Japanese art and culture: Asai Chu and Western style art movement
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
Asai Chu (1856-1907) was a young boy when the Meiji Restoration of 1868 began and just like this period of Japanese history he also was curious about the outside world. Times were changing rapidly and the familiarity of the Edo period was now being challenged by new forces. Therefore, when Asai Chu was a young adult he felt this new vibrancy and many doors soon opened up for this talented individual.
In 1873 he moved to Tokyo to study English but the pull of art gained further momentum and after enrolling under Kunisawa Shinkuro a new world would unravel for Asai Chu. At the same time, the Meiji leaders were keen to focus on many aspects of Western nations and this applies to the arts, science, modernization, industrialization, law, and many other important areas. This turned to be a rich blessing for Asai Chu because while studying at the Kobubijutsu Gakko in the mid-1870s he studied under Antonio Fontanesi.
The Meiji government hired Antonio Fontanesi in order that he would introduce oil painting from Europe and clearly Asai Chu learnt much because his passion and sophistication grew. When Asai Chu was in his forties he resigned from being a professor in Tokyo and moved to France for two years. This decision was wise because by studying at an impressionist art school he managed to enhance his artistic skill and techniques.
Also, the cultural aspect of studying in France meant that new styles of thinking and artistic creativity would further enrich his rich talents. This decision also shows that Asai Chu was still searching and despite the relative comfort of being a professor in Tokyo he was willing to take risks in order to pursue his love of art.
He stayed in France for two years and on his return to Japan he became a professor at the Kyoto College of Arts and Crafts. Like before, Asai Chu became involved in various clubs and he founded the Kansai Arts Institute in the early twentieth century. This aspect of Asai Chu blessed the art world in Japan because he influenced many aspiring artists and traditional artists who were firmly established.
In Kansai he taught Yasui Sotaro, Suda Kunitaro, Umehara Ryuzaburo, and many other artists, who were blessed with abundant skills in the field of art. From being born in Sakura in Kanto to moving to Tokyo, France, and Kansai, the same energy was maintained throughout his life. Therefore, Asai Chu influenced many individuals and laid the foundation for many important institutions.
Katrina Neumann comments about the stunning artwork by Asai Chu called “Harvest” that “Asai Chu, one of Japan’s most prominent painters in adhering to the Westernization trend, paints his distinguished painting titled Harvest. This piece is remarkable in the fact that it demonstrates the figures of the painting, from an Asian background, dominating the picture plane and owns the land or is manhandling the land; in a way that is far less harmonious than Eitoku’s Rakuchu Rakugai Zu from 1590 or the struggle that is visible in Hokusai’s The Great Wave of Kanagawa from 1832. The subject is no longer about the figure being congruent with nature, but the figure owning nature within the industrial revolution context and environment.”
Meiji political leaders impacted on art in this period and introduced new art forms from outside of Japan. However, at the same time political leaders were concerned about preserving the richness of Japanese art and culture. This minefield wasn’t easy and conservatives and liberals understood what was at stake but for individuals like Asai Chu the issue was “art” and not politics or cultural engineering.
Asai Chu was “a clear son of the positive aspects of the Meiji spirit.”