The formation of authentic identity has prevailed as a common goal in Japanese art since the Edo period; yet more specifically, the tension between an unfolding dichotomy of social axioms and dissident ideologies has rendered a subjacent art lineage, incongruent with politically-influenced commissions. Both periods’ subcultures offer a severe artistic approach countering enforced conformity, but each responds to a different political circumstance and technological advancement. In both periods, the usages of the city as subject matters act as self-referential observations of Japanese urbanization. Edo-period woodblock prints echo the ukiyo, “floating world,” attraction to the Yoshiwara neighborhood. In comparison, contemporary Japanese graffiti (RackGaki), which projects “super flat” technique on the city space, embraces the Otaku’s exploration of the post-war Japanese identity and correlates to other postmodern studies of city and architecture. It can be suggested that the manner in which the Japanese artist presents subversive art has shifted from a persistent and small-scaled Edo-period piece to an ephemeral and large-scaled contemporary exhibition due to the shift from isolation to globalization of the Japanese city, which actively engages in the interactions of art and historical context.
The Edo period (1603-1868) cushioned Japanese society with economic growth and political stability, yet the period’s nearly-totalistic sovereign paternalistically ruled its people with strict laws that demanded a revival in Japanese nationalism, developing a generally-united society but also an opposing subculture who found pleasure in the Ukiyo.[i] After over one-hundred years of political chaos during the Sengoku period of “warring states,” the city of Edo was officially established as the military capital of the Tokugawa shôgunate, and in 1603 the commission to rebuild the Edo castle validated the new feudal reign.[ii] The reconstructed castle yielded a magnetic force attracting citizens and creating a powerful polis around it. In an attempted avoidance of the apparent ubiquitous influence of Christianity, which had posed an “alarming” threat against Japanese ideals, trade was restricted by the Edo government and Neo-Confucianism was implemented as a pseudo-Japanese philosophy (pseudo, insofar as its origin lies in Chinese philosophy, empirically outside Japanese philosophy)—isolating Japanese citizens from the rest of the world.[iii] As a result of the need for political structure, the samurai warrior achieved the ruling position in the categorical social hierarchy that had evolved. Limited social mobility encouraged members of a specific class to identify with one another, and, consequently, divisions between classes grew equally as strong.
Around 1730, the city of Edo’s population had soared over one-million people during the Kyôhô, which induced an explosive rate of urbanization and which furthered the distance between set-class distinctions. Accordingly, stimulated economic growth and introduction of the populated city had given rise to a powerful class of nouveau-riche merchants who patronized pleasure quarters developed in the Yoshiwara, arguably translated to “the most splendid of flowers,” neighborhood (and later surrounding city) of Edo.[iv] Inhabitants of Yoshiwara deviated from Neo-Confucianism maxims and promoted the urbane way of life, ukiyo, which consequently assumed a completely Japanese identity and included a plethora of indulgent activities: theaters, brothels, fashion.[v] A flourishing surplus of artistic portrayals—e.g., woodblock prints, literature—of ukiyo had idealized the hedonistic pursuits, thus they remained an integral part of premodern Japanese society long after Matsudaira Sadanobu had determinately endeavored to impede their practice by instituting strict spending restrictions and abolishing depictions of immoral scenes from prints, which stifled the districts’ earlier overwhelming expansion, in 1787 and continuing until 1801, known as the “Kansei Reforms.”[vi]
[i] Gerald Groemer, “The Creation of the Edo Outcaste Order,” Japanese Studies, Volume 27, Number 2 (The Society for Japanese Studies, Summer 2001), 263.
[ii] Ibid., 271-2.
[iii] W. G. Beasley, “The Edo Experience and Japanese Nationalism” from Modern Asian Studies, Volume 18, Number 4, Special Issue: Edo Culture and Its Modern Legacy (Cambridge University Press, 1984), 556-8.
[iv] Timothy Clark, “Flowers of Yoshiwara: Iconography of the Courtesan in the Late Edo Period” from Decoration and Display in Japan, 15th-19th Centuries, Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere edited by Kazari (2002), 64.
[v] Amy Boyce Osaki, “The Floating World Revisted: 18th Century Japanese Art” from Art Education, Volume 49, Number 3, Metaphor and Meaning, (National Art Education Association, May 1996), 26.
[vi] Clark, “Flowers,” 65.