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  • Public Properties: Museums in Imperial Japan by Noriko Aso
  • Tom Havens (bio)
Public Properties: Museums in Imperial Japan. By Noriko Aso. Duke University Press, Durham, N.C., 2013. xiv, 301 pages. $99.95, cloth; $27.95, paper.

This wise and learned book addresses the creation of publics and publicness in imperial Japan through analysis of national and private museums and other exhibition spaces where crafts, art works, and industrial products were displayed to growing audiences of both Japanese and colonized subjects. The historian Noriko Aso argues convincingly that “publicness was, and is, historically negotiated” (p. 222) between state and society from the late nineteenth century through World War II. The author addresses both government-sponsored and private efforts to create new publics for exhibitions of many kinds. By displaying crafts, industrial goods, and so-called heritage artifacts at product displays (kankōba), world’s fairs, and government museums, the Meiji state sought to educate members of the newly conceptualized general public about their shared past and indoctrinate them in a common consciousness of nationality (“Japaneseness”). Japanese colonial museums in Seoul and Taibei were intended “to cultivate a sense of shared imperial identity within different ethnic populations” (p. 3), with predictably divergent consequences in Korea and Taiwan. Private museums emerged early in the twentieth century to offer strikingly different representational visions from that of the central elite: contemporary Western art in Kurashiki, a planned museum of commoners’ economic history, and a folk crafts museum at Komaba in Tokyo. At the same time, department stores such as Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya presented exhibits “alongside—and sometimes in competition with—state cultural institutions” (p. 7). Aso’s rich, deeply researched narrative draws on abundant archival material while also acknowledging the contributions to her topic by scholars such as Kim Brandt, Henry Em, Christine Guth, Terade Kōji, Alice Tseng, and Yoshimi Shun’ya. The result is an informative and persuasive account, augmented by extensive illustrations and written in smooth, witty, even elegant prose.

The author shows that the Edo-era focus on the natural world led to a proposal in 1869 to create a government-sponsored display centering on a botanical garden. Soon the focus shifted to stimulating modern economic [End Page 443] growth by exhibiting industrial products, both at home and at world’s fairs, while underscoring Japan’s distinctive identity. The Fifth National Exhibition at Osaka in 1903 featured Taiwan as primitive, requiring “enlightened Japanese leadership … to bring Taiwan to ‘the next level of progress’ by introducing modern rationality” (pp. 43–44). State-organized displays sought audiences of women and children as well as men; evening and weekend hours were scheduled so that persons of all backgrounds could attend, whereas the national museum at Tokyo (established in 1871, moved to Ueno Park in 1882) seemed intended at first mainly for elites. This museum became a facility for educating the public, but in 1886 it fell under the control of the Imperial Household Ministry, then evolved in 1900 into the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum to showcase what were now deemed the emperor’s possessions for his subjects to admire. Aso argues that this evolution reflected the Meiji government’s reconfiguration of “‘imperial’ to serve as a mediating buffer in negotiating boundaries between state and society and between public and private” (pp. 63–64). Displays at government museums at Ueno, Nara, and Kyoto emphasized Japan’s premodern art objects as imperial property; these institutions drew growing audiences through much of the 1920s, advancing the state goal of “promoting the prestige of the imperial family and its role as public benefactor” (p. 83).

Especially insightful is a chapter on colonial Japanese museums in Taiwan and Korea. The Government-General Museum of Taiwan, established in 1908, emphasized the island’s difference from the continent, especially in its agricultural and mining resources to serve the Japanese empire. At the same time, “aboriginal groups were selectively cast as Other in the displays in order to persuade ethnic Chinese in Taiwan to identify as Japanese subjects” (p. 100). More colonial museums were built throughout the island in the 1920s and 1930s to educate students and the general population about local landscapes and natural features not found on...


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pp. 443-446
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