Analysing The Relationship Between Nihonga and Politics

The extent to which Nihonga (日本画) (1) is entangled with politics is a contested issue. The term was first used in the late 19th century to differentiate between Japanese-style paintings and those which incorporated Western techniques and conventions, termed Yōga (洋画). John M. Rosenfield in Nihonga and Its Resistance to ‘the Scorching Drought of Modern Vulgarity’ and Asato Ikeda in The Politics of Painting: Fascism and Japanese Art during the Second World War each discuss the relationship between Nihonga and politics, both utilise the example of painter Yokoyama Taikan and his works.

Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958) was a renown Nihonga artist, who reached the height of his fame during the period of the Asia-Pacific War from 1937-1945. Rosenfield argues that although Taikan fully supported Japan’s policies, his works are not overtly political. Nevertheless, some of the dominating themes of Nihonga, such as national identity and emphasis on cultural roots, did align with domestic policy. Similarly, Rosenfield notes that the international elements of Nihonga (including Taikan’s visits to India in 1903 and China in 1910) aligned with Japan’s objectives in Asia. He also noted Nihonga’s links to the Imperial household. Although Rosenfield cites perceived ties to nationalism as part of the reason why Nihonga is not as widely appreciated in the West, he argues that the primary reason is the prevalence of Modernism (2), and that its values are diametrically opposite to those of Nihonga.

Ikeda, in contrast, takes a stronger stance on the relationship between Nihonga and politics – that Nihonga is intimately entwined with fascism. Whereas Rosenfield seems to regard Taikan’s political stance as separate from his artworks, Ikeda uses Taikan’s political writings and opinions to support an interpretation of Taikan’s paintings as epitomising the aesthetics of fascism. Ikeda also refers to the highly political locations where Taikan’s work was exhibited (3) and how he sold paintings to raise money for the military to further support his argument. However, it is the references to reviews at the time (4) that most strongly suggests that these paintings were indeed received as promoting the fascist policy of the state. Taikan frequently used Mount Fuji to symbolise the Japanese nation and the sun to represent the imperial family (who were said to be direct descendants of the sun goddess Amaterasu). His depictions of Mount Fuji were admired as “symbols of Japanese spirit”. Taikan’s art aligns with the ideology of Japanese fascism that Japanese culture had been detrimentally affected by the West and must be returned to its former glory. Thus, Ikeda argues that consideration of the socio-political climate is vital when analysing Nihonga of this period, specifically how it was received and interpreted at the time.

Nihonga has long been popular domestically in Japan but perhaps, with the advent of post-modernism and the temporal distance from the Asia-Pacific war ever-increasing, Nihonga might reach similar acclaim in the West.

Footnotes:

  1. Nihonga translates to Japanese-style painting.
  2. Rosenfield, John M. “Nihonga and Its Resistance to ‘the Scorching Drought of Modern Vulgarity.’.” Births and rebirths in Japanese art. Essays celebrating the inauguration ot the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures. Leiden: Hotei Publishing (2001), pp.163.
  3. For example, works by Yokoyama Taikan were displayed in the the 2600th Anniversary of the Imperial Reign Exhibition.
  4. “Kawaji Ryūkō writes, ‘His Mt. Fuji is not Mt. Fuji depicted simply as visual beauty, but rather as the “symbol of Japanese spirit.”’” and ‘Tōyama Takashi similarly noted that “spiritual aims underlie his work and whatever material subjects appear in his paintings are merely a means of projection into the spiritual.”’ (Ikeda, Asato. The Politics of Painting: Fascism and Japanese Art during the Second World War. University of Hawaii Press, 2018. pp.38.)

References:

Ikeda, Asato. The Politics of Painting: Fascism and Japanese Art during the Second World War. University of Hawaii Press, 2018.

Rosenfield, John M. “Nihonga and Its Resistance to ‘the Scorching Drought of Modern Vulgarity.’.” Births and rebirths in Japanese art. Essays celebrating the inauguration ot the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures. Leiden: Hotei Publishing (2001), pp.163-197.

One Reply to “Analysing The Relationship Between Nihonga and Politics”

  1. Hi Zoe, fantastic summary of both articles! What do you personally think about Taikan’s politics and his painting? Do you think his work is political? I agree with Ikeda in this instance, as his themes seem to be political, especially given the context of when they were created.

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