Japanese culture & Chikanobu: ukiyo-e and East, West or a Japanese identity?
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
Yoshu Chikanobu (Chikanobu Toyohara) was a Meiji artist who highlighted many aspects of this revolutionary period in Japan. Chikanobu, like other Meiji artists, was often overlooked in the past but today the art world is changing. Therefore, artists who belonged to this period are now being recognized for the talents they had in abundance.
Chikanobu provides images which show the many faces of Japan and just like the modern period in Japan in the twenty-first century, it is obvious that this nation is still caught between many worlds. The old world of Shintoism and Buddhism survives powerfully during major festivals and when important events occur in the lifetime of individuals. Of course, the degree of influence will depend on the importance of these faiths within the family but even if distant, they still exist and temples and shrines dot the landscape throughout Japan.
Therefore, irrespective if individuals have rejected religion or adopted a new faith, for example converted to Christianity, the power of the old world can be felt within the culture of Japan. Chikanobu, therefore, would probably feel the same forces pulling away at the soul of Japan in the modern period. This applies to Western influence and the role of Chinese culture and where Japan truly belongs – if, indeed, Japan belongs to any single camp.
This is not unique to Japan because nations like the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan also have complex histories. Therefore, do these nations belong to Asia, Europe or Eurasia? Or, like Japan, does much depend on each individual because no clear answer can be given – it would appear so!
Chikanobu, therefore, lived in a period of real revolution in Japan because he was born in 1838 and died in 1912. Therefore, he witnessed the ending of Edo and the start of the Meiji period in 1868. This period in Japanese history laid the foundation stone for much of the upheavals of the 1930s and the remarkable recovery which was in full swing in the 1960s.
In an earlier article about Chikanobu it was stated that “Chikanobu not only witnessed the new revolutionary period and how elites looked to the West – but by the late 1880s and early 1890s nostalgia also returned. Obviously for the masses they were outside both themes and the only important thing was survival and adapting.”
“Chikanobu’s famous print series called “Chiyoda no Ooku” (Court Ladies of the Chiyoda Palace) and “Shin Bijin” (True Beauties) highlight stunning colors and show the complexity of this period. This applies to images which show Japanese ladies dressed in exquisite traditional clothes like the kimono and Chikanobu also depicts women in Western clothes.”
Therefore, by focusing on aspects of his artwork then you can feel the power of “ideas” colliding, sometimes working collectively or a fusion is starting to happen. This means that the Meiji period is also the start of a new complex cultural norm in the body politic of Japan. After all, in the past the role of China is clear for all too see when it applies to kanji, Buddhism, Confucianism, architecture, literature, and so forth. Also, Korea must not be overlooked because important interaction took place and it also must be stated that great thinkers from Japan also spread their ideas in China.
Given this, the rise of Western power would create a new dimension in the Meiji period and even today you can still feel the power of this collision. After all, in modern day Japan the influence of all these factors can be felt. Also, while the power of China appeared to be on the wane the same can’t be said in the modern period because China’s economy is now ticking loudly and Korean culture is spreading once more because of K-pop and the film industry.
Of course, these competing forces don’t have to be negative and often all these complex factors have helped to create new ideas and styles. Therefore, the world of Chikanobu was very complex and he highlights aspects of the changing nature of Japan which was based on modernization. However, true to the nature of Japan, the old world still remained potent and this applied to the role of the Tenno (heavenly
sovereign) in this period.
In a sense, Japanese modernization in the Meiji period was based on the foundation of strong cultural norms which would enable conservatism to remain powerful. This means that modernization was based on traditionalism in order to implement rapid changes.
Chikanobu provides a glimpse into this changing world and his art is highly valued because of many factors. Of course, the main single factor is his fabulous artwork but from an historical point of view and analyzing sociology, it is clear that Chikanobu helps in these important fields to a certain degree.
However, the answer of Japan being based firmly in the Western camp or Eastern camp, or being a bridge between both worlds or belonging to just Japanese culture, remains unanswered. After all, much will depend on how people see the world and clearly you don’t have one answer or one vision which is binding. Therefore, if Chikanobu was alive in modern Japan he could also highlight the many dimensions of this unique nation.