Imperial Cities as Cultural Nodes: A View from Early Twentieth-Century Tokyo

Jordan Sand, Georgetown University

Kuo Hsueh-hu Festival on South St

Guo Xuehu. Festival on South Street (Taipei), 1930. Taipei Fine Arts Museum [1]

I recently published a collection of essays exploring the culture of the Japanese empire. It proved impossible to talk about this subject without talking about other empires, which provided the institutional models and many of the material forms for Japan’s imperial modernity. And the case of imperial Japan, which brought Western modernity to other countries in Asia and the Pacific while at the same time seeking to modernize itself based on Western models, suggested the fruitfulness of considering modern imperialism not simply in terms of a metropolitan core and colonial periphery, but as a set of networked sites of asymmetrical encounter. In this framework, imperial cities take on special importance, as places of rapid cultural change and of cultural interchange. Since the fundamental structures of colonial empires were explicitly hierarchical, culture tended to move through these networks unidirectionally, but the hierarchies were neither uniform nor confined to single empires, cultural meanings transformed in the process of transmission, and the core in a particular cultural network was not always its imperial center in political terms.

Take the case of figural oil painting, a cultural form that maintained a powerful global hegemony in art during the era of colonial empires (and subsequently lost that hegemony). The most important center from which techniques and styles in oil painting emanated during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was Paris. The founding of the field in Japan is associated with the painter Kuroda Kiyoteru (also called Kuroda Seiki), who studied in Paris in the 1880s, taught at the School of Fine Arts in Tokyo beginning in 1896, and is perhaps best known popularly as the first artist to display a nude in a state-sanctioned public exhibition in Japan.

Officially sponsored exhibitions provided a conduit for the diffusion of painting knowledge in the Japanese empire, as well as a device for generating and reproducing hierarchies of taste. Official exhibitions also channeled selected painters to the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. From there, a handful went on to Paris. The Taiwan Art Exhibition, organized annually in Taipei from 1927 to 1943, mirrored the Imperial Art Exhibition held in Tokyo. Japanese painting instructors in Taiwan trained their students in either Western oil painting or in what had been called Nihonga (Japanese painting) in the metropole since the invention of the genre as a response to oil painting in the 1880s but was renamed Tōyōga (Oriental painting) when Japanese taught and practiced it elsewhere in Asia. Kuroda and others in the first generation of Japanese artists to train in Paris in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had absorbed the styles then popular of plein air painting and impressionism. Tokyo thus functioned as an Asian entrepôt of postimpressionism, which came to be called “academicism” in Korea and Taiwan because it was mediated through the Tokyo academy. While artists from Tokyo shaped the styles and techniques acquired by painters in Korea, Taiwan, and China, at the same time they also encouraged “local color,” thus particularizing the preferred subject matter in each of these countries, severing painters from an older Sinocentric canon of artistic subjects, and heightening regional cultural identities within the empire.[2]


Yasui Sōtarō. View of Keijō (Seoul), 1936. Utsunomiya Museum [3]

Analogous structures transferred architectural knowledge from sites like the École des Beaux Arts in Paris and the Royal Institute of British Architects in London via Tokyo to Taipei, Seoul, the Manchukuo capital of Changchun (called at the time Hsinking or Shinkyō), and elsewhere in the Japanese empire. The comparative stability of institutions like the imperial universities made Tokyo an important knowledge producer and exporter from the turn of the century. Yet this is not to say that Tokyo was the cultural center of East Asia in all fields. In fields less dependent on formal education there could be different regional hierarchies. As E. Taylor Atkins has noted, for example, in the world of jazz Shanghai was the mecca that drew Japanese musicians seeking to get closer to the source of the real thing.[4]

Jordan Sand, Living Spaces in the Japanese Empire (Iwanami shoten, 2015)

Jordan Sand, Living Spaces in the Japanese Empire (Iwanami shoten, 2015)

In the field of literature, Tokyo’s role in the traffic of knowledge can be measured roughly in translations and publications. Karen Thornber has demonstrated the breadth of literary contact and exchange through the Japanese empire [5]. Here too, Tokyo often played the role of entrepôt. The Chinese writer Lu Xun, for example, combed the Tokyo bookshops for Western books in their original languages and in Japanese translation. At the same time, new networks of writers were constructed within Asia. In 1942, 1,500 writers gathered at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo for the Greater East Asia Writers Conference.

