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Art and Palace Politics in Early Modern Japan, 1580s–1680s by Elizabeth Lillehoj (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 40, Number 1, Winter 2014
pp. 159-163 | 10.1353/jjs.2014.0013

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A book with a title that includes the term “Palace Politics” inspires the mind with imaginings of romantic settings that serve as sites for illicit liaisons and conspiracies involving succession to the throne and, perhaps, mysterious murders. While none of these plays a major role in this valuable volume by Elizabeth Lillehoj, there is plenty of intriguing information about the essential role that artistic endeavors played in shaping the profile of the Japanese imperial court from the late sixteenth century through the late seventeenth century.

During the post–World War II period, the Momoyama through early Edo periods have been a favorite with history buffs in Japan, but much of the focus has been on prominent members of the military aristocracy. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, these warlords competed for territory but ultimately formed alliances that resulted in reunification of the country and ushered in an extended period of peace. The triumphs and tragedies of the warrior class during a significant and compelling time in the formation of early modern Japan appealed to a public searching for inspiring domestic models as Japanese sought to rebuild after their most recent encounter with war devastation. In contrast, there has been less popular interest in the activities of the imperial court during the same period, even though scholars have recognized the important influence of the court on the development of art and culture. Art and Palace Politics in Early Modern Japan provides ample evidence of how the imperial court, especially the emperors Go-Yōzei and Go-Mizunoo and the empress Tōfukumon’in, played essential roles in the development of elite culture during arguably one of the most artistically innovative centuries of Japanese history.

Elizabeth Lillehoj is a prominent specialist in this area of art history, having edited a volume of essays on painting in seventeenth-century Japan in 2004 (Critical Perspectives on Classicism in Japanese Painting, 1600–1700 [University of Hawai‘i Press]). That book featured contributions by many leading scholars in the field, and their research informs many parts of the current work.

The book begins with an overview of studies of the topic to date and an introduction of the volume’s primary objectives. Lillehoj points out that scholarly characterizations of the early seventeenth century (centered on the Kan’ei era of 1624–44) as a “classical revival” of Heian court culture are somewhat misleading, since court culture and imperial influence continued to have significant impact during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. In the late sixteenth century, the warlords Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi made use of the imperial institution to bolster their own prestige and gain credibility for their own attempts to reunify the country after more than a century of internecine war. Starting with the activities of Emperor Go-Yōzei following his ascension in 1586, the author uses both artworks and broader cultural activity to explore the influence of the imperial household in the political, religious, and cultural arenas over nearly a century. As such, she treats artworks as “non-textural artifacts” that provide a counterbalance to historical texts such as records, diaries, and letters that tend to focus on only the most powerful segment of the population (i.e., elite males). This approach has enabled Lillehoj to focus a significant part of the book on the activities of Empress Tōfukumon’in, who, she asserts, has been largely ignored as a patron of the arts.

The main body of the book proceeds roughly chronologically, first examining the relationship between Emperor Go-Yōzei and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Chapter 1 explores a number of ways in which artworks, architecture, and grand occasions were intertwined to create, maintain, and amplify the impact of authority on a diverse populace. For example, Emperor Go-Yōzei’s excursion to Hideyoshi’s Jurakutei mansion enhanced imperial prestige by enabling the emperor to progress in ceremonial splendor through the streets of the capital, while Hideyoshi acquired prestige by publicly acting as host for the first imperial visit to a warrior enclave in more than a century (p. 28). The procession and visit were recorded on a set of screens now in the Sakai City Museum (and probably on other artworks as...

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