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  • Beauty in the Age of Empire: Japan, Egypt, and the Global History of Aesthetic Education by Raja Adal
  • Masafumi Okazaki
Beauty in the Age of Empire: Japan, Egypt, and the Global History of Aesthetic Education. By raja adal. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. xvii + 268 pp. ISBN 978-0-231-19116-6. $65.00, £50.00 (hardcover); $64.99, £50.00 (ebook).

The publication of this ambitious book on beauty and nationalism is a welcome event. Raja Adal, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, with a graduate education from Japan and the United States, has analyzed the primary compulsory education in both Japan and Egypt from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. Given Adal’s unique academic background and mastery of both the Japanese and Arabic languages, this book is focused on the transformation of Japan’s and Egypt’s aesthetic education, specifically in music, drawing, and writing education.

In the field of aesthetic education, there has been a dearth of comparative research on Japan and Egypt in a global context. This valuable book is, I believe, the first on the subject. This rarity is understandable, because it has been difficult to overcome such formidable hurdles as differences in religion, culture, politics, gender, language, and especially school systems. Thus, scholars must investigate both countries from philosophical, sociopolitical, and postcolonial perspectives. Adal examines closely both countries’ school curricula, teaching manuals, and textbooks—especially for primary school—which has been deeply influenced by the West and its pedagogy.

As one of a nation’s most vital institutions, education creates and perpetuates societal values and practices for future generations, enhancing the possibility of creating and preserving a national identity. The education systems of both Japan and Egypt have been tightly state-controlled to teach pupils state-approved subjects, using the common curricula, textbooks, and training for teachers. Education has never been isolated from the government’s ideological objectives of producing “good workers and loyal soldiers” (p. 21). To accomplish this goal, each country has attempted “to harness aesthetic education for its own purposes” (p. 28).

Historically, music had been associated with religion and the military. National anthems and martial music have perpetuated throughout generations and have become engrained in our collective memory. Music touches our soul, moves us, and pulls at our heartstrings; music is “the language and expression of the heart” (p. 44). Educators [End Page 643] not only regard music as the language of the heart, but also recognize it as a tool to reinforce children’s moral education.

In both Japan and Egypt, music textbooks in primary school were censored, fearing that students might absorb “evil music.” With the advent of the phonograph and then records, children became accustomed to listening to popular music outside of school. Japanese educators considered popular music degenerate and dangerous, while Egyptian educators regarded it as cheap and vulgar. Introducing music class as a required subject in school was thus an “antidote” against popular music (p. 68).

Japan and Egypt have similarities in drawing education, because their school curricula were modeled after the British and the French. More specifically, the South Kensington School of drawing education, which aims to improve functional and mechanical skills through linear and geometric drawing methods, was adopted in British public schools in 1853, and the method spread across the globe together with Western expansion. It was natural for Japan and Egypt to acquire such practical knowledge, in order to quickly produce a skilled labor force. For non-Western society, catching up with the colonial West was an urgent task. Nevertheless, a counter-movement arose: freehand drawing education.

The aim of freehand drawing education was to inspire “children’s powers of expression” (p. 159) and to dominate among the schools of drawing education. Freehand drawing education emphasizes a child’s freedom, and, in turn, educators have deemed that it would create a “humanist child who could use art to express her inner subjective self” (p. 165). This trend, however, was ephemeral in Japan. Collective loyalty to the Emperor was harnessed as Imperial Japan rushed into war against China and the United States. Japanese educators then stressed children’s “human cultivation,” and encouraged pupils...


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