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  • "Fair Japan":On Art and War at theSaint Louis World's Fair, 1904
  • Miya Elise Mizuta (bio)

Horizon there is none: only distance soaring into space,—infinite concavity hollowing before you, and hugely arching above you,—the color deepening with the height. But far in the midway-blue there hangs a faint, faint vision of palace towers, with high roofs horned and curved like moons,—some shadowing of splendor strange and old, illumined by a sunshine soft as memory.

[…]

And the Vision is fading, —never again to appear save in pictures and poems and dreams….

—Lafcadio Hearn, "Hôrai," 19041

Three-Point Perspective

The success of Japan's art exhibitions at the St. Louis World's Fair, 1904 earned Japan the reputation of being considered "one of the first nations of the world" at the same time that it embarked on its first war with a Western power in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). This essay engages two texts that were produced on the occasion of [End Page 28] the St. Louis World's Fair: "Modern Problems in Painting," delivered as a lecture at the fair by the critic and art historian Okakura Kakuzo, who later served as curator of Asian art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and "The Inebriated Beauty" (Suibijin, 1905), a short story set at the fair written by a central literary figure of the modern period, Nagai Kafû. In "Modern Problems in Painting" Okakura articulates a connection between art and war—art as a form of warfare in which its distribution becomes a method of cultural defense. Kafû's "The Inebriated Beauty," which was later included in his well-known collection American Stories (Amerika monogatari, 1908), depicts the "true" story that ostensibly inspired an American artist's painting of a semi-nude beauty exhibited at the fair. In this work Kafû reevaluates his position as a Japanese author and viewer, first against the American landscape and then against the figure of the beautiful woman in the artwork.

The figure of the beautiful woman, or the bijin (the word "bijin" appears in the title of Kafû's story, "Suibijin") can be thought to highlight the confluence of literature and art, history and art, truth and art, and war and art, at the turn of the twentieth century during the era of Japan's imperial expansion. By the end of the Meiji period (1868-1912) the bijin became one of the most enduring images to signify Japan as a nation of "the far East" and was one of the primary figures through which Japan presented itself to the West.2 As such, the bijin served as one of the vanishing points of Japanese modernity on the international horizon, a horizon that demanded Japan situate itself in a global context. This paper analyzes Kafû's "Inebriated Beauty" by reading it alongside Okakura's "Modern Problems in Painting" and employs a comparative perspective because, in part, these texts—one literary and written in Japanese ("Inebriated Beauty"), the other critical and written in English ("Modern Problems in Painting")—demand such an approach. Written by men famous in their respective spheres, they appear against the redefinition of "fine art" at the St. Louis World's Fair and challenge the divisions between war and art. The perspective of the recent centennial in 2004 of the St. Louis World's Fair adds another position from which to address these two works, as I raise questions about the construction of Japanese aesthetic space through the feminine figure of the bijin.

During the era of Japonisme, the fashion for Japanese art and culture in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Japanese woman became a familiar figure outside Japan as a decorative motif on ceramics, a popular subject of ukiyo-e prints, and appeared as well in illustrated books, and later, photographs. Ukiyo-e was one of the means, if not the primary means, whereby the bijin achieved [End Page 29] international recognition. Accompanying the debut of the Japanese woman abroad as an artistic image, the feminized image of the country Japan was further reinforced by the many "geisha girls" sent to various World's Fairs.3 Among the artistic images...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-1810
Print ISSN
1522-5321
Pages
pp. 28-52
Launched on MUSE
2008-03-12
Open Access
No
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