This is part two of a series exploring the rise of Japanese art and culture, from its early beginnings to the modern-day global powerhouse that it has become.
Last week, we traced the development of Japanese art and culture from its beginnings to the early modern period. When we left off, the Ashikaga Shogunate’s authority had been steadily weakening, and the question of succession plagued Japan as Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s reign drew closer to an end. Yoshimasa had no son when he agreed to designate his younger brother heir apparent but the subsequent birth of Ashikaga Yoshihisa changed everything. Tensions continued to build until the Onin war erupted in 1467, plunging Japan into the period called the sengoku jidai, or the warring states period, which would last for the next one hundred and fifty years.
Himeji Castle was first built in 1333, and remodeled significantly by Toyotomi Hideyoshi during the final stages of the sengoku jidai. An enduring example of Japanese architecture, it hows the clear the clear Japanese preference for inclusion of nature and natural materials in architecture.
The sengoku jidai was a remarkable period in Japanese, and indeed, world history, marked by political intrigue, heavy militarization, and constant warfare. It was one of the defining periods of Japanese history, an era during which giants such as Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and the eventual winner of the conflict, Tokugawa Ieyasu, immortalized themselves in the pages of history. However, this was also a time of significant cultural and economic growth. It was during the sengoku period that Kano Masanobu established the Kano school of art, which would dominate Japan until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, four hundred years later. The school came into its own under the tutelage of his son, Kano Motonobu. The Azuchi-Momoyama period that lasted from 1568 to 1600 saw the seminal events of the sengoku period play out, and was also a period of cultural and urban development that saw Japan taking interest in the outside world after having made contact with the Portuguese in 1543. Motonobu’s grandson, Kano Eitoku developed a new style of painting large landscapes in this period that was very popular with the nobility.
Kano Eitoku's large landscapes on sliding doors led to the development of large paintings and murals such as the one pictured up. Luckily, we have it on offer here.
The disastrous war against Korea during Hideyoshi’s rule saw most Japanese daimyo (feudal lords) militarily crippled except for Tokugawa Ieyasu, who took control and established the Tokugawa shogunate in the aftermath of these wars. The Edo period that subsequently started was named after the seat of Tokugawa power (which would later be known as Tokyo, the modern capital of Japan), and saw Japan enacting its sakoku policy, shutting itself off from the outside world. Much of this was a reaction to the presence of the Portuguese in the country, who the Shogunate saw as a threat and possible source of social unrest, particularly owing to their proselytizing of Christianity. Sakoku would be the defining foreign policy of Japan for the next few centuries with a notable exception, however, regarding the Dutch. In 1637, a catholic rebellion in Japan saw the Shogunate come down hard on the presence of Europeans, except for the Dutch who aided the Japanese in ending the rebellion. Having thus found themselves in the good books of the Japanese, the Dutch were allowed to set up a trading post in Nagasaki. Relations with the Dutch continued to flourish, resulting in the development of rangaku, or Dutch learning (and, by extension, European knowledge). Contact with the Dutch allowed the Japanese to keep abreast of artistic, literary, and scientific developments in Europe, which the Japanese took great interest in, having a large urban and literate population.
As far as Japanese art is concerned, the Edo period is perhaps most significant for the development of the ukiyo-e genre which would capture the European imagination during the Japonisme movement. Ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints came to dominate Japanese culture, as the formerly lowly merchant social class, grew prosperous and began to indulge in a new hedonistic urban lifestyle in the pleasure districts of major Japanese cities, described as ukiyo (literally, floating world).
Monet's La Japonaise (1876) depicts his wife in a kimono. The latter half of the 20th century saw the Japonisme movement kick off in the Western world, in the aftermath of the forced opening of Japan to the rest of the world and Japanese art and culture grew hugely influential. Get your copy of this classic and controversial Monet here.
By the 19th century, the industrial revolution had kicked off in Western Europe and the United States, and Japan came under increasing pressure to end its isolationist policies. The Shogunate reacted by doubling down and intensifying efforts to keep Europeans out, including cracking down on students of rangaku, even as Japan tried to learn more about European technology through the Dutch. Things came to a head in 1853, when Commodore Mathew C. Perry of the United States Navy appeared in Tokyo Bay, forcing Japan to open up to international trade under the threat of military action. This period marked a series of rapid and unprecedented changes in Japanese culture, society and politics. Alarmed at the obvious difference in power between itself and the technologically superior opportunistic nations willing to prey upon it, and also humiliated at the hands of the Americans, the Shogunate rapidly lost prestige even as Japan began to embrace the industrial revolution. The rapid opening up of the market caused an economic crisis and in 1868, the shogunate was overthrown and emperor Meiji restored to authority. The Meiji period was one of rapid modernization and by the 20th century, Japan was on par with, or superior to, many of its European counterparts, demonstrated by its resounding military victory against Russia in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese war.
This ukiyo-e style mural illustrates Japanese samurai. The Meiji restoration abolished the samurai class, who until then were exclusively the warrior caste of Japanese society.
At the same time, Western perceptions of Japan were changing. Before Commodore Perry forced the opening of trade, Japan was not distinguished from other East Asian nations and peoples. Upon the opening of trade, Ukiyo-e paintings were a major hit in the Western world, including Hokusai's world-famous masterpiece The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. Hokusai and Hiroshige were among the Japanese artists that represented the zenith of the ukiyo-e style, and Japanese art created a major wave, no pun intended, at The International Exhibition of 1867 in Paris.
Hokusai's The Great Wave Off Kanagawa is possibly the best known example of art from the ukiyo-e period and it one off the best known pieces of art in the world. Get this shower curtain depicting the great wave here.
Japan was beginning to make its presence felt in the outside world, and as the 20th century began, it was becoming increasingly clear that Japan was an outlier outside of the western world, in that it was going to match, and even exceed, the accomplishments of the West, which had technologically raced ahead of the rest of the world in the preceding few centuries. And for Japan itself, its society was experiencing a period of rapid change, changes that would continue through the 1900s as Japan would go through some of the most fateful moments of its history, to see dizzying highs and tragic lows, but as ever, emerge stronger than before.
In the next post, we will see how modern Japan was shaped, and how it continues to dominate global culture.