AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 114

[ Japan Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Session 114: Drawing Tastescape in Modern and Contemporary Cultural Japanese Practices

Organizer: Gyewon Kim, Georgia State University, USA

Chair: Anne McKnight, Shirayuri College, Japan

From the 1900s onward, several terms referring to taste began to surface in Japanese literary and visual culture. Taste (shumi/tesuto), bad taste (aku shumi), no/poor taste (botsu shumi) –suddenly emerged in Japanese cultural practices to mark different social classes, genders, and races. More importantly, ‘taste’ came to organize an economy of cultural goods with a specific logic, shaping the conditions under which they were produced, consumed, and circulated within national and international circuits. This panel endeavors to look closely at the social and political functions of ‘taste’ as a mode of production and appreciation of cultural goods as well as one tactic for representing, classifying, and legitimating different things and people. On one level, this panel seeks to explore how the idea of ‘taste’ itself emerged as value judgment while on another level it addresses what kinds of taste were specifically cultivated and popularized in different historical contexts. These papers examine the taste for art in department stores (Oh), modernist photography and highbrow domestic culture (Okubo), photographic documentation of historic sites (Kim), Japanese responses to an Orientalist American taste for Japan in postwar American film (Shima), and a taste for nostalgia and a rural, pastoral identity of Japan (O’Leary). Taken together, we ask what taste is, how it constitutes certain logic of cultural politics, economy, and education, and how it mediated the construction of new social contexts and practices in Japan.

Distinction Within Massification: Art Sections of Japanese Department Stores in the Late Meiji Period
Younjung Oh, Seoul National University, South Korea

In 1907, Mitsukoshi department store established an art section to display and sell the art of prominent artists, whose works had been accepted for an official annual salon called Monbusho Bijutsu Tenrankai (Ministry of Education Art Exhibition), which was also inaugurated that same year. Following Mitsukoshi’s lead, other Japanese department stores soon opened their own art galleries in addition to starting mail-order sales of the art for people in remote areas. I consider how the taste for art generated by department stores functioned to produce and legitimate social differences in modern Japan, where cultural capital played a primary role in the negotiation of an individual’s social position after the breakdown of feudal status categories. The department stores placed emphasis on providing equal opportunities for all Japanese, regardless of class, gender, or regional differences, to experience fine art, thereby propagating the idea that they brought about the “Taishūka” (massification) of fine art previously monopolized by the elite. Despite open access to their art practices, however, I argue that the department stores created new dynamics of social distinction, dividing the population into those who came to see the exhibitions and those who did not, those who had the competence to appreciate art and those who did not, and those who could afford to purchase art and those who could not. I examine how a rising bourgeoisie achieved the mastery of tasteful consumption of art through department stores and department stores in turn capitalized on the cultural pretensions of their upwardly mobile customers.

“New Photography” and its Social Basis: Department Stores, Newspaper Companies, and Photography Magazines in the Kansai Region of Japan in the 1920s and1930s
Ryo Okubo, University of Tokyo, Japan

In 1925, the population of Osaka surpassed that of Tokyo, making it the largest city in Japan. The Kansai region, including Osaka, played a significant role in the modernist photographic movement during the 1930s. I will reconsider this Kansai-based modernism in the context of social history rather than art history. In particular, my talk will clarify how “good taste” in photography emerged among photography circles and became the basis of modernist movement. Especially after the German International Traveling Photography Exhibition held in 1931 in Osaka, a modernist movement called “New Photography” (shinko shashin), which especially involved Surrealism and “avant-garde photography” (zen’ei shashin), was led by amateur photography circles in the Kansai region. I will particularly focus on the tight connection between the amateur photographers’ networks, department stores, newspaper companies, photo industry, and photography magazines: in the 1920s, for example, a great number of amateur photography competitions were supported by newspaper companies and photo industry, while photographic exhibitions were often held in department stores; and Osaka Mainichi Newspaper Co. published in the 1930s a photography magazine entitled Home Life, which visually introduced “modern taste” and “highbrow family life” for the middle and upper classes by featuring modernist photographs taken by photographers based on the Kansai area. This talk will investigate the symbolic meaning and significance of “taste” in the formation of the Kansai photographic networks, whereby illuminating its fundamental role in the development of Japanese modernist movements

