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.
Domestic and Foreign Markets
As part of its campaign to “encourage manufacturing and promote industry” (shokusan kogyo), the Japanese government organized five national trade exhibitions during the Meiji period. The first three national exhibitions (1877, 1881 and 1890) were held in Tokyo, while the last two exhibitions (1895 and 1903) were held in Kyoto and Osaka respectively. Products from all over Japan were displayed at these exhibitions in six different categories: mining and metallurgy, manufactured goods, art, machinery, agriculture, and horticulture. Government officials judged the entries in each category and awarded prizes for quality and innovation. The national exhibitions provided an important stimulus to the development of Meiji art, offering opportunities for artists to share design ideas and production techniques while helping them find buyers for their work. In an era before museums were common in Japan, the exhibitions also exposed the general public to the latest developments in art and strengthened the role of art in shaping national culture.
Beyond Japan, the Meiji government also sponsored the participation of Japanese manufacturers and trading companies in many world’s fairs and international expositions. Japanese goods—including works of art—were featured at all of the major world fairs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Vienna (1873), Philadelphia (1876), Amsterdam (1883), Chicago (1893), Paris (1900), St. Louis (1904), and San Francisco (1915). The Meiji government viewed these fairs as important commercial opportunities, where Japanese manufacturers could cultivate foreign buyers while learning about new materials and production methods. The government further viewed the fairs as strategic propaganda opportunities that could be used to project an image of Japan as a strong, wealthy, industrious nation. The arts were especially important in this national image-building effort and the Japanese pavilions at the fairs were filled with intricately crafted art objects that exemplified the ingenuity, capacity for hard work, and refined aesthetic sensibilities that Japan wanted Western countries to recognize and appreciate.
Early in the Meiji period, works of art made for the domestic market were often quite distinct from those made for the export market. By the turn of the 20th century, however, the boundaries between domestic and export art had begun to blur, and numerous artists emerged whose work appealed to consumer tastes both within Japan and overseas.