Students who came to Tokyo from elsewhere in Asia formed their own literary and political organizations, which for many participants were the first formal social groups identifying them with their countrymen. Michael Weiner records fourteen Korean organizations founded in Tokyo before 1925, most of them nationalist, with a few communist [6]. Korean and Taiwanese students at Waseda University in Tokyo published their political writing together in Japanese in the journal Asian Review (Ajia kōron). Meanwhile, China specialist Sanetō Keishū, writing in 1939, listed no fewer than 37 Chinese-language journals published in Japan. This extraordinary transnational literary output can be explained in part by the persistence of the Chinese cultural ecumene that had existed for centuries. Quite apart from deeper cultural affinities rooted in the legacy of Chinese classical knowledge, the simple nuts and bolts of publication must have made Tokyo a congenial place to publish in Chinese as well. Since the Japanese language used Chinese characters, the typesetters in Tokyo already had the necessary font types and knew how to set them. Relatedly, parts of the daily newspaper sponsored by the Japanese Governor General’s Office in colonial Taiwan were published bilingually, serving both Japanese colonists and Chinese-literate Taiwanese readers.

Koizumi Kishio Waseda University Street Scene 1934

Koizumi Kishio. Waseda University Street Scene,  1934 (woodblock print)

We might thus imagine mapping the network of cultural flows through and between empires by tracing movements of texts and of people in pursuit of knowledge. Was Tokyo a net importer or a net exporter of knowledge? In crude measure, that is, did more people come from the colonies and other parts of Asia to Tokyo for study than the number leaving Tokyo in pursuit of education elsewhere? Japanese Foreign Ministry statistics for overseas travel indicate that cumulatively 5,605 Japanese citizens went abroad for study over the decade between 1919 and 1928. In 1930, 2,590 Korean students were reported living in Tokyo. 4,646 Korean students were in Tokyo in 1935, and 16,784 in 1942. A modest number of Taiwanese came, but as many or more students came from China as came from Korea. When the flow of Chinese students was at its peak in 1936, the number coming in one year was reportedly over 8,000. These statistics differ somewhat from one another in nature and time period, but overall it appears fair to conclude from them that metropolitan Japan, with Tokyo as its intellectual core, was a net importer of students and exporter of formal education within East Asia. Yet, since most of the substance of this education—whether it was in medicine, economics, art, or some other subject—was originally from the West, it would be more accurate in most cases to call Tokyo a key re-exporter of knowledge within East Asia. The combination of older ties based on the shared Chinese written language and the magnetic pull of institutions of modern learning derived from the West thus made Tokyo a node in a variety of elite cultural networks that bound the Japanese capital in one direction with imperial subcapitals in Asia and in the other direction with imperial capitals in Europe.

[1] Guo started his career in traditional Chinese painting but subsequently adopted the Japanese style of “Oriental Painting” and turned to depictions of Taiwanese “local color.” He studied in Japan during the 1930s and received multiple prizes at the annual Taiwan Exhibitions under Japanese colonial rule.
[2] On artists in the colonial exhibition system, see Wang Hsiu-hsiung, “The Development of Official Art Exhibitions in Taiwan During the Japanese Occupation” and Young-Na Kim, “Artistic Trends in Korean Painting” in War, Occupation and Creativity: Japan and East Asia, 1920-1960, edited by Marlene J. Mayo and J. Thomas Rimer with H. Eleanor Kerkham (Hawai’i, 2001).
[3] Yasui studied in Paris between 1907 and 1914. Recognized as one of the leading Western-style oil painters in Japan during the 1930s and 1940s, he served as a judge in the Korean and Manchurian Exhibitions.
[4] E. Taylor Atkins, Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan, 2001.
[5] Karen Thornber, Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature, 2009.
[6] Michael Weiner, Race and Migration in Imperial Japan, 1994.


Jordan Sand is Professor of History at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He is the author of House and Home in Modern Japan (Harvard, 2004), Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects (California, 2013) and 帝国日本の生活空間 (Living Spaces of the Japanese Empire, in Japanese; Iwanami shoten, 2015). He is also co-editor of Flammable Cities: Urban Conflagration and the Making of the Modern World (Wisconsin, 2012).

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