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Reviewed by:
  • Japanese Painting and National Identity: Okakura Tenshin and His Circle
  • Ellen P. Conant (bio)
Japanese Painting and National Identity: Okakura Tenshin and His Circle. By Victoria Weston. Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2004. 322 pages. $65.00.

Victoria Weston displays the knowledge, skill, and temerity necessary to tackle one of the most politically fraught and culturally contentious topics in the history of modern Japanese art: the career of Okakura Kakuzō, penname Tenshin (1862–1913); his reputed role in establishing a national school of traditional art at Tōkyō Bijutsu Gakkō (Tokyo School of Fine Arts); and his efforts to guide the training and work of three leading artists of the modern era, Yokoyama Taikan (1868–1955), Hishida Shunsō (1871– 1910), and Shimomura Kanzan (1869–1930). She acknowledges at the outset of this book that the activities of Okakura and his putative mentor, Ernest F. Fenollosa (1853–1908), are currently being scrutinized but considers the controversial issues aired beyond the scope of her topic. She believes that, "radicalized by Western imperialism, Japanese thinkers, Okakura included, worked to develop a concept of Japanese culture that might help Japan weather" the challenge of an industrialized, militarized West with "its 'national' character intact." Her goal "is to examine how Okakura's rhetoric [my emphasis] guided, shaped, and informed the making of paintings expressive of this goal" (p. 4).

The author explains that the term Nihonga (modern Japanese-style painting) was coined in the early Meiji period to distinguish those paintings that continued to utilize traditional materials, methods, and formats from the newly created schools of Western painting (seiyōga or yōga). Although both sought to reconcile "national identity with rapid modernization and Westernization," the Nihonga painters are the focus of her study (p. 298). Throughout the volume, she employs "modern Japanese painting" and similarly inclusive phrases as coterminus with Nihonga, but disregards parallel developments in the field of yōga, as well as in prints and photography. [End Page 489]

In her brief epilogue, Weston summarizes her premise and its subsequent implementation and influence so clearly, concisely, and with such conviction that it merits recounting. "As the story of modern Japanese painting is commonly told," she writes, "it began with Fenollosa and Okakura and their campaign to turn Japanese art from its fascination with Westernization back to the appreciation and expression of qualities that, though contemporary, were intrinsically Japanese .. . . Over a period of thirty years, the two critics made education and reform their goals" (p. 298). Under Okakura's guidance, she relates, Taikan, Shunsō, and Kanzan "made for Tokyo, if not for Japan, a consciously modern tradition-based painting" (p. 298). While acknowledging that they were not the sole makers of modern Nihonga, insufficient comparative evidence is offered. She focuses instead on Okakura's efforts, as headmaster of the Tōkyō Bijutsu Gakkō, to set the goals and standards for modern Japanese art. When deprived of that position, he created the Nihon Bijutsu-in (Japan Art Institute) to lend institutional credence to the group's aspirations. It is by virtue of this group's longevity, she believes, that "Okakura's circle dominates the literature on Meiji painting" (p. 299).

Weston maintains that Okakura's disciples were taught to internalize the values of the Meiji era—"the prestige of the nation. .. . reverence for imperial authority . . . to see works as instruments for improving society . . . to be at once challengers and champions of Japanese tradition" (p. 300). She concedes that "any painter alive to the times grappled with the issues surrounding modernity and representation, but this group helped centralize the question in artistic discourse. This certainly fomented factionalism, but it also heightened critical engagement with the societal role of art" (p. 300).

She claims that "exploring the Japan Art Institute in the Meiji period.... helps us understand how painting could become so completely tied to Japan's imperialist ambitions in the 1930s and 1940s" (p. 301). Citing the many honors bestowed on Taikan both in Japan and abroad, and enumerating his many acts of patriotic zeal, Weston writes:

Many Japanese found ways to subvert militarism; Taikan did not try. However difficult it is to accept these activities, they are explained...


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