Japanese Prints: Children of the Meiji Era

1868 After more than two and a half centuries of isolation, Japan opens up to the West. Brutal coup. Edo becomes Tokyo (the capital of the East) and the scene of accelerated modernization. This is the “discovery of civilization” (“bunmei kaika”). Everything changes. Railroad, buildings, clothes. As the Japanese embrace Western modernity, their traditions and lifestyle keep explorers and traders dreaming. Today we are talking about “Japanism”. This is the starting point of the exhibition “Children of the Meiji Era”, presented at the House of Culture of Japan in Paris. This echoes the exhibition “L’arc et le sabre” presented at the Musée Guimet. Unintentionally as it was delayed due to health restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic. But they are perfect for each other. The imagination of feudalism and Japanese warriors (shoguns, daimyo, samurai) will conquer the Western world, while Japanese society will mingle with 19th-century modernity in a forced march. And this modernity immediately permeates education. While school education was provided in private, individual-oriented institutions, it was transformed into a collective, compulsory education along the Western lines. And this transformation comes to us today with a unique historical and scientific prop that is characteristic of Japan: the seal, or ukiyo-e.

Seal in the service of education

In France, we are familiar with the engravings of Hokusai or Hiroshige, explains Kana Murase, exhibition curator and curator at the Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts in the Tokyo metropolitan area. These are works from the Edo period, which preceded the Meiji period. The prints we present here are more recent. And the colors show it. “During the Edo period, only vegetable dyes were used. and minerals, and in particular the blue color in well-known prints such as Hokusai’s Wave. The Meiji era is accompanied by the appearance of chemical dyes, in particular red. more Kana Murase.

New: Kinoe-ne Onsen or Mouse Bath
Utagawa Kunimasa IV

Credits: Collection of the Kumon Institute of Education.

But the exhibition is not about artistic change, even if it reflects it. Here we are talking primarily about the child and his upbringing. “In 1873 the Ministry of Education advocated the production of engravings as support for the education of children. Kana Murase continues. Therefore, teaching favors the oral rather than the written. What do we find in the engraving depicting a luxurious school where we see students with their mouths open. It continues with thematic boards devoted to “all kinds”: plants, animals, etc. But also the study – very experiential – of the English language.

New: All types of animals

Credits: Collection of the Kumon Institute of Education.

Engravings that remarkably echo the “lessons of things” and the “images of Épinal” that served as a cornerstone for French education at the end of the 19th century. Similarly, we find the use of animals to explain good manners. So it is with those cats or mice that tend to their bodies in public baths. These prints are calledchildren’s ukiyo-e. They were used for education but were also sold for play.”They were inexpensive, and children could afford them with their pocket money.“, assures Kana Murase. Some have thus allowed the character to be cut out and dressed up or styled with various attributes to be cut out.

Paper dolls with their own clothes
Meiji era (?)

Credits: Collection of the Kumon Institute of Education.

Exceptional Evidence of the Transition

Historical evidence, engravings, however, represented an idealized world. In addition, the House of Culture of Japan in Paris had the clever idea of ​​confronting them with the vision of the French artist Georges Bigot. “He studied fine arts in Paris during the Japanese era. explains Kana Murase. Then he went to Japan and was confronted with a vision of Edo that no longer existed.” However, he remained there to show the country of contrast between tradition and modernity, leaving a unique record of the transformation of society by painting noble characters as petty professions (rickshaw driver, garbage collector, etc.). So much so that his drawings are today reproduced in history books to show an era closer to reality than the engravings describe. “Less Idealized, More Objective Japan‘, admits Kana Murase.

Thus, this exhibition is an exceptional testament to the transitional period. Detailed evidence, because each print is accompanied – a rare occurrence – by an explanatory note of its subject. Which reveals the unprecedented place given to the child by Japanese society in the Meiji era. A real lesson for modernity?

Meiji children. In the Art Nouveau school (1868-1912)

Maison de la Culture du Japon in Paris, 101 bis quai Jacques Chirac, 75015 Paris, from 30 March to 21 May 2022.

Information. : 01 44 37 95 95.

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