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.
Making Meiji Art
Most Meiji works of art were made in relatively small workshops. Located primarily in urban areas, these workshops were typically headed by a master who oversaw anywhere from a few to a few dozen apprentices. In some workshops, the master himself made much of the art while the apprentices functioned largely in supporting roles. In other workshops, the apprentices made much of the art with the master acting more as chief designer and quality control supervisor. Most Meiji artists were men, but women also played significant roles in some types of art production, especially textile weaving and ceramic decoration. Meiji art tended to be highly labor-intensive, and artists routinely worked long hours with few days off on painstaking projects that could take weeks, months or even years to complete.
Meiji artists usually worked to order, fulfilling commissions from retail merchants, government agencies and individual clients. Because it was difficult for many small art workshops to find enough buyers for their goods, trading companies emerged to distribute the art to markets across Japan and around the world. Although commerce was the chief concern of these trading companies, they also functioned as clearing houses for new ideas, techniques and fashions and provided guidance to the artists on forms, designs and materials that were popular with buyers in different areas. In this way, the trading companies became important catalysts for much of the innovation and change that occurred in Meiji Japanese art.
The labor intensive nature of Meiji art meant that most of it could not be easily mass produced, but new technologies imported from Europe did allow for the industrial-scale manufacture of two art forms in particular, ceramics and textiles. At first these factory-made goods were intricately designed and carefully manufactured so that they resembled small-workshop handicrafts. But when consumer demand increased, many Meiji factories shifted to a higher volume-lower price production model and the quality of their goods declined accordingly. Some trading companies also began pushing less expensive, less carefully-crafted versions of studio arts like lacquer, cloisonné and bronze, which allowed those arts to reach more consumers than ever before but diminished their vitality and originality at the same time.