Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 26, 2001
Elise Tipton and John Clark, eds. Being Modern in Japan: Culture and Society from the 1910s to the 1930s Philadelphia: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1999. 224 pp.; Many b/w ills. Paper $24.00 (0824823605)

The historical identity of modernism is one marked by global outlooks, humanism in the arts, technological invention, rational economics, and democratic principles. This identity is also frequently depicted as a paradigm of thought minted in the West and exported around the world through the veins of communication, commerce, and colonialism. Being Modern in Japan: Culture and Society from the 1910s to the 1930s exposes how the concepts embodied in Western modernism were negotiated in Japan. In doing so, editors Elise K. Tipton and John Clark reorient modernism, unpacking its totality and displaying the way a society may interpret and weigh modernism’s uses within the contexts of its own institutions.

In the West, modernism could not be conceived as Western. Instead, its identity was seen as the logical progression of history. The editors’ introduction informs us that in Japan modernism’s claim to progress was intrinsically linked to Otherness. In doing so, the book’s explication of how modernism was received and reconstructed as modanizuma is relevant to both the study of Japanese history and students seeking to redress the West’s own conception of the modern in the postmodern era.

Being Modern in Japan: Culture and Society from the 1910s to the 1930s focuses on the transitional period of Japanese society between the Meiji period of the 1880s through the Taisho and early Showa periods, and up to the ultranationalist era of the late 1930s. The eleven essayists concentrate on the arts and consumer culture of early twentieth century Japan and discuss the confluence of historical and social forces that gave modernism its particular qualities. Delineating the semantic change of “the modern” between periods while explaining its practices within the different segments of Japanese society, they address distinct ruptures in the fields of fine art, graphic art, architecture, cuisine, architecture, popular literature, and social and political organization. In essence, two illusionary monoliths are shattered here: the totality of modernism and the uniformity of Japan.

The book opens with Mizusawa Tsutomu’s essay “The Artists Start to Dance: the Changing Image of the Body in Art of the Taisho Period.” Mizusawa documents how a group of artists engaged the physicality and life force of painting. Tracing the path of the painter Yorozu Tetsugoro, he relates the artist’s rebellion against the academic style of Western painting. The author links Yorozu to the Nietzschean vitalism of German Expressionism and the paintings and prints of Ludwig Ernst Kirchner. The relationship between the two artists is portrayed first as a coincidental reaction to fin-de-siècle Symbolism and later as a matter of uncanny synchronicity.

Kirchner and Yorozu are shown to choose and execute similar subject material. In their paintings, bodies are electrically charged, flexed, and confidently rendered. Subjects spring from the surface of the paintings, extending the reach of the artists’ hands and engaging the viewer.

Yorozu, a student of the Tokyo School of Fine Art, and surely aware of Kirchner’s work, is no mere copyist of German Expressionist style. Mizusawa’s essay reveals that his commitment to a radically primitive conception of the human as animal, with its essence and core lying beneath the apparel of civilization, was both sincere and revolutionary in the context of the Japanese fine art community. Kirchner and Yorozu are shown to derive inspiration from common sources: the popular attractions of Japanese circuses and the high-wire excitement of man metaphorically unleashed from tradition.

Showing Yorozu’s early affinity for acrobats and divers as subjects, Mizusawa points to the artist’s later insistence that art exists not on the canvas but in the body of the artist. In doing so, this essay provides an important reference for these seeking to trace the origins of Japanese performance art.

The second essay, John Clark’s “Indices of Modernity: Changes in Popular Reprographic Representation,” turns to the graphic arts to explore the nuanced fabrication of Japanese modernity. Here, Clark insists that by looking closely at technological and stylistic changes in the graphic arts one can better understand the evolution of modernism in Japan.

Clark centers his analysis on Taiyo (the Sun Magazine), published in Tokyo between 1895 and 1928. He begins by isolating formal styles of imagery and text and moves to analyze their interaction within the layout of the magazine. He also provides a comprehensive chronology of Japanese printing and publishing in an appendix. Undermining the conventional narrative of Japanese modernism, his longitudinal study questions the notion that Japanese modernism is indexed by an increased gradation between “popular” and “fine” arts. Through numerous examples, he shows there has been a great amount on mediation between the genres, including the circulation of artists as producers and illustrators in popular publications.

Additionally, Clark argues that changes in society, such as moves toward political liberalism, women’s rights, and a loosening of traditional hierarchies, did not precede the new ways images were constructed in the mass media outlets. “Modernism in Japanese art,” he insists, “did not depend on modernist social customs or mass media technology for its advent, however much it was connected with these for its later reception and diffusion” (26). For Clark, it was the advent of the new means of production and the relationships therein—along with new ways of reading and ultimately new ways of being—that constructed the modernist subject and artist. Finally, Clark also examines the reflexive quality of Japanese Modernism. Cultural distance from Euro-American discourse, he argues, allowed for a uniquely selective and even eclectic postmodern take on European modernism.

The eclectic and selective nature of modernism in Japan is explored further in essays on food, architecture, and entertainment complexes. Jordan Sand’s essay, "The Cultured Life as Contested Space: Dwelling and Discourse in the 1920s, " tells the story of the architectural and ethnographic exhibitions of the Taisho Period, where Western-style domiciles were put on display as “Culture Houses” and “Cultural Villages.” Informed by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu—known for his theory of habitus—Sands shows the interest in “culture” was as much a sign of a widening recognition of foreign or “Other” patterns of living as an awakening to the mutability of everyday experience.

Tomoko Aoyama’s essay, “The Divided Appetite: ‘Eating’ in the Literature of the 1920s,” illustrates how such a renewed attention to the processes of the “everyday” can result in substantial historical documentation. Surveying the literature of the 1920s, Aoyama culls and analyzes the representation of food production, consumption, and ritual as a way of reconstructing lifeworlds. “The varying perceptions of food and eating determine the form and rhetoric of representation; metaphor, allegory, and symbolism are used in both realistic and fantastic narratives for different purposes” (166). In proletarian literature, food functions as a sign of class struggle; in women’s literature, it plays a role in illustrating gender division. By concentrating on commonalities, a deeper understanding of history is found.

Elise K. Tipton, in her essay “The Café: Contested Space of Modernity in Interwar Japan,” asks whether the attention to the consumer and entertainment practices of the Japanese is warranted on the eve of the rise of the rightist regime of the 1930s. She responds that contemporaries described the café as the most important symbol of modern life. Surveying this discourse, Tipton insists that “In these writings we can see that, like modernity as a whole, the café provoked reactions running the gamut from glowing praise and enthusiasm to severe moral condemnation and rejection” (119). Her consideration of the café rests somewhere between a study of theater and a study of street life, where the liberated and ritualized space serves as the playground or dreamspace for a society’s ambitions, anxieties, and fantasies.

Many of the essays in Being Modern in Japan: Culture and Society from the 1910s to the 1930s are generously illustrated with black-and-white photographs. Several exhibit poems, songs, and journal entries. These features, in concert with the intimate subject matter of the essays, describe how modernism was experienced and give the entire volume a poetic, as well as a historical, appeal. This books well-documented and multifaceted portrayal of a society in a self-conscious state of flux ensures that it will be appreciated by scholars from a wide variety of disciplines.

David Michalski
Visual Arts Library, School of Visual Arts