Japanese art and Kawanabe Kyosai: the power of folklore and culture
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
The Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyosai is extremely fascinating because of his individualistic spirit and this is witnessed in his art. Kyosai, just like the mysterious Tengu, belonged to two worlds and this applies to the old Edo period and the modernization of Japan which began in 1868. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 was truly dynamic and revolutionary. Also, the center and periphery relations altered the status quo of the Edo period which relied heavily on stratification.
The Tengu also belongs to two very different traditions and highlights the power of Shintoism and the mysteriousness of this religion. Not only this, the Shinto impact on Buddhist thought patterns and traditions emanating in China were completely turned on its head. Therefore, the Tengu becomes part of the richness of nature within the Shinto faith rather than the dark demons of Buddhism and other faiths which highlight the power of evil. This fact also shows the power of Japanese culture and the indigenous faith of Shinto which could absorb different thinking and traditions.
Kyosai was born in 1831 and died in 1889 and the rapid changes in society clearly impacted on him. He was an individual who was independent in mind and thought and Kyosai expresses this through his art.
Kusumi Kawanabe, Director of the Kawanabe Kyosai Memorial Museum, comments that “This great artist has grown in stature as we have been able the better to get the Meiji period into perspective. He studied at an early age under Kuniyoshi and later under Kano masters, but eventually he went his own independent way. Essentially a nationalistic painter, he was nonetheless fully aware of Western art – indeed, he dealt with it quite broadmindedly in his book “Kyosai Gadan” published in 1887 – but he was robust enough not to succumb, as so many of his contemporaries did, to the blandishments of foreign styles, and was one of the last great painters in the truly Japanese tradition.”
The main focus in this article is to highlight aspects of Kyosai and link this with the Tengu and the underworld of Japan where mysterious creatures, spirits, and ghosts played a powerful role within the culture of this fascinating country. Also, it is clear that the outside influence of China and Korea impacted greatly on Japan. However, despite this the indigenous faith of Shintoism and other powerful aspects of culture would transform many of these new thought patterns and create a truly Japanese identity.
The yokai represent aspects of the mystery of folklore in Japan and the transformation of Tengu is also fascinating within the changing thought patterns of Japan. The yokai are creatures with supernatural powers and the Tengu are one of the most widely known monster-spirits in the land of the rising sun.
The Tengu have constantly gone through transformations in Japanese folklore and while early artists depicted the Tengu with beaks this changed in time and now the most distinctive feature is their long nose.
Within Buddhist thought patterns the Tengu were demons and it was believed that they were harbingers of bad times and this applies to war and other calamities. However, within Shintoism the Tengu were sometimes worshipped as revered spirits (Shinto kami) which had magical powers. Therefore, the Tengu also witnessed the fusion of aspects of Buddhism and Shintoism because in time their image changed into a more protective force.
However, despite this transformation the Tengu still had dark and dangerous powers and people in the mountains and forests had to tread carefully because of the several natures of the Tengu. This meant that local people couldn’t take the Tengu for granted and great respect was needed during visits to special shrines which highlight this mysterious folklore creature.
Kyosai certainly depicts the power of the Tengu and the mysterious features and nature of various types ofyokai. Therefore, Kyosai is showing images of the old world despite the new reality of the Meiji period.
In Japanese history the Tengu went from demonic creatures into positive aspects providing care was taken and nature was at peace with the underworld. For example if we apply this to children then in early Japanese history the Tengu were believed to abduct children. However, in later history this all changed because the Tengu became enlisted in searching for children who were scared and needed help quickly.
Another positive side of the Tengu is that their shape-shifting power applies to animal and human form and this meant that their attributes were powerful. Therefore, the Tengu used this in order to play tricks on arrogant Buddhist priests or people who abused their power.
In this sense, while the Tengu belong to Japanese folklore it could be said that Kyosai shared some characteristics and this applies to attacking political elites. After all, Kyosai was known for being a political caricaturist and he often got in trouble with the law and the dominant political power of his day.
Kyosai was a free thinker who highlighted the richness of the spirit world in his art and Japanese folklore.