The year 1868 marked the beginning of the Meiji Restoration in Japan, a period of rapid political and technological change triggered by the opening up of Japanese borders to international diplomacy and trade following the hundreds of years of isolation of the Edo Period. During this incredibly complex and controversial time, the Japanese government took strides to “catch up” to the Western colonial empires whose reach had extended fully across the globe (Yosuke). The Meiji government sought the advancement of Japan as a global power by embracing Western technology and, to a certain extent, culture. To that end, the Japanese state, which had for centuries promoted and glorified the traditions of Japan, now campaigned to suppress or eradicate any traditional cultural practices that did not fully align with the Westernizing “reforms” of the Meiji government.
At the start of the Meiji Era in 1868, Edo was renamed Tokyo, a symbolic shift marking the end of the richest period in ukiyo-e, an art form deeply and incontrovertibly linked to Edo itself. The beginning of the Meiji also coincided roughly with the deaths of ukiyo-e masters such as Hiroshige and Hokusai, and the closure of their studios combined with the sudden changes refactoring nearly every aspect of Japanese life decentralized the world of ukiyo-e, whose traditions and achievements gradually grew faded and antiquated in the eyes of the public (Yosuke). During the turbulent years of the Meiji reforms, artists reacted to the thunderous pace of cultural change in many different ways, exploring new subject matter and experimenting with new Western influences.
One artist whose work beautifully captures the state of ukiyo-e in the early twentieth century is Goyō Hashiguchi (1880–1921). Hashigushi combined the traditional techniques of woodblock printing with a Western-influenced art education, applying Western techniques of rendering the human form to the traditional ukiyo-e subject matter of beautiful women at leisure (Harris 84).
Goyo, Hashigushi. Kamisuki (Combing the hair). Ukiyo-e.org, https://ukiyo-e.org/image/ohmi/Hashiguchi_Goyo-Woman_Combing_Her_Hair-010609-07-16-2010-10609-x2000.
Artist Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915) ventured even further into experimentations with Western art styles, developing a new form of ukiyo-e known as kosenga which employed the Western techniques of linear perspective and chiaroscuro in woodblock printing (Baekeland). Through his work, Kiyochika strived to reinvigorate the fading ukiyo-e community by weaving aspects of Western drawing into the Japanese art tradition, earning him the title of “The Last Ukiyo-e Artist” (Yosuke). Although Kiyochika’s work was well-received by the art community of his time, he failed to fully reignite public interest in ukiyo-e, as the popularity of ukiyo-e prints was rapidly eclipsed by the technologies of photography and mass printing imported from Europe as part of the Meiji reforms (Baekeland).
Image: Kobayashi, Kiyochika. Night Snow at Honchodori. Shukado, https://www.japanese-finearts.com/item/list2/A1-87-064-02/Kobayashi-Kiyochika/Night-Snow-at-Honchodori.
By the time of the Russo-Japanese War in the early Twentieth century, the Japanese public had turned away from old-fashioned ukiyo-e artwork towards the new, inexpensive media afforded by the explosion of Western influence in the country (Yosuke). Though some devoted artisans remained faithful to the practices of ukiyo-e, guarding a tradition that remains alive in isolation to this day, the popularity of ukiyo-e as a form of mass entertainment went into permanent decline, though not without leaving indelible marks on both the domestic and international art world which endure to this day.
Baekeland, Frederik. “Kiyochika Kobayashi.” Grove Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.ezproxy.library.tamu.edu/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000047045?rskey=Bj2wmR&result=1.
Harris, Frederick. Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print. Tuttle Publishing, 2011.
Yosuke, Kato. “Edo and Tokyo as Viewed by Kobayashi Kiyochika, the Last Ukiyo-e Artist.” Discuss Japan.com, https://www.japanpolicyforum.jp/archives/culture/pt20151102100056.html.