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Essay: W. David Marx – Meeting modernity



When compared to our current era of rapid globalisation, Japan may still win the prize for most extreme national transformation. After two hundred plus years of stagnant feudalism and international isolation, Japan’s Meiji Restoration of 1868 started a rush towards “modernization,” and with it, an unexpected open-armed embrace of foreign customs. Everything “Japanese” met with a new suspicion, seen as part of the problem holding Japan back. Western technology and social organizations would be learned and adopted for their efficiency, but Japan also took to certain aspects of European and American culture believing they were key to those countries’ national strength. Men thus abandoned the national costume of kimonos and hakama to make room for three-piece suits and British-designed military uniforms. Aristocratic women wore ball-gowns and learned Western court dances. And in rural areas, the government campaigned to combat once-accepted “nakedness” to conform to Victorian ideas of modesty.

Japan’s modernization, however, was always an ambiguous operation. In great irony, the leaders’ impetus for rapid Westernization was fundamentally anti-Western: that is, they hoped to adopt the best practices of the imperialist West to protect themselves from becoming a ravished colony like nearby China. A slogan of the day was wakon yousai, meaning “Japanese spirit, Western technology.” Japan could adopt the armaments and accouterments of the West, but Japanese psychological internality and morality was best to stay in line with Japanese tradition. National progress was linked to the successful balance between these two elements, and even today, the binary provides an important creative tension for society.

The photos in the exhibition Meeting Modernity beautifully illustrate the moment when Western technology and modern commercial life surged into the “pre-modern” culture of Japan. This miscellaneous batch of photos was unearthed in a small market outside of Sano in rural Tochigi Prefecture. Mostly commercial portrait photography from the early 20th century, the pictures show families in a mix of traditional kimono and yukata as well as imported dress designs and Western looks for men. Young boys dress in formal hakama but hold school- boy caps clearly cribbed from European designs. Women show traditional “up” Japanese hair styles and fashionable “down” Western bobs. Some of the photos are staged portraits and some feel spontaneous, but they both suggest that the very act of picture-taking was a momentous event for its subjects.

The photographs offer a few important reminders about Japanese culture, first that this period of rapid change resulted in cultural elements now protected and cherished as key components of social continuity. Many of the “new styles” of the period — especially the Prussian- influenced schoolboy uniforms — continue strongly in our present era. Elementary school boys of today still dress in suits with short pants and that distinctive military-style hat. But instead of being viewed as quaintly “modern,” as being the product of a distinct era, Japanese conservatives are wont to hold up these styles as the pinnacle of “Japanese tradition” — protecting them from the threat of even further Westerniza- tion. In a similar way, all the venerable school anthems from the top private-universities echo late 19th century European military marches, rather than Japanese pentatonic composi- tion, and yet, these songs could not be more “Japanese” for the public at large. At every point in time, “Japan” is the product of cultural synthesis between native and foreign forces, and the photographs in the collection demonstrate the antithetical elements that form the base of all traditions.

W. David Marx is a writer and musician based in Tokyo, Japan. He is a former editor of The Harvard Lampoon and has provided writing for such publications as GQ, Brutus, Harper’s, Nylon, The Japan Times, and The Fader. He is the founder and chief editor of the webjournal Néojaponisme.