Being in Japan, I’ve realised just how little I know about Japanese art. The thing is, the University of Leicester’s History of Art department doesn’t dedicate much of its modules or lecture content to art from Japan. I’ve been wondering: Japanese art is really beautiful, so why, in general, is it so often overlooked in the Western world? Obviously I can’t answer this question with a certain answer, but I do have a general idea.
I was really pleased when I found out that professors at Tokyo Metropolitan University would be teaching us some of the basics of Japanese history and art history as part of their summer programme. Just being able to study art that wasn’t Italian was a relief in itself, actually (as a joint honours student in Italian with History of Art, I’ve spent a heck of a lot of time studying Italian art).
I’ve come to realise that actually it isn’t that the Western world consciously overlooks Japanese art, but that we’ve only been able to access Japan and learn more about its history and culture in recent years. It’s only normal I suppose that Leicester’s History of Art department focuses more on European art than anything else. Art in Europe is much closer to home so has been more accessible to the UK throughout the past several centuries. Sounds obvious right?
However, it isn’t just a case of “Japan is far away so let’s just stick to the art that is closest to us”. During the mid-17th century, when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa family in the Edo period, the country underwent a period of isolation in an attempt to reduce foreign influence. Contact with the outside world was forbidden and the Japanese people weren’t allowed to travel abroad. A few exceptions were made with China, Korea and the Dutch East India Company (the latter of which brought Japanese porcelain and ceramics to Europe). It wasn’t until around 200 years later, in 1853, when Japan began to open its doors and trade with the rest of the world. When you think about it, the year 1853 really isn’t that long ago.
Thanks to this long period of minimal contact with the Western world Japan was able to avoid foreign artistic influence, and so their art is unique and unlike most of the stuff that you find in Europe. The history of Japanese art is really interesting, and my best guess is that it just doesn’t appear on the curriculum because of this period of isolation. I had the chance to visit a few museums in Tokyo, including a ukiyo-e museum which I seriously loved, and I can safely say that Japanese art deserves its own module. You can actually see some Japanese influence in the European art that was around once Japan had opened its doors (this is called Japonism), and, even today, there are some Japanese subcultures, such as anime and manga, that are super popular in the West. A culture that has had so much influence on our own culture deserves to be studied.
So, to conclude: I wish we learned more about Japanese art at Leicester. What do you guys think about the art history that is taught in schools and universities? Is there any specific type of art that you’d like to learn more about? Is there anything that you wish was on the syllabus but isn’t? Let me know in the comments!