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  • From The Representation of “Japan” in Wartime World’s Fairs Modernists and “Japaneseness”
  • Yamamoto Sae (bio)
    Translated by Aoki Fujio (bio), Jessica Jordan (bio), and Paul W. Ricketts (bio)

This selection was excerpted from Yamamoto Sae’s book The Representation of “Japan” in Wartime World’s Fairs (Senjika no banpaku to “Nihon” no hyōshō) published in 2012. Yamamoto’s book is an important contribution to the scholarship on world’s fairs as a modern political paradigm that includes Yoshimi Shunya’s Politics of Exposition Fairs (Hakurankai no seijigaku, 1992), Inoue Shōichi’s Wartime Architects: Art, Kitsch, and the Japanesque (Senjika no kenchikuka: āto, kitchu, japanesuku, 1995), and Sawaragi Noi’s World Wars and World Fairs (Sensō to banpaku, 2005). In this study, Yamamoto embarks on a detailed examination of world’s fairs in 1939: the New York World’s Fair and the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. According to the author, the Japanese government saw these events as important opportunities to repair the frayed relationship with the United States after the Panay Incident of 1937, the diplomatic faux pas in which the Japanese Navy sank an American gunboat anchored near Nanjing. Even though the Japanese government had planned to stage its own fair in 1940 and hoped that reaching out to the United States by eliciting their participation would mitigate the political fallout, this plan was canceled in July of 1938.i Therefore, Japanese participation in the two fairs in the United States in 1939 provides the only tangible evidence of how the fair slated for 1940 might have looked.

One pivotal concern in Yamamoto’s study is the shift in the paradigm governing exhibitions. After its first showing in the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873, the Japanese government chose to display Japanese culture through native artifacts. But, according to the author, this policy shifted drastically after the Paris exposition of 1937. The world’s fairs in New York and San Francisco were the first events in which visual representation and environmental design became more central than displaying cultural objects. Each chapter of The Representation of “Japan” in Wartime World’s Fairs, therefore, delves into different strategies of space and signs that were used to construct the Japanese national [End Page 104] imaginary. The first chapter provides a general overview of the layout of the Japanese sections and introduces the various components that constituted the Japanese pavilions in San Francisco and New York. The second chapter examines the representation of Japaneseness in paintings and traditional crafts that were submitted to the fairs. The third chapter discusses how traditional motifs were captured on film. The fourth hones in on how photography and film were also used to depict the industrial and scientific ethos of Japan. The last chapter, which is excerpted here, deals with discussions of modern architecture, interior design, and various debates that pertain to traditional buildings. These events presented two images of Japan, or at least sought to negotiate between two facets of the nation: “a nation of ancient traditions” and “a nation of new developments.”

By focusing her research on the intersections of architecture, photography, bureaucracy, and crafts that were rolled into this single-minded project of portraying an ideal Japanese nation, Yamamoto is able to demonstrate the complex imbrication of art and politics. Her findings reveal that there was never a consensus on “Japaneseness” among the planners. Negotiations took place not only between Japan and the United States, but also among the artists and officials who were responsible for presenting Japan to the world. Perhaps this lack of consensus contributed to the relative ineffectiveness of these efforts. She notes: “In that sense, it is possible to see this as Japan’s ‘failed attempts at cultural propaganda.’ But what becomes apparent is that this is not so much a matter of ‘failure or success,’ as a concern for how the Japanese sought to present their own image to the outside world, or which image they wanted others to see. The images transmitted in order to showcase a ‘true Japan’ might have constituted a less than realistic portrait, but it was nevertheless a utopian Japanese nation found nowhere else.”ii

(Kenichi Yoshida)

Modernists’ Theory...