This is part three of a series exploring the rise of Japanese art and society, from its early beginnings to the modern-day global powerhouse that it has become.
Where we last left off, the forced opening of Japanese borders under the United States' gunboat diplomacy had profoundly altered Japanese politics and society, leading to the end of 700 years of the Shogunate and the restoration of the emperor's political power in the 1868 Meiji restoration. Japan then entered a period of rapid "westernization" as it sought to quickly close the gap between itself and the industrial nations of the west. The government began to take an interest in art, and actively promoted the export of Japanese culture through its patronage. the Meiji era saw Japan emerge as an international power in every way, emerging victorious in a war against Russia, and establishing a commercial and cultural presence in all world markets. Art itself was deeply influenced, and two distinct styles emerged, Yōga (denoting western style art) not to be confused with the Indian yoga), and Nihonga (which lays stress on traditional Japanese styles), classifications that remain in use in Japan. At the start of the 20th century, Japan was an export powerhouse, for everything from porcelain, metalware, enamels, and paintings to cater to the fascination with Japanese culture in the West. At home, Japan was deeply influenced by this two-way process.
Japanese arts and crafts made quite the wave when introduced to the wider world and it is easy to see why. The Japanese aesthetic has traditionally stressed simplicity and a closeness to nature, as can be seen in this Japanese tea table. The tea ceremony, or chado, has traditionally been a Japanese art of refinement and cultured living.
At the same time, another phenomenon, its roots hundreds of years old, was undergoing a new period of transformation in Japan in the Meiji era. Illustrated stories had always been popular in Japan, from the e-maki that had emerged in the Heian period down to the kibyoshi genre picture books that gained popularity in the Edo era. By the Meiji era, a distinct picturebook genre known as manga had emerged and was becoming increasingly popular in Japan, although few likely realized just how much this genre would come to dominate entertainment and greatly define Japan's cultural image. The term manga generally refers to comics and cartoons within Japan, although outside of Japan it is used to denote Japanese style comics. Today, these comics well known and loved all over the world, and are a multi-billion dollar global industry, whose animated derivations are frequently called anime.
Manga and anime are a multi-billion dollar industry today with fans all over the world. This kimono for men features Goku, the protagonist of Dragon Ball and its successors, the bestselling manga and anime series in history and a household name the world over.
The kibyoshi predecessors of manga were perhaps the first comic books in the world. However, it was in the late 19th century that the genre truly began to develop, and in the postwar world that it blew up into a global phenomenon. There are different views regarding the growth in the popularity of manga, with some attributing it to the continuity of Japanese artistic traditions and others pointing to Western and, in particular, American comics of the first half of the 20th century, and American GIs bringing them with them during the Allied occupation of Japan as inspiration. Regardless, in the postwar period, manga quickly gained currency in global markets. Although Kitazawa Rakuten (1876-1955) was the first modern mangaka (or manga artist) in the modern sense, it was almost thirty years later, in the 1930s, that manga began to see large scale circulation in Japan.
Pictured above is this baseball jacket featuring, once again, Goku from Dragon Ball, one of the most recognizable characters in the world. Postwar Japan saw a further influx of American culture, and baseball is today among the most popular sports in Japan.
World War II saw the near-destruction of Japan and its occupation by the allies. However, upon emerging from the war, Japan underwent yet another profound cultural shift, going from an ultranationalist and militaristic state to a pacifist and technologically oriented state. The postwar years saw a greater cultural liberalization of Japan and an explosion in creativity. Two manga series, in particular, had an immense influence on the future of the genre.
Japanese manga and anime art styles are easily recognizable, as in this women's kimono.
Machiko Hasegawa was notable for being a woman in a highly male-dominated industry and her Sazae-san series ran for twenty-eight years, starting in 1946, exploring cultural norms in postwar Japan depicting the life of Sazae san, a confident and liberated woman.
Undoubtedly the greatest influence on manga and anime , however, came from Osamu Tezuka, frequently called the Walt Disney of Japan. His Astro Boy series was first published in 1952, revolving around a young robot boy capable of human emotions with superior intellect, strength and special abilities. In many ways an allegory for a new Japan, born out of the ashes of the second world war, Astro Boy was a runaway success, its combined volumes having sold more than a hundred million copies worldwide to date. Its anime adaptation in 1963 also became the first to embody the style that has come to be associated with modern anime. Astro Boy also became notable for becoming an overseas blockbuster, opening up the European and North American markets for Japanese manga and anime.
Graffiti in London featuring Astro Boy. In the years since its release, Astro Boy has been hugely influential on manga and anime and become a major cultural icon.
In the years since, manga and anime have grown to be sizeable industries outside of Japan and a potent tool in shaping Japan up to being a cultural great power. France has an especially large market for anime and manga, a continuation of its japonisme fascination of the late 19th century. Recent times have only seen anime and manga reach new heights of popularity outside of Japan, with strong consumption bases in Europe, North America, The Middle East, and Asia. The publication of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball in 1984 was perhaps the final step in propelling manga and anime to its current heights, as it has since become extremely well known almost all over the world.
Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli in Japan is one of the finest animation studios in the world. Miyazaki himself is a masterful director and responsible for some of the greatest stories told on film. If you're a Miyazaki fan like we are, you will love our collection of Miyazaki movie posters.
Postwar Japan has been a powerhouse of technology and entertainment, frequently mixing the two. The development of Japanese anime is one such example, but so is Japanese technology. Japan is a giant in the electronics and video gaming industry, home to Sony and Nintendo, two of the largest gaming companies in the world. It has also mixed manga and anime styles and stories into its video games and introduced the Japanese role-playing game genre. Japan’s signature kawaii or “cute” aesthetic style has come to be hugely influential, exported the world over by brands such as Hello Kitty, and the Japanese have been major aesthetic innovators in graphic design and even postmodern art movements. Japan is perhaps the most advanced nation in the world in the field of robotics, which it will likely rely upon in the coming years as it grapples with an ageing population and a long-stagnant economy.