Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shöken, are featured in this print by Hashimoto Chikanobu (1838-1912). It commemorates the first time a Japanese emperor attended a kabuki play and was publicized in order to help resuscitate the art of kabuki, which, along with other traditional arts, was dying due to rapid Westernization. (Courtesy Honolulu Museum of Arts, Anonymous gift)
Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shöken, are featured in this print by Hashimoto Chikanobu (1838-1912). It commemorates the first time a Japanese emperor attended a kabuki play and was publicized in order to help resuscitate the art of kabuki, which, along with other traditional arts, was dying due to rapid Westernization. (Courtesy Honolulu Museum of Arts, Anonymous gift)

Exhibit Celebrates 150th Anniversary of the Meiji Restoration and Immigration to Hawai‘i

Wayne Muromoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

In the “I Ching,” there is a popular canard, or myth: In crisis or change, there is opportunity. This is based on a false and superficial reading of the Chinese characters, or hanji (in Japanese: kanji). In any case, when I looked up how the myth got started, I saw that the “I Ching,” a book of divination, does offer advice on how to weather crisis, but it is more complicated a matter than a one-liner.

“Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Meiji Restoration and Immigration to Hawai‘i,” on exhibit at the Honolulu Museum of Art through Jan. 27, does give us a glimpse into how Japan weathered the shock of rapid modernization at the beginning of the Meiji imperial era, 1868 CE. And, as depicted in the more profound aspects of the I Ching, the series of woodblock prints from the museum’s collection (of over 10,000 prints from the 14th century to the present), Japan’s reaction to modernization was, as they say, complicated.

The exhibit isn’t really all that big. It’s housed in a modest square room in the Japan Galleries and consists of several large woodblock prints. It also includes a stunningly lavish uchikake, a Japanese wedding kimono, brocaded with gold threads.

The title probably is reaching for a connection to the Gannenmono celebrations of 2018 — mono being people, and Gannen being the “first year” — hence the Japanese who immigrated to Hawai‘i in Meiji Gannen (1868), the first year of the Emperor Meiji. The connection is not wholly a long stretch. But it’s a stretch.

Before Meiji, it was illegal for any Japanese to travel abroad during the 200-odd-year reign of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Tokugawa government attempted to freeze Japanese culture and society and keep out foreign intrusions. So the sudden modernization of Japan included not only the tidal wave of culture and technology to Japan but also the first outflow of Japanese immigrants. Therein is an interesting study in the intertwined history of Hawai‘i and Japan. But first to the prints . . .

They are quite good examples, technically, of the state of Japanese ukiyo-e (“floating world pictures”) woodblock prints, or moku hanga, at the moment when modern culture and technology swept into Japan. As such, they are not only interesting by and of themselves as artworks, but as representative of the social, political and cultural changes going on at the time.

The prints are excellent examples of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Each color has to have its own woodblock, carved out by hand. The separate colors have to be aligned and registered with each other, and then with a master woodblock of black, used for the line drawings. It’s incredible that this was all done by hand, especially how each strand of hair had to have a carver cut AROUND the hair, to raise the wood for each strand to take up the black ink. And, as always, there is a distinctively bold sense of composition that so inspired European artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Edgar Degas when Japanese art first reached Europe.

But what is really curious to me is the depiction of a society in transition. One print by Utagawa Yoshitora is about a train and a railroad in the rechristened city of Tökyö (formerly Edo). Ukiyo-e filled the role of popular art. They were like posters of pop stars and actors that teenagers now hang on their bedroom walls. In the Edo Period, a lot of ukiyo-e were of famous kabuki actors, scenes from kabuki plays, historical scenes (like famous battles) and heroes, etc. Now in place of those medieval idols, we have (to the Japanese) a fantastic beast — a machine in place of a horse — that can transport people only by the power of steam. And the steam is depicted as clouds were once drawn in ukiyoe — as floating white puffs that obscured parts of the scenery. It is the old trying to depict the new.

