Meiji Japanese Art: Innovation and InspirationMay 13 2021
The Meiji period (1868-1912) was a time of tremendous innovation and change in Japanese art. Nearly every genre of art was transformed by the introduction of new materials, techniques, forms, and designs. Some of the changes in Meiji art were prompted by shifting tastes and demands within Japan’s domestic market. Other changes came about in response to demands from overseas markets, especially in Europe and the United States. Meiji art was both a product of, and a stimulus to, the forces of modernization and globalization that swept much of the world in the late 19th century, and it remains a fascinating lens through which to view the impact of those same forces on our world today.
The term Meiji means “enlightened government.” It was the reign name chosen by Emperor Mutsuhito after he and his allies ended centuries of fractured, feudal rule by military warlords and created a new, centralized government under imperial control. The Meiji political reforms were prompted in part by the expanding presence of Western nations in Asia during the second half of the 19th century. The Meiji emperor and his supporters were determined to avoid colonization and strove to build Japan into a strong, modern nation that would be respected and treated as an equal by the major Western powers. To that end, the Meiji government undertook not only political reforms, but also economic, social and cultural reforms that profoundly reshaped many aspects of Japanese life at that time.
The Meiji government saw art as a vital part of its reform efforts. Art has the power to shape thought and behavior and can influence how people perceive and interact with the world. The Meiji government recognized that art could spread new ideas within Japan while simultaneously projecting a positive image of Japan among nations overseas. Japan’s leaders also understood the great economic potential of art, and used art to generate revenue for the nation’s modernization efforts. This gallery is divided into six thematic sections that give an overview of many important themes and issues in Meiji art.
In 1872, William Griffis, an American educator living in Japan, described the rapid changes that occurred during the early years of the Meiji reign. “Tokyo is so modernized I scarcely recognize it….Thousands wearing hats, boots, coats; carriages numerous; jin-rik-shas countless. Shops full of foreign wares and notions. Soldiers all uniformed, armed with rifles. Hospitals, schools and colleges. Railway nearly finished. Old Edo has passed away forever. Tokyo, the national capital, is a cosmopolis.”
To win international respect and elevate Japan to world-power status, the Meiji government launched numerous campaigns to modernize the country during the 1870s and 1880s. One modernization campaign, run under the slogan “civilization and enlightenment” (bunmei kaika), called for Japan to adopt Western-style governance structures, financial institutions, educational models, and military and industrial technologies. Western-style architecture, clothing and transportation were enthusiastically embraced as symbols of progress, especially in Japan’s larger cities and towns. By the mid-1880s, however, some Japanese began to fear that the modernization campaigns were threatening their national heritage. People still wanted the material benefits that came from being connected to the wider world, but at the same time they wanted to preserve customs and traditions that were integral to Japan’s historical identity. As a result, later Meiji modernization efforts shifted away from the wholesale adoption of foreign ideas and customs and focused more on adapting selected features of Western culture to serve Japan’s larger national goals.
Art played an important role in the Meiji modernization efforts. Many Meiji artists took pleasure in depicting new styles of buildings, clothing, and furnishings, and their images became vehicles for spreading information about the latest innovations and trends throughout Japan. Prints, paintings and photographs from the period help us understand the changing physical environment of Meiji Japan, but we must always keep in mind that these images are not unbiased portraits of life at that time. Meiji artists often infused their scenes with a good deal of imagination and wishful thinking, and some images—especially those depicting the imperial family—were reviewed by government censors to ensure that they reflected the state’s ideological objectives.