A Journey to Taste: Photography Trips and Historic Sites in Prewar Japan
Gyewon Kim, Georgia State University, USA

What did it mean to ‘do photography’ during the 1920s and 1930s in Japan? Specifically, what was at stake for middle class men to purchase and travel with a camera? How did the notion of ‘taste’ (shumi) operate as a link between photographic and spatial practices? I will address these questions by looking at the way popular photography mediated the construction of a new vision of imperial landscape in Japan. Particular attention will be paid to the photographic documentations and exhibitions of scenic spots and historic sites (meishō kyūseki), a concept that surfaced in the late Meiji period as part of a broader project to preservae of important national monuments. Due to the proliferation of mass media events and advertisements, the idea of scenic spots and historic sites rapidly spread out to the entire country. Interestingly enough, photography as a new mass medium was embraced in this national project as a better and more accurate eye to capture and record what was otherwise vanishing. In other word, a vogue for historic sites was bound up with, and intermediated through, a mass taste for photography. Doing photography not only meant an upbringing and cultivation of good taste in middle class men. It also revolved around the question of imperial subjectivity, implying the promotion and cultivation of specific subjects who could preserve the landscape of the empire by picturing it through their own cameras.

The Barbarian and the Geisha: The Creation and Reception of “Japan” in Hollywood Films in the Postoccupation Era
Daigo Shima, McGill University, Canada

Based on analyses of Japanese newspapers and film magazines, I will focus on how Hollywood depicted “Japan,” and how Japanese critics and audiences reacted to such depictions after the Occupation. In doing so, I would like to clarify how visual tastes for “the authentic Japan” were projected and embodied in the realm of cinema - not only in terms of visual representation, but also of film production and circulation in the 1950s. Cinematic depictions are worth considering, because the 1950s witnessed both the Golden Age of Japanese cinema and a sudden increase in the number of Hollywood films shot on location in Japan. Although these films were actually shot on location in Japan, their depictions of “Japan” almost always drew negative reactions from Japanese critics and audiences. Actually, by the middle of the 1950s, it seems to have become a common assumption among Japanese film critics that Hollywood films shot on location distorted the image of “Japan” because of Hollywood’s cursory and incorrect understanding of Japanese culture and women. Behind such negative reactions lay the contradiction and negotiation between the Orientalist American taste for Japan and the Japanese taste for “the authentic Japan.” To compare and contrast such contradiction and negotiation, I will focus in particular on the shooting process and the completed film of Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955) and Joshua Logan’s Sayonara (1957), each of which gained contrasting evaluation for their depictions of Japanese culture and women.

Okinawa, Furusato, and the Creation of a Postwar Vision of Japaneseness
Thomas F. O'Leary, Saddleback College, USA

This paper will describe the construction of a specific taste for a rural, pastoral identity that was articulated as a goal to be realized in the years following the postwar boom and the return of political control to the Japanese government. However this taste for the rural and pastoral was not limited to the countryside of Japan’s main islands. When Tōmatsu Shōmei began publishing photos from his series titled, Taiyō no Enpitsu (Pencil of the Sun), in 1975 Okinawa had only recently been transferred back to Japanese control after several decades of American occupation. Photography had been used by Tōmatsu, as well as others, to document the social changes occurring in Japan following the war, but this series of photographs did something much more. These images, while mostly landscape and “documentary” photographs, sought to document the roots of Japanese culture and identity. As I will argue, Tōmatsu’s project responds to the commodification of nostalgia that had been packaged for a visually consuming Japanese public since at least 1970. That was when Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising company, launched its “Discover Japan” campaign and encouraged Japanese who lived in the cities to explore Japan and discover their furusato (home). By the time Tōmatsu had completed his project in Okinawa, “Discover Japan” had become the most popular and successful advertising campaign in modern Japanese history. Yet Tōmatsu’s project goes even further than this in that it seeks to legitimate this taste for a constructed rural past and anchor it in a tangible present. This taste for a purely Japanese identity reflected a binary between inner and outer with relation to urban spaces and inaccessible rural lands.