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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 37.4 (2003) 3-11

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A Historical Overview of Art Education in Japan


The stage of art education in Japan that was given its form by "imports" from overseas — mainly Western countries — is now over. Recently, even at international art education conferences and similar venues, a wide range of dynamic presentations and speeches were heard representing Japan's unique perspective. There is, however, a rather long and involved history leading up to this shift.

In this essay, I present a general outline and an overview of art education in Japan, by looking back at the transitions this system of education has undergone. My hope is to increase understanding of the unique features of art education in Japan, examining the characteristics ofmodern art education, and determining the form that art education should take in the future.

The Birth of Art Education: 1872-1910

Art education in Japan began in 1872 with the promulgation of the "Gakusei" as a formal system for school education. 1 It was in this same year that Germany introduced a similar system, an indication that Japan was more or less in step with advanced Western nations. Moreover, from the end of the Tokugawa shogunate through to the Meiji era (1868-1912), the seeds of Westernization had clearly taken root. Although the term "art education" is used, for many years the emphasis in art education was on drawing.

The first curriculum was established at this time. In the context of art education, Kikagaku Keiga Taii [Introduction to Geometrical Line Drawing] (renamed Keiga the following month) was introduced as a compulsory subject in upper elementary grades (students 10 to 13 years of age) at ordinary elementary schools. Keiga referred to a method of copying pictures from a copybook using graph paper — a method that was extremely restrictive and emphasized practicality.

By 1887, under the new government's policy, Westernization was being promoted in all aspects of society, including politics and culture. Art education was no exception, as Western style education began to focus on pencil drawings. During this period, a liberal system for issuing and selecting textbooks was in place, and a consequently a large number of art-related texts were issued. The first drawing textbook in Japan was Seiga Shinan [Guide to [End Page 3] Western Pictures] (1871), a translation of "The Illustrated Drawing Book" by English author Robert Scott Burn, with selected figure quotations from"The American Drawing-Book" by American author John G. Chapman. 2 In addition to these texts, many other books on drawing and the natural sciences were quoted. These textbooks adopted a pragmatic approach, using a "progressive method" in which students were taught to draw easy subjects and gradually moved to more difficult ones.

The next significant change came in the form of calls for nationalism, as a reaction to the wave of Westernization early in the Meiji period. Educationalcircles underwent a shift toward nationalist education, and the art worldexperienced a resurgence in traditional Japanese art led by the American Ernest Fenollosa and Tenshin Okakura, among others. Reflecting this trend, a large number of brush painting textbooks were written, and an authorization system similar to the one currently in effect was adopted. The ZugaTorishirabe Gakari [the Committee for the Study of Drawing] was launched in 1885, and then reorganized in 1887, at which time it was renamed the Tokyo Fine Arts School (currently the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music). The education offered at this new institution placed a strong emphasis on purely Japanese elements.

In 1903, the Elementary School Order was revised and government-designated textbooks were issued. This system remained in force from 1904 until 1947. The debate surrounding pencil drawing and brush painting continued, and two types of texts were issued — a Enpitsuga Tehon [pencil drawing copybook] and a Mohitsuga Tehon [brush painting copybook] — either of which could be used by the instructor. Both copybooks had similar configurations, with copying as the basic theme, and using a progressive study method. Drawing was still an optional subject in ordinary elementary schoolsat the...


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