Imperial Portraiture in 18th- and 19th-c. Japan

A review of Political and Ritual Usages of Portraits of Japanese Emperors in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, by Yuki Morishima.

This thesis expands our understanding of the paradigmatic changes that took place in visual culture in nineteenth-century Japan. The author focuses on the sociopolitical significances of imperial portraits as they were used by different interest groups in pre-modern and modern Japan: the imperial court itself, the Tokugawa shoguns, Buddhist temples, and the general public and public institutions in modern Japan. This wide focus allows her to present new insights into the practices of secrecy that were at the heart of the construction of political and religious authority in pre-modern Japan, and to contrast this with the growing public presence of the emperor in modern Japan, thus expanding on existing research in these areas by Timon Screech (The Shogun’s Painted Culture: Fear and Creativity in the Japanese States, 1760-1829. London: Reaktion, 2000) and Anne Walthall (“Hiding the Shoguns: Secrecy and the Nature of Political Authority in Tokugawa Japan” in Bernhard Scheid and Mark Teeuwen eds. The Culture of Secrecy in Japanese Religion. London: Routledge, 2006).

The first part of the thesis investigates the exclusivity and limited accessibility of imperial portraits in the context of their sociopolitical significances. The author explains that imperial portraits were objects of personal devotion that functioned in a ritual setting. In this context access to imperial portraits was restricted to all but the closest affiliates of the imperial family. She further demonstrates how Sennyūji (泉涌寺, Temple of Spring Water) in the Eastern Hills of Kyoto actively acquired, kept and displayed imperial portraits to establish and augment its status as imperial mortuary temple. The author provides a detailed historical narrative of the temple’s uses of imperial portraits to construct its own religious, cultural and political status, and she relates this to the temple’s extraordinary ability to cater to four Buddhist teachings (Shingon, Tendai, Zen, and Ritsu) and to continuously adjust its archival and ritual practices to the changing power dynamics among the imperial court and the changing houses of military rulers (shoguns) starting in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333).

The second part of the thesis offers a fascinating analysis of how the Meiji Emperor’s (1852-1912) modern identity was being negotiated and constructed within the framework of the predominant dichotomies of Asian modernities – the East-West and the tradition-modernity binaries. Morishima traces the process of the transformation of the emperor from an amoral and quasi-religious figurehead into a modern and secular head of state with a real physical and political presence. Her chronological analysis of representations of the emperor through the Meiji Period (1868-1912) demonstrates the gradual consolidation of his identity as an increasingly masculine, moral and political symbol of national unity and progress. She emphasizes the agency/power of pictures in effecting this process of transformation within the context of developing new media and technologies of lithography, photography and the modern tabloid press in Japan. She also considers gender issues by discussing the delayed modernizing of the image of Empress Consort Haruko (1849-1914) relative to the emperor. Although this part of the thesis focuses mainly on changes in the representation of the emperor in nineteenth-century Japan, it also raises points of continuity, such as the use of official imperial likenesses by public institutions as ritual objects based on increasingly standardized practices of secrecy.

Chapter One discusses important methodological and taxonomic issues that have remained unresolved due to the relative dearth of art historical research on imperial portraits. The author emphasizes the need to investigate imperial portraits in a ritual context, which requires a critical distancing from the Western notion of portrait (shōzōga, 肖像画) that was adapted in Japan only in the late nineteenth century. She lays out the focus of her investigation on the commissioning of imperial portraits, the intended audiences and the manner in which these portraits were kept and displayed. This allows her to consider the institutional circumstances of the production, the aesthetics and the functions of imperial portraits. Her analysis goes beyond a narrowly focused art historical investigation and avoids adhering to arbitrarily constructed genres that fail to take account of the actual significances of pictures in their contemporary contexts. Morishima convincingly argues that the functions of imperial portraits in ritual contexts cannot be separated from their aesthetics. Any significant art historical investigation of imperial portraits requires a rethinking of the conservative notions of ‘painting’ and of ‘portrait’ as ‘pure art forms’. This approach marks an important innovation in the study of imperial portraits that has so far lacked critical visual analysis.

