Japan art and Tomioka Tessai (1837-1924): Anti-China and modern nationalism

Japan art and Tomioka Tessai (1837-1924): Anti-China and modern nationalism

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The Japanese artist Tomioka Tessai (1837-1924) witnessed unimaginable changes throughout his life. He was born during the Edo Period, which began in 1603. However, this period of Japanese history was eclipsed by the modernization processes of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) – which radically altered society.

He also witnessed the reforms of the Taisho Period (1912-1926). Hence, one can only imagine the real thinking that entwined his soul. After all, the flows of nationalism, including war with China (First Sino-Japanese War 1894-1895), altered the regional dynamics of Northeast Asia.

Tessai was a very spiritual person and a deep admirer of philosophy. When he was born, China was the cradle of civilization that impacted enormously on Japan concerning high culture, religion, philosophy, and other important areas. Hence, he was extremely well versed in Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and the indigenous faith of Shintoism.

In his informative years, he studied Buddhist scriptures and Confucianism. Naturally, the impact of Taoism also influenced Tessai – this is witnessed in some of his art pieces. While during the Meiji period, Tessai supported the restoration of Shinto shrines. From his birth – when China impacted enormously throughout Northeast Asia – he suddenly witnessed a world where Japanese nationalism and modernization would alter the regional power dynamics. This period would equally witness negative forces against Buddhism in Japan.

Tessai was influenced by the female nun Ōtagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875). Rengetsu is acclaimed as being one of the greatest poets of nineteenth-century Japan. Her rich legacy concerns art, calligraphy, poetry, and being a graceful potter. However, her Buddhist faith underpinned her life and creativity. Therefore, the sadness of Rengetsu – who died when the anti-Buddhist convulsions were still being felt – pained her before dying in 1875.

Yet, for Tessai, the new Japan would mean regional wars against China, Korea, and Russia. Ironically, in the modern period, Japan is now adopting anti-China and anti-Russian policies in line with the whims of America – while still having negative relations with North Korea and South Korea. Therefore, Tessai would fully understand modern latent Japanese nationalism and how it thrives on ideas emanating from America.

However, unlike his mentor Rengetsu who influenced many aspects of his life, Tessai belonged to the new anti-China world of Japan. Thus, while Rengetsu was saddened by the anti-Buddhist early period of the Meiji period, Tessai had no option but to adapt to the changing nationalist period of Japan.

Reuters reports (2021) about Japanese lawmakers visiting a Shinto shrine where war criminals are being prayed to. Modern-day Japanese nationalists hide behind the real meaning (The Japanese Emperor will not visit under the prevailing conditions) by pretending that they are also praying to ordinary Japanese soldiers who died protecting Japan. Hence, Reuters reports, “Nearly 100 Japanese lawmakers from several political parties visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine for war dead in Tokyo on Tuesday, prompting the South Korean government to express “deep concern and regret.”

Tessai focused on art throughout the period when Japan began to resemble the colonial and military policies of the British Empire, Ottoman Empire, and others throughout history that looked down on other ethnic groups and religions. However, his art also highlights the flow of China and when regional cultures respected each other. Therefore, if you close your eyes – and take US hegemony out of the equation that boosts Japanese nationalism – then one can only dream of the past when Chinese and Japanese holy people and artists influenced both nations for countless centuries.


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