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  • Reality Within and Without:Surrealism in Japan and China in the Early 1930s
  • Chinghsin Wu (bio)

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, when Kuroda Seiki, a Japanese pioneer of Western-style paintings, systematically introduced Japan to new art methods and concepts inspired by impressionism, Japanese artists eagerly adopted each successive modern art trend, enthusiastically embracing post-impressionism, futurism, expressionism, and so on, in turn. On one hand, this enthusiasm for Western modern art trends reflected Japanese artists’ strong desire to integrate themselves into global artistic modernism, a desire that dated back to the Meiji period (1868-1912) and corresponded to the broader Westernization policies pursued by the Meiji government. On the other hand, this enthusiasm for Western ideas often placed artists and their works in conflict with emerging anti-Western and even anti-modernist voices within an increasingly nationalistic Japanese society. Differing from the artists of the Meiji period, who tended to produce orthodox Western-style paintings and persuade Japanese audiences and critics to accept them by implementing Western-style art systems and institutions, Japanese artists in the 1910s and 1920s digested newly-imported Western art trends more individualistically and idiosyncratically, adapting these trends in ways that suited ongoing social and political transformations in Japanese society.1

By the time surrealism arrived in Japan in the 1920s, Japanese artists had developed a strong self-awareness of Western art practice and many of them explicitly aimed to produce surrealist artworks that were both commensurable to and distinct from Western surrealism. An important aspect of the commensurability of Japanese, and later Chinese, surrealism was the pervasive conviction that not only could Asian artists produce surrealism that measured up to the highest standards of Western theorists, but that Asians could produce a surrealism that was superior to or surpassed that of Westerners. Interestingly however, the distinctions drawn by Asian surrealist artists and theorists, and in some cases their claims of superiority, for the most part were not predicated on racial [End Page 189] or cultural distinctions or ideas of national uniqueness. Rather, even the distinctions that Japanese and Chinese artists claimed for themselves were characterized within a fully commensurate lexicon of modernist scientism and rationality.

In this essay, I examine the main theoretical approaches to surrealism in East Asia, the resultant intellectual debates on surrealism, and individual artists’ responses and reactions. These polyphonic responses to surrealism by Japanese and Chinese artists and critics not only enrich our understanding of the global map of surrealism, but at the same time, illustrate how the surrealist visual idiom was employed strategically to respond to ongoing social and political transformations and prevailing art discourses in Japan or China.

Surrealism in Japan

Compared to many previous modern art movements, some of which were imported into Japan several years after they had originated in the West, surrealism arrived in Japan with much greater alacrity. In 1925, just one year after André Breton published his seminal manifesto on surrealism, a Japanese poet, Nishiwaki Junzaburō, who had just returned from Europe with avant-garde ideas and texts, began introducing surrealism to Japan.2 That same year another Japanese poet, Kitasono Katsue, introduced the poetry of Louis Aragon, André Breton, and Paul Éluard in the magazine Bungei tanbi (Literary Aesthetics).3 Three years later, Kitasono, Ueda Toshio, and Ueda Tamotsu wrote “A Note—December 1927” in which they proclaimed that the progress of the “senses” in surrealism would be the primary inspiration for their writing.4

Thereafter, surrealist ideas proliferated rapidly in Japan, and a wide range of surrealist materials were translated into Japanese by poets, critics, and artists. In 1929, when several young Japanese artists, including Abe Kongō, Tōgō Seiji, and Koga Harue, exhibited a series of provocative works in the ninth room of the Second Section Exhibition (Nikkaten), the largest annual avant-garde exhibition in Japan, several of their works were deemed “surreal” by critics, thus marking the beginning of surrealism as a visual practice in Japan. By 1930, surrealism as a visual art movement was being widely discussed and debated in Japanese art journals and magazines.5

The widespread discussion and embrace of surrealist practice did not necessarily imply unconditional acceptance. Although European surrealist artists’ and theorists’ works...