The tradition of non-representation of political elites in pre-modern Japan is mirrored to some degree in the dearth of research on imperial portraiture. Morishima notes obstacles to her research such as a lack of extant primary sources, the idiosyncrasies of imperial portraits themselves and the continuing perception that imperial portraits are largely inaccessible or not an appropriate subject for critical inquiry. Morishima demonstrates the idiosyncratic status of imperial portraits within the history of court painting in pre-modern Japan. Early emperors avoided portraying their ancestors for fear of being cursed should the imperial portrait not be treated respectfully or gazed upon by persons of unsuitable status. Imperial portraiture only started to rise in importance in the thirteenth century under the influence of the Zen Buddhist practice of portraying Buddhist patriarchs. Imperial portraits were often partially painted by the descendants of the portrayed emperors as a personal act of devotion. The imperial likeness was considered so sacred that it was unsuitable for the gaze of professional court painters. This says as much about the uneasy status of court painters within court hierarchies as it reveals about the religious status of the emperor as a divine and almost otherworldly entity, which was mirrored in the status of the imperial portrait as a ritual object invested with spiritual agency. Morishima’s finding that imperial portraits were inhabited with the divine spirit of the emperor himself and were therefore part of his divine being necessitates a rethinking of the notion of portraits as a mere likenesses. The imperial portrait and the emperor were one. As Morishima rightly argues, any serious analysis of imperial portraits needs to take account of this by using interdisciplinary approaches drawing from religious studies, history and anthropology.

Chapter Two traces the history of the imperial memorial temple Sennyūji as a malleable site that was shaped by the changing historical interactions among the temple, emperor, court, and shoguns. In tracing the temple’s practice of actively acquiring, keeping and displaying imperial portraits through the ages, the author demonstrates how Sennyūji used these portraits to construct its authority and identity as an imperial mortuary temple. She highlights the agency of the visionary monk Shunjō (1166-1227) who affected the transformation of the temple into an important Buddhist educational institution based on his international experience of having spent twelve years in Song Dynasty China. These developments preceded the temple’s growing importance as an imperial memorial temple. In her historical narrative Morishima avoids following a simple trajectory of imperial decline with the advent of the rule of military hegemons (shoguns) in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). She demonstrates that the Tokugawa shoguns indirectly supported the construction of imperial lineages through imperial portraits by making Sennyūji one of the Three Official Temples (三官寺, Sankanji) in the Genroku Era (1688-1704).

Imperial portraits produced a visual genealogy of the imperial line. Owing to the ritual nature of imperial portraits it was not necessary to reinforce this visual genealogy by publicly displaying the portraits of successive emperors together. This claim is supported by the fact that extant imperial portraits are of differing sizes. These inconsistencies suggest that no attempts were made to create an integrated series of imperial portraits and that the actual stylistic execution of imperial portraits was not of the utmost importance. Instead, the power of imperial portraits lay in temporary displays at memorial services that were attended by imperial family members and close supporters at meaningful occasions such as death anniversaries. Morishima makes a valid attempt to frame this ceremonial setting considering the dearth of available primary sources. She demonstrates that these ritual events helped above all to consolidate the authority and identity of the practitioners of these memorial services. Portraits of deceased emperors were consciously used to benefit the living as much as they were meant to venerate the dead.

Imperial portraits were commissioned exclusively by persons with close links to the deceased emperor. Morishima also introduces into this argument a gender perspective. There are no extant portraits of the two female emperors of pre-modern Japan. Morishima explains this on the grounds of the transitional nature of their rule. The function of imperial portraits as icons of personal devotion transcends the documentary aesthetics that art historians conventionally associate with court painting. Morishima chooses an appropriate interdisciplinary approach to account for this, listing numerous historical instances when portraits were reported to have caused or predicted natural disasters to prove that imperial portraits were perceived as animated objects invested with the deceased emperor’s spirit. This argument thoroughly enhances our understanding of the iconographic tradition of non-representation, because it situates it in the context of historical sociopolitical trajectories, religious practices and discourses on the spiritual power of imperial portraits in pre-modern Japan.

Chapters Three and Four demonstrate the transformation of portraits of the emperor as a religious icon for personal devotion in pre-modern Japan into a national political icon of modern Japan. The author shows that the construction of the emperor’s modernity was directed both at the outside world – mainly the West – and at the domestic audience of the Japanese general public and public institutions such as schools. It is therefore significant both in terms of domestic and foreign politics. The emperor’s dress, physical features and appearance as well as his official and unofficial representations were perceived in different ways by these audiences. The growing masculinity and Westernized features of the Meiji Emperor such as his increasingly elaborate facial hair and military uniforms, which were modeled on French prototypes, showed him to be a real person and modern head of state on a par with international standards. The modernized personal features of the emperor’s body were effective tools of foreign politics, because they showed him as a progressive representative of a nation aspiring to achieve equal status with Western powers in the eyes of Western diplomats and observers. Morishima uses primary sources to reveal Western perspectives onto the remodeled identities of the Japanese emperor and empress.

