In 1970, the American government returned a collection of 153 paintings that had been deemed problematic to Japan. Technically only on loan, they remain in Tokyo, though displayed only on a rotating basis, with one critic calling the collection a Pandora’s box that would reveal the hidden violence inherent in Japanese modern history.
Author Asato Ikeda, a Canadian-educated assistant professor at New York’s Fordham University, points out that many thousands of paintings were produced during the war period that did not concern battles. Her analysis of these “apolitical” paintings challenges the notion of labeling only battle paintings as a Pandora’s box: she deems them artistic manifestations of Japanese fascism (p. 2).
The Concept of Fascism
There is a rather large leap between paintings, whether of battle scenes or not, and fascism. Ikeda is aware that World War II era Japan is not usually considered fascist since Japan did not have a political revolution, a charismatic leader, or a fascist style party (p. 11). But nonetheless she presses gamely on with her analysis of the links between Japanese art and fascism, a project that, she states, “sometimes seemed dubious, even to me” (p. x).
The concept of fascism is indeed fraught with varying definitions. As the redoubtable English novelist George Orwell observed in his famous 1944 essay “What is Fascism,” “I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs, and I do not know what else.”
Interestingly, three years after Pearl Harbor, Orwell does not name Japan, or even Tojo, among the ensemble.
Patriotism — or Fascism?
No matter, perhaps: with fascism reduced to a unifying concept meaning something we don’t like, Ikeda continues by focusing the bulk of her analysis on the works of four prominent painters. Three of them — Yokoyama Taikan (1868- 1958), Yasuda Yukihiko (1884-1978), and Uemura Shoen (1875- 1949) — painted in the Japanese style. One, Fujita Tsuguharu (1886- 1968), painted in Western style (p. 2).
Despite their different styles and subject matter, she states, all four maintained a close tie with the state and painted what they considered most representative and authentic of Japan and hence their works “are artistic manifestations of Japanese fascism” (p. 2). She finds that many more paintings of Mount Fuji, that iconic symbol of Japan, were created during the 1930s and early 1940s.
This raises yet another problem: a failure to distinguish between patriotic art and fascism.
Leaders of virtually every country at war, or even those who simply feel that their territory is threatened, will seek to appeal to the nation’s unique culture and virtues as well as to the valor of its citizens. Many artists will, and did, hasten to comply, some of them enthusiastically and others because they would become pariahs if they did not. Heroism sells; pacifism can be a career ender.
Hollywood stars held fund-raisers with the proceeds donated to the war effort that were remarkably similar to those Ikeda attributes to fascist Japan. British artists produced oil paintings depicting valiant Royal Air Force pilots blasting German Messerschmitts out of the sky.
Stalin, who publicly championed the cause of international communism and the solidarity of the world’s workers, despite the many criticisms leveled at him, has never been accused of fascism. Yet, after the war with Nazism began, the leader of communist internationalism began to appeal to the traditions of the great Rus.
Soviet artists joined the effort to valorize sturdy muzhiki who risked life and limb to defend their native land. And, if a photograph of a young soldier in a tank with Mount Fuji in the background indicates fascism, what is to be said about similar photographs of American soldiers in similar heroic postures against the background of Mount Rushmore? Rosie the Riveter raising a muscular arm in defiance? Or the reverence accorded to the portrait of Washington crossing the Delaware, which was actually painted in 1851 by a German who had never been to America and got some of the details wrong?
De Gaulle, even while many of his countrymen acquiesced — not all of them unwillingly — to Nazi rule, nonetheless touted the glory of France and its commitment to liberty, equality, and fraternity. Are they fascists as well?
What then happens to the description of Japanese art as fascist? Perhaps we are all fascists, at least when feeling threatened.
Weaknesses and Strengths
The book has a tendency to read too much into paintings and photographs. Does a photo of Nazi leader Hitler attending a 1939 exhibition of ancient Japanese art in Berlin (p. 47) mean to imply that the ancient art was fascist, or that Japan was fascist because an infamous fascist attended the exhibition?
The fact that many Japanese artists were influenced by Western art, and vice versa, can also be folded into the fascism theme: neo-Classicism started in the 1920s by a number of artists, including the decidedly anti-fascist Pablo Picasso, was “ultimately accepted and mobilized by the fascist regime in the 1930s…modernism — or, more specifically, modern aesthetics — transformed and continued to exist under the fabric of different politics (pp. 65-66; emphasis in the original). Both bijin, paintings of beautiful women, and anti-bijin paintings — one of which depicts two shabbily-dressed mentally-disabled girls who are anything but a celebration of the essence of Japanese womanhood — can be included within Japanese fascism.
When linking mingei, folk arts associated with particular areas of Japan, to the central theme of nationalism, Ikeda acknowledges being on shaky ground since regionalism is most often associated with cultural diversity and is hence in opposition to nationalism. However, she states, a study of mingei in the Tohoku (Northeast Japan) region shows it to be subsumed by nationalism (p. 93). What, then, to make of the statement that more than any other region, Tohoku is associated with poverty and backwardness, causing problems with identifying with it? (p. 98)
The book has strengths. The many photographs and reproductions of paintings are a delight to behold. Professor Ikeda’s descriptions of art before and during the 1930s and early 1940s are well done, as are her thumbnail sketches of the artists who created them.
This reader would have liked to know more about the post-war output of the four artists she discusses, all of whom survived Japan’s defeat, as well as others she mentions. Did they continue to produce fascist art, or change to other genres, or cease painting? We do learn that Fujita, who painted in Western style, emigrated to France, took citizenship there, and converted to Catholicism. But not what he painted.
Simply put, Ikeda’s analysis would have worked better had she entitled the study “Art and War,” or perhaps “Politics and Painting in Japan During World War Two.”
Amusingly, in light of her linking of portraits of Mount Fuji with fascism, an August 29, 2019, article in the Yomiuri Shimbun noted that high-end hotels have found that foreign tourists prefer suites with paintings of Mount Fuji. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a picture of Mount Fuji really is just a picture of Mount Fuji.
Book: The Politics of Painting: Fascism and Japanese Art During the Second World War by Asato Ikeda
Publisher: University of Hawaii Press (2018)
To Learn More: Click here to learn more about the book on the publisher’s website.
Author: June Teufel Dreyer, University of Miami