharov to Pinguet (pp. 81-87). Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore.

Pak, D. L. (1989). Earnest Francisco Fenollosa (1853--1908): An American scholar's contribution to Japanese art and culture. Teachers College, Columbia University.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Takashi Masuda in the tearoom of his Odawara estate. Collection of Hisako Hatakeyama. Retrieved from

Figure 2: Portrait of Masuda Takashi. National Diet Library Japan.

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Figure 3: Japanese exhibit, Main Building, Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, 1876 Free Library of Philadelphia.

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Figure 4: Interior of the Temple of the Attainment of Happiness from Nara Prefecture, Fenollosa collection, Boston. 

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Figure 5: Photography of a Mass of Broken Statues taken by Fenollosa, 1880. Epochs of Chinese &Japanese Art (1912). 

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Figure 6: Standing Kannon Bosatsu (Avalokitesvara), known as Guze Kannon Japanese, 552-710, [Gilded wood]. Horyiji temple, Nara, Japan.

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Figure 7: Landscape,  Hashimoto Goho. 1885-1889. [Ink and color on silk]. THE MET, New York.

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Figure 8: Quenching Thirst with Raw Sake at a Shop in the Autumn Countryside, Koyama Shotaro. 1889. [Oil on Canvas]. Pola Museum, Kanagawa, Japan.

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Figure 9: The deities Brahma and Indra (Bonten and Taishakuten), 730–750. [Hollow dry lacquer]. The Avery Brundage Collection, Asian Art Museum, CA.

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Figure 10: Freer in Japan with the Hara Family, Sannotani, Yokohama, 1907. Freer Gallery of Art Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

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Figure 11: Fenellosa Memorial Monument Dedication with Freer in Japan, 1909. Freer Gallery of Art Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

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Figure 12: Image of Freer displayed in a tokonoma setting, Kōetsu Temple (光悦寺), Kyoto, Japan, May 9, 1930. Freer Gallery of Art Archives, Smithsonian Institution. 

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Kotono Sakai

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