In the field of domestic politics the construction of the identity of the emperor and – with some delay – of the empress through pictures was a more complex and gradual process. Both official and unofficial representations were aimed at showing the emperor in a positive light to elicit respect for his secular authority as head of state and as a national icon of unity and progress. Unofficial representations that were based on woodblock prints and lithography satisfied popular demand for information about current events (jiji nishiki-e, 時事錦絵, brocade pictures of current affairs). They depicted the emperor in symbolic narrative settings that served as visual evidence for the emperor’s agency at the helm of contemporary developments. The prints showed the emperor and increasingly the imperial couple engaged in public events, thereby demonstrating their agency in driving the nation’s progress next to icons of modernity such as steam trains and brick buildings. Since the authenticity of these images was derived from their symbolic and narrative style, accuracy of the emperor’s and empress’s likenesses was not required. This was also partly due to the traditional aesthetics and techniques of woodblock prints. At the same time, these prints still managed to capture the outstanding features of the increasingly modern appearance of the emperor and empress. The prints accurately depicted the empress in traditional court dress (she only adopted Western court dress in the late nineteenth century), which contrasted with the emperor’s appearance in Western-style military uniform for public events.

By contrast, the aesthetics and the functions of official imperial portraits were based on likeness. Their production and reception shows the intersection of the relatively new aesthetics and technology of photography (photography only found wider acceptance in Japan in the 1860s) and the pre-modern notion of the divinity of imperial portraits as ritual objects at the centre of practices of secrecy. Morishima explains that photographs and to a lesser extent Western-style oil painting were chosen over lithographic and woodblock reproductions for official portraits and representations of the emperor, because of their perceived indexical qualities as “true shadows” (goshin’ei, 御真影) of the emperor that were invested with his living spirit.

Morishima discusses the increasingly standardized and ritualized practices of keeping and displaying the emperor’s official portraits in public institutions in Japan. She gives examples of how the Japanese public actively constructed official imperial portraits as objects of devotion that could only be displayed in appropriately formal settings. Viewing the emperor’s official portrait was tantamount to being in his real presence. The emperor as a reconfigured political icon signified the modern Japanese nation state and by extension modernity itself. Morishima also shows how the Imperial Household Agency influenced these practices to some extent by regulating the circulation of official imperial portraits, thereby raising the status of these portraits as exclusive objects, given only to selected public institutions. There is some consistency here with pre-modern Japan in the principle of creating icons by regulating access to imperial portraits. In pre-modern Japan this was part of practices of secrecy that produced imperial portraits as ritual objects with religious and personal significances. Keeping imperial portraits hidden from view for extended periods of time was an important source for their functions as religious icons more so than their actual visual and material qualities as paintings. By contrast, the iconic qualities of official portraits of the Meiji Emperor were constituted by their public, national and political significances. The emperor had materialized as a real person with a real physical presence, which was reflected in the relatively novel techniques and aesthetics of photography and oil painting.

It is to the author’s credit that she does not construct simple binary oppositions by juxtaposing the traditional aesthetics and techniques of woodblock prints versus the relative modernity of lithographs and photographs in nineteenth-century Japan. Eschewing generalizations, this balanced argument reveals aspects of the complex modernity of nineteenth-century Japan. The major contribution of this thesis lies in highlighting the agency of pictures in contributing to shaping the public discourse on the emperor’s personal identity and the identity of the modern Japanese nation as a whole within the context of domestic and international politics. The author’s sociopolitical perspective allows her to explain and to contrast the different aesthetic and technological choices that were made for official representations (photographs, Western-style oil painting) and unofficial representations (woodblock prints, lithographs) of the emperor. Imperial portraits therefore emerge as a dynamic field of intersecting practices of reception by different audiences and developing modern visual aesthetics, technologies and media.

Doreen Mueller
Senior Teaching Fellow
Department of the History of Art and Archaeology
SOAS, University of London

Primary Sources
1. Bacon, Alice Mabel. A Japanese Interior. Boston, New York, Houghton, Mifflin & Co.;
Cambridge, Riverside Press, 1894.
2. Gomizunoo tennō jitsuroku 後水尾天皇実録. Edited by Fujii Jōji 藤井譲治 and Yoshioka
Masayuki 吉岡真行. Tokyo: Yumani Shoten ゆまに書店, 2005.
3. Higashiyama Sennyūji saikō hinamiki 東山泉涌寺再興日次記. In Sennyūji shi: Shiryō hen 泉涌寺資料編. Compiled by Akamatsu Toshihide 赤松俊秀. Kyoto: Hōzōkan 法蔵館, 1985.
4. Meiji Tennō ki (MTK) 明治天皇紀. Edited by Kunaichō 宮内庁. Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan 吉川弘文館, 1968-1975 vols. 1-12.
5. Nenjūgyōji hishō 年中行事秘抄. In Gunshoruijū 群書類従 6. Compiled by Hanawa Hokiichi 塙保己一. Tokyo: Zoku gunshoruijūkanseikai 続群書類従完成会, 1960, 472-571.

Dissertation Information
University of Pittsburgh. 2014. 294pp. Primary Advisor: Karen Gerhart.

Image: Portrait of Emperor Meiji, drawing by Edoardo Chiossone and photograph by Maruki Riyō, 1888 (Meiji 21).

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