Japanese Prints: The Children of the Meiji Era

1868. After more than two and a half centuries of isolation, Japan opens to the West. A brutal upheaval. Edo becomes Tokyo (the capital of the East) and the scene of accelerated modernization. It is “the opening to civilization” (“bunmei kaika”). Everything changes. The railroad, the buildings, the clothes. As the Japanese embrace western modernity, their traditions and way of life make explorers and traders dream. Today we speak of “Japonism”. This is the starting point of the exhibition “Children of the Meiji era” presented at the Maison de la culture du Japon in Paris. It resonates with the exhibition “L’arc et le sabre” at the Musée Guimet. Unintentionally as it was delayed due to health restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic. But the two are a perfect match. The fantasy of feudalism and Japanese warriors (the shogun, the daimyo, the samurai) will conquer the western world as Japanese society, in a forced march, blends with the modernity it developed in the 19th century. And this modernity immediately flows into education. While schooling took place in private institutions geared towards the individual, it is being transformed into a collective compulsory schooling based on the Western model. And this transformation comes to us today with a unique historical and scientific support specific to Japan: the print or “ukiyo-e”.

The pressure in the service of education

In France we know the prints of Hokusai or Hiroshige, explains Kana Murase, curator of the exhibition and curator at the Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts in the Tokyo area. These are works from the Edo period, which predates the Meiji period. The prints we present here are later.” And the colors show it. “During the Edo period only vegetable dyes were used. and minerals, and in particular the blue found on famous prints such as “The Wave of Hokusai”. The Meiji era is accompanied by the arrival of chemical dyes, especially red,” Details Kana Murase.

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

Credits: Collection of the Kumon Institute of Education

But the exhibition is not dedicated to artistic change, even if it reflects it. It’s all about the child and their upbringing. “In 1873 the Ministry of Education advocated the production of prints as a support for the education of children, continues Kana Murase. Instruction therefore favors oral over written. What we discover in a print depicting a magnificent school where we see the students open-mouthed. It continues with thematic boards that are dedicated to “all sorts of things”: plants, animals, etc. But also – very empirically – learning English.

New: All kinds of animals

Credits: Collection of the Kumon Institute of Education

Prints that are surprisingly consistent with the ‘Doctrines of Things’ and the ‘Pictures of Epinal’ that served as the mainstay of French education on the other side of the world at the end of the 19th century. Similarly we find the use of animals to explain good manners. So with those cats or those mice that take care of their bodies in the public baths. These prints will be called “Ukiyo-e for children. They were used for education, but were also sold to be played with.”They were not expensive and the children could afford them with their pocket money.“, assures Kana Murase. Some have made it possible in this way to cut out a character and dress it or to style it with different attributes to be cut.

paper dolls with their clothes
Meiji era (?)

Credits: Collection of the Kumon Institute of Education

An extraordinary testimony of a time of transition

Historical testimonies, the prints nevertheless represented an idealized world. The Maison de la culture du Japon in Paris also had the clever idea of ​​confronting them with the vision of a French artist, Georges Bigot. “He studied fine arts in Paris at the time of Japonism, explains Kana Murase. Then he went to Japan and was faced with a vision of Edo that no longer existed.” However, he stayed there to show a land of contrasts between tradition and modernity, leaving a unique testimony to the transformation of society, drawing noble characters as petty craftsmen (rickshaw drivers, garbage collectors, etc.). So much so that today his drawings are reproduced in history books to show an era closer to reality than the prints describe. “A less idealized, more objective Japan‘” admits Kana Murase.

This exhibition is an extraordinary testimony to a time of transition. A detailed testimonial, because each print is accompanied – which is rare – by an explanatory note on the subject. Which reveals the unprecedented place that Meiji-era Japanese society accorded the child. The real lesson of modernity?

Children of the Meiji era. At the Modern School (1868-1912)

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

Clean. : 01 44 37 95 95.

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