The Social Significance of Visual Arts: State, Nation, and Visual Art in Japan and Finland

The Social Significance of Visual Arts: State, Nation, and Visual Art in Japan and Finland

Mika Markus Merviö (Kibi International University, Japan)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3576-9.ch016

Abstract

This chapter focuses on visual arts in Japan and Finland and the ways that social and political developments have been linked to reconstruction of cultural traditions. In particular, the most important turning point appears to be the establishment of modern state. This chapter follows the circumstances that prevented Japanese state for a long time during the era of feudal society from giving culture and visual arts more freedom and larger role in the process that leads to modernization and the nation state. After this, the author moves to discuss the parallel developments in Finland, where the process is very different. The idea of this chapter is to look these parallel developments both in terms of contrasts and similarities. In both societies, the visual arts have a long history, and often in national history writing, the cultural traditions are presented as a long unbroken narrative. However, the social and political developments have been greatly affected by cultural developments, but also culture has played a major role in social development.
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Introduction

The Japanese state has been reluctant and slow to realize how important visual arts for the Japanese society and culture and that visual arts have a huge potential to make Japan and Japanese ideas known abroad, in addition, to contributing to global culture. The idea of state being responsible for promoting the cultured life of people or the idea of cultural rights of people both are rather foreign to Japanese society. However, the whole idea of ‘being Japanese’ is very much a social and cultural reconstruction and the Japanese state has been actively encaged in shaping that reconstruction together with other pillars of establishment in Japan, such as the educational and economic institutions. In visual arts the Western influences seeped in gradually during the Edo period and well before Japanese politival elite was ready to contemplate real opening of the society to the Western culture. The hybridization in arts had been going on for a long time before the actual Western painting landed in Japan. This chapter follows the circumstances that prevented Japanese state for a long time during the era of feudal society from giving culture and visual arts more freedom and larger role in the process that lead to modernization and nation state. After this I move to discuss the parallel developments in Finland. The idea of this chapter is to look these parallel developments both in terms of contrasts and similarities. In both societies the visual arts have a long history and often in national history writing the cultural traditions are presented as a long unbroken narrative. However, the social and political developments have been creatly affected cultural developments, but also culture has played a major role in social development.

Japan has a long history as an island territory that is easily distinguishable from its neighbours and the long history of more or less centralized rule under the emperors and shôguns. However, Japanese modern nationalism is largely a product of Meiji period political program and it is wise to regard Japanese nationalism as very different ideological construction than most other nationalisms of the world. Even the Japanese language is very much part of the standarization process of Meiji Period when the new standard Japanese (hyôjungo) was created on the basis of Kantô dialect by the government in order facilitate smoother governance and education. In feudal Japan the rulers did not care that much about the commoners or their culture or communication. However, the Japanese population and cities were already large enough to support elite culture that later has surved as the basis of both literary and visual culture. How much it reflects the histories of the past generations in Japan is open to debate but it certainly has become a central element in the construction of the narrative of Japanese culture and its continued tradition.

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