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.
Japanese Spirit, Western Techniques
To successfully modernize Japan while preserving its national identity, the Meiji government encouraged its citizens to find a balance between “Japanese spirit and Western techniques” (wakon yosai) in many areas of public and private life, including the arts.
From the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century, Japan enforced a national closed-door policy that severely restricted its interactions with other countries. As a result, at the beginning of the Meiji period Japan lagged far behind the Western world in science, math, engineering, economics and many other areas of knowledge. The Meiji government sought to close this gap by hiring foreign experts and educators to come to Japan to teach in a wide range of academic disciplines. The government also subsidized study-abroad programs for Japanese government officials, military officers, businessmen, artists and other professionals who were tasked with absorbing practical information and skills from Western countries and bringing them back to Japan. The Western knowledge that was acquired through this two-pronged strategy of importing foreign experts and sending Japanese students overseas was adapted to fit Japanese ideologies and customs, producing a new form of modernity that was distinctly Japanese.
Many Meiji-period arts were profoundly affected by the introduction of new Western technologies. Printmaking and textiles were transformed by new aniline dyes which produced vivid colors that resisted fading from exposure to light. Ceramics and cloisonné were revolutionized by the use of new coal-fired kilns along with new chemical formulas for glazes and enamels. Exposure to European notions of romanticism and realism helped bring about a transformation in Japanese sculpture, while the introduction of photography ushered in new ways of representing the world in the visual arts. Yet for all the innovations, most Meiji arts maintained strong connections to older Japanese traditions, preserving forms, subjects, and styles that stretched back many centuries. The mix of old and new, Japanese and Western, is what gave Meiji art its widespread appeal at the time and is a large part of why it continues to appeal to our globalized tastes today.