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positions: east asia cultures critique 8.3 (2000) 637-673

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Was Meiji Taste in Interiors “Orientalist”?

Jordan Sand


The Meiji elite adopted many of the styles and tastes of the Victorian West. In domestic architecture, this is seen particularly in the interiors of “Western-style” pavilions and reception rooms (yokan or yoma). This style, however, cannot be construed in any simple sense as Western. Most of these houses were built by Japanese carpenters and reveal the construction techniques to which native craftsmen were accustomed. Rooms were often appointed with furnishings both domestic and foreign in manufacture, along with Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian antiquities, arranged and designed in accordance with contemporary Japanese conceptions of Western taste (or of the elements of that taste conceived to harmonize with Japanese taste). Both of these terms—Western taste and Japanese—must themselves be recognized as unstable, receiving definition in the process of their complementary deployment. [End Page 637]

This essay is exploratory. My exploration draws primarily from an issue of the magazine Fujin gaho, or the Ladies' Graphic, published in 1906. The Ladies' Graphic began publication in 1905, at the height of the Russo-Japanese War. A special issue on interior decorating appeared the following year. The images in this issue invite a number of questions about the aesthetic choices of the Meiji elite and about the relations between objects, interiors, and photographic representations in Japan's domestic market during the age of global imperialism. The intent of this essay is to bring these questions to the fore and propose some schemas for ordering our observations.

The theoretical frame for these questions is the problem of orientalism. At the risk of radically reducing the subtleties of Edward Said's formulation, I will treat orientalism as a colonial way of seeing the world that situates or interprets culture so as to legitimate existing relations of political power.1 Japan's ambiguous international position clearly complicates the application of Said's term. The interest of our common theme, colonizer and colonized, derives from precisely this complication.

Since the end of the Meiji period, the Meiji elite have often been characterized as superficial imitators of the West. Western houses, along with the bustle and the frock coat, are icons of an era conceived as politically bold but culturally derivative. As the business of recovering and preserving the national heritage in Japan has progressed, a number of Meiji buildings have now been included in the Japanese architectural canon. Ex post facto recognition of the originality of certain exceptional Japanese designers does not, however, alter the standard view of Meiji modernizers as “mimic men” trying in vain to be Western but doomed merely to be Westernized. We could call this interpretation of Meiji a discourse of Japan the colonized. The West is the cultural imperialist and Japan the colonized subject. This view of Japanese modernity continues to flourish today.2

At the opposite pole, the Japanese might instead be seen as uniquely well-situated to adapt the cultural knowledge and goods of both East and West, drawing freely from the West, from China and Korea, and from native traditions. If these appropriations work somehow to reaffirm the project of Japanese imperial expansion and Japan's role as colonizer in Asia, then we might call the result orientalist in a manner true to Said. [End Page 638]

The opposition of these two aesthetic assessments seems ultimately reducible to a question of command over representations. We view Japan or Japanese people (note that the two often get conflated in this context3) as either in control of representations of Japaneseness or in the thrall of representations emanating from the dominant West. The question of command over national representations, however, imagines individual agents as mere shadows of nation-states, dominant and appropriating or dominated and derivative. In an era when the Japanese state was unquestionably struggling for a position in the global imperial order, the problem of nation inevitably loomed large in every domain of culture. Yet actual individual tastes always depend on a complex set of variables, including region...


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