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  • 洋画 Yōga/The Western Painting, National Painting, and Global Painting of Japan
  • Bert Winther-Tamaki (bio)

Today historians of modern Japanese art typically use the term yōga, literally “Western painting,” to refer to the modern Japanese practice of oil painting that was imported from Europe and to a great extent modeled on European precedents. But so ingrained is the European and American propensity to see Japanese culture through a lens of Asian otherness, that I have given whole lectures about the Westernness of Japanese yōga only to be dumbfounded by questions about how this type of painting related to the Asian discipline of training the consciousness for spiritual insight and tranquility. Let it be clear: there is no relationship other than one of homonyms between yoga meditation exercises and yōga painting. More importantly, the designation of a vast development of modern Japanese painting as “yōga” calls attention to its genealogical linkages to European canons, techniques, iconographies, and styles. Nevertheless, the desire to render yōga more conspicuously Japanese was felt even more keenly by its advocates and critics in Japan than by orientalizing viewers in Europe and North America. We may detect art historian Shimada Yasuhiro’s desire to nationalize yōga within his ostensibly objective characterization of its art historical development: “The Japanization of oil painting was the greatest task for oil painters in Japan from the very moment it was imported from the West.”1 This essay investigates a 1932 forum recording multiple authors’ views of “yōga” to demonstrate how the classificatory power of the word itself branded identities, art works, materials, and techniques with an alienating sense of Western otherness. Then I propose a redeployment of the term to bring three global dimensions of Japanese Western painting into focus: the extension of yōga to other parts of Asia under the auspices of Japanese imperialism, the resonance between appropriations of European art by Japanese artists and similar initiatives by artists elsewhere in the world, and the application of globalization theory to reassess yōga as a medium of globalization. [End Page 127]

First, however, I would like to briefly outline the career of the term yōga.2 In the early Meiji period (1868-1912), when the systematic acquisition of the techniques and practices of European painting first gained the imprimatur of official sponsorship in Japan, it was rarely called yōga. Much more common were terms that referenced not a cultural entity, i.e., “the West,” but rather the material, “oil painting” (abura-e). This initial emphasis on the material reflected the exalted status of oil-on-canvas in European academic practice, the contrast it posed to the water-soluble pigments of pre-Meiji Japanese painting, and the belief that oil painting was a superior technology for apprehending the visual world. However, by the 1880s, these considerations were overshadowed by a preoccupation with the Westernness of this type of painting and there was a shift from the term abura-e (oil painting) to seiyōga (Western painting). At this point, seiyōga was used interchangeably with yōga, its abbreviation. Seiyōga also functioned in opposition to nihonga (Japanese painting), which designated contemporary and pre-Meiji practices of purportedly indigenous Japanese painting. A sense of two competing schools of painting arose in the 1880s, leading a critic to ask: “Will a splendid and refined nihonga have sufficient worth in the future to attract supporters and compete with seiyōga or not?”3 These terms became institutionalized as names of the primary categories of contemporary Japanese painting practice, particularly by the establishment of nihonga and seiyōga submission categories in the government-sponsored salon in 1907. Over the next two decades, yōga designated what was arguably the largest and most innovative sector of Japanese painting practice.

During the Pacific War, in the early 1940s, yōga and nihonga became associated with alternative approaches to the affirmation and glorification of the nation’s military mission. Yōga was preferred for propagandistic scenes of heroic Japanese soldiers in battle, while nihonga tended toward dreamy evocations of Japanese nature, spirit, and history. It was not until after the war that the distinction between Euramerican...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2329-9770
Print ISSN
0913-4700
Pages
pp. 127-136
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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