- Mukai Junkichi’s Transformation from a War to Minka (Folk House) Painter
Mukai Junkichi 向井潤吉 (1901–1995) was a Japanese oil painter, and the stark differences between his wartime works and those of the immediate postwar period, from the 1940s to the mid-1950s, are the focus of this article. Relatively unknown outside Japan, Mukai continues to be well regarded within the country. In particular his paintings featuring minka (lit., “commoner’s house”; often more specifically folk or farmhouses built with methods and materials that predate the age of industrialization) set in rural landscapes still enjoy immense popularity (Figs. 1, 2).1 From the mid-1950s until his death in 1995 Mukai searched for minka all over Japan, and he is supposed to have made more than two thousand pictures of minka in oil on canvas.2 This almost obsessive attachment to minka got Mukai the nickname “Minka no gaka (Painter of Minka),” which is how Mukai is mostly remembered today.
Before engaging with minka as his lifelong theme, however, Mukai was an active propaganda painter during the Asia-Pacific War (1937–1945). His seemingly sudden shift from glorifier of war to idyllic landscape painter has puzzled many art historians and critics. One common explanation given for Mukai’s transformation is colored by the so-called dark valley discourse, which regards Mukai’s contributions to Japan’s war effort as a deviation from the rest of his career.3 Another common hypothesis emphasizes a continuity to be found in his prewar, wartime, and immediate postwar paintings. Based on some of Mukai’s wartime pictures that do not seem to fit into the dominant mode of war propaganda paintings, proponents of that hypothesis argue that Mukai sustained his “interest in people’s various lives”4 or focused his “warm eyes on people”5 even during wartime.
It is true that from the onset of his career rural landscape was one of Mukai’s favorite themes, and thus his wartime paintings, which are almost exclusively of battle scenes, can indeed be considered exceptional in his oeuvre. I also agree with the following point in the second hypothesis: that not all of Mukai’s wartime works were fully compatible with the official discourse, a point on which I elaborate later. Neither hypothesis takes into account, however, that Mukai was not necessarily manipulated by or forced to adopt the military view. Rather, he went to the front voluntarily, produced a number of vigorous works featuring war imagery both for propaganda and as aesthetic exercises, and remained active as a war propaganda artist until the day of Japan’s surrender on 15 August 1945. Given Mukai’s proactive participation in the war effort, one must question the art-historical scholarship that emphasizes his humanism as a thread linking his wartime and postwar works.
This study reexamines the emergence of Mukai’s minka paintings by way of a close investigation of his artistic trajectory from wartime to immediate postwar works. First we shall study Mukai’s prewar activities, which might shed light on his motives in celebrating Japan’s military and its spur to conquest. Next, Mukai’s paintings of the immediate postwar years, relating their two dominant subjects, war veterans and Japanese rural landscape, to his personal experiences of war and his postwar redirection of his art. In conclusion, we shall discuss Mukai’s postwar painting centering on minka, with reference to the contemporary nationwide effort to reconstruct Japanese identity. Taken together, this sequence attempts to demonstrate that, rather than a simple return to his prewar interests, or an embodiment of his unchanging “warm eyes on the people,” Mukai’s devotion to minka was part of the process of reconciling his wartime past with postwar reality.
Mukai’s Early Career
The era of the Asia-Pacific War is known today as Japan’s totalitarian period, during which every sector of society came under the supervision of a militaristic government organized to mobilize all available human and material resources for its unprecedented military campaigns. Punitive sanctions, censorship, and group pressure ensured [End Page 37] the collective subordination of artists. In the later years of the war two quasi-official art organizations, the Patriotic Association...