This juxtaposition of old/new is all over the place and shows a country in sudden, dislocating transition. Fans of the current NHK taiga drama (historical drama) “Segodon” will enjoy a large print by Utagawa Kunimasa V of Saigo Takamori (1877). In the print, Saigo stands in the middle, dressed in Western military blue dress uniform with a Western cavalry sword affixed to his belt. His younger son is clinging to him as he prepares to leave to lead a rebellion of Satsuma (Kagoshima) samurai. By contrast, however, his older son Kikujiro, who accompanies him to his last battle, is in traditional samurai armor to the left. Saigo’s wife is on her knees to the right, wielding a naginata (Japanese poleaxe) to protect her household as befits the wife of an old-fashioned samurai.

There are also several prints depicting the new reign of the Emperor Meiji. I found them interesting from a historical standpoint. For hundreds of years until the Meiji Restoration, Japan was a loose confederacy of independent feudal domains held together by the Tokugawa shogunate. The sense of being a “Nihonjin,” a Japanese national, was very minimal compared to identifying with one’s domain, especially since travel outside of one’s locale was severely controlled. In creating a “nation” in the Western sense, Japan had to create a national government as well as a national identity.

The political leaders used the emperor as a symbol of that nationalism, putting Meiji in the forefront as the mythical blood father of an entire nation, regardless of one’s feudal domain. Yet, he also represented the transition to a new form of government for the Japanese, an imperial democracy, along the lines of European countries like Great Britain and Prussia. So we see some rather odd juxtapositions of symbols relating to the Imperial Household. In one print by Hashimoto Chikanobu (created only a few years after the beginning of the Meiji era, 1878), Emperor Meiji and his wife are centered, with Meiji dressed in Western military uniform and his wife Shoken in a kimono. Surrounding the pair are many of his descendants, which attempt to show the divine origins of that institution, from the founder Jimmu (the grandson of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess), through the more famous emperors, dressed in Chinese and Korean court dress, and reimagined ancient Japanese outfits). It is placing an odd new prominence to the ancient imperial lineage (to sanctify his role as the nominal head of a new national government) with more Western imperialist sensibilities.

There is a print, again by Chikanobu, of the emperor and empress attending a performance of kabuki. They are depicted on the two sides, left and right, both in Western dress, sitting in brocaded and lace chairs, while in the middle is a very stylized traditional scene from kabuki. The print commemorates the first time a Japanese emperor attended a kabuki play. This was publicized in order to help resuscitate kabuki, which, along with other traditional arts, was dying out due to rapid Westernization. So you have this odd clash/mish-mash of old and new.

It is, therefore, an interesting show from the standpoint of seeing how such a clash was played out.

But if there is any connection to the Gannenmono immigration, I think it is perhaps only that the first immigrants were products of that era. The cultural and technological dislocation also abetted crop failures and famines to impel Japanese to emigrate.

Additionally, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i was one of the first nations to discard what the Japanese considered “unequal treaties” with outside powers and treat Japan on an equal footing. And, King David Kaläkaua stopped in Japan on a world tour, trying to create an alliance between two imperial dynasties. Hence, the Gannenmono.

So the Gannenmono were immigrants of that era, with one foot in the old, another in the new, adventurous and bold, but steeped in ancient traditions. They carried with them a Japan frozen in time between the old and new. It wasn’t until nearly two decades later that more immigrants from Japan came, as Kanyaku Imin (contract laborers), but they, too, still carried with them this mixed bag of old and new, the traditional and the forward-thinking. The first generation passed on this sense of Japan to their offspring, the Nisei, and to some extent, to the Sansei, the third generation. It may be that this sense of “being Japanese” is still fixed and frozen in time for many local Japanese Americans, while Japan itself has moved on, ever-changing, into the 21st century.

And this is where it all started.

“Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Meiji Restoration and Immigration to Hawai‘i” continues in the Japan Galleries of the Honolulu Museum of Art through Jan. 27.

Wayne Muromoto is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer. He also spent 10 years teaching art and digital art at a private high school. For the past 15 years, he has been teaching digital art and digital photography at Leeward Community College. Wayne also continues to pursue peace through a bowl of tea as a practitioner of Urasenke tea ceremony.


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