Japanese History and Contemporary Art

The history of Japan can be divided broadly into four periods: the period ruled by tenno (Japanese emperor), in which a deep connection existed with religion, the period in which samurai came to power, the period between the Meiji Restoration and pre-war and the modern post-war period. The greatest changes in history occurred during the period between pre-war and post-war Japan, which resulted in a paradigm shift.

One of the most significant characteristics that can be observed in the history of Japan is that the period ruled by tenno and samurai (military government) was very long, without any sudden revolt initiated by the citizens. The connection between the Restoration of Imperial Rule and the modern state remained strong well into the Meiji era, leaving little to develop until the change in the post-war political system when democracy was established. Only after this point did a huge and sudden paradigm shift occur in society. (*1)

Over 70 years have passed since the end of the war, and Japan is now a G7 member. On the surface, Japan appears to be the same as any Western country. However, the effect of the historic change remains within the country to this very day. While the difference between the outside and inside is not as significant as it was during the immediate post-war period, a complex inner structure still exists that completely differs from the outside world in the Japanese consciousness.

I believe that the largest changes in the history of Japan occurred before and after the war. However, a quite long period of time will be required until such an understanding of history can be established.

Art is a part of society and therefore it reflects events that occurred throughout history as well as in the social consciousness. The art of modern Japan is intermingled with Japanese as well as Western-style paintings from the pre-war period, contemporary art from the post-war period, along with art from America and Europe. Many art museums collect works of art based on such classifications. However, contemporary art in Japan still differs from that in the West, both in terms of perception as well as structure, reflecting our modern society as a whole.

I would like to put classic art aside and focus on contemporary art. Similar to Japan’s history, I believe that a quite long period of time will be required until the difference in perception between Japanese contemporary art and that of America and Europe disappears. The parties concerned are required to familiarize themselves with the global situation and make persistent efforts until it is materialized.

Artists eventually leave their home region and country to experience other forms of art that are available throughout the world. The majority of the world’s art has become standardized. I mentioned earlier that the difference between Japanese art and that of the West would remain for a quite long period of time. However, Japanese art has started to merge with Western art. Japanese artists are required to pay attention to commonalities in the world to create works of art that reflect these traits. “Typically Japanese” works of art no longer exist. Still, it is natural for viewers to sense such quality in the background. I believe that maintaining this point of view is the best form of education for future artists, although I fully appreciate that doing so is difficult.

Nonverbal culture was established during the period when the government was ruled by tenno. Shintoism do not have a sacred scripture. Samurai honored their own view of life and death. Even though void or emptiness is one of characteristics observed in Japanese culture, I do not like emphasizing these characteristics in expression.

Minimalism, which is created using minimal expression, is different from a concept of that in Japan. Art is a form of work produced in society and therefore it must provide the citizens with energy and some sort of benefit. Although void or emptiness is characteristics observed in Japanese culture, I do not agree with expressing a sense of emptiness for viewers to see. Japanese artists must not forget this point.

Eizo Nishio, May 2017

 

*1: Please refer to the essay entitled Modern Japanese Society and the Tenno System (Japanese emperor system)  for further details of changes to the system in Japan between the prewar and postwar periods.

 

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