Department Stores & Art Consumption in Japan


A review of Art in Everyday Life: Department Stores as Purveyors of Culture in Modern Japan, by Younjung Oh.

Since the turn of the twentieth century department stores have played a critical role in the production, circulation, exhibition, and consumption of modern art. Yet, in spite of their profound and lasting impact on the development of Japanese art and visual culture, department stores have not been valued as cultural arbiters worthy of significant scholarly study. Indeed, the very nature of the department store – its commercial interests, promotion of conspicuous consumption, and unapologetic practice of putting aesthetics in the service of profit – undermines the institutional category of “fine art” itself. Through a careful examination of department store art practices from the mid-1880s through the late 1920s, Younjung Oh’s dissertation not only recuperates the department store as a pivotal player within the history of modern Japanese art and visual culture, but, more importantly, uses the department store as a tool to dismantle the historically constructed institution of “fine art” established during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Oh’s dissertation convincingly argues that the concept of “fine art” in modern Japan was formulated through a conscious strategy of exclusion, manipulating the language, categories, and values of modern art to create a hierarchy of painting, sculpture, and architecture that actively ignored mass culture, commercial art, craft, and urie (paintings produced for sale). While previous scholarly studies have examined the modern construction of “fine art” in Japan by using a top-down approach that analyzes specific art policies propagated by the state, Oh tackles the institutionalization of “fine art” from the bottom up by investigating what art meant and how it functioned within the commercial practices of the department store and everyday life.

Drawing upon a wide range of artistic media such as painting, photography, advertisement posters, art journals, and architectural design, Oh’s dissertation is organized chronologically and divided into four chapters, each of which focuses on a different aspect of the discursive formation and evolution of “fine art” in Japan during the early twentieth century. Chapter 1, “From Gofukuten to Department Stores: the Creation of Spectacle,” begins in December 1904 with the establishment of Japan’s first department store, Mitsukoshi. Mitsukoshi’s transformation from a dry-goods store, or gofukuten, to a modern department store was marked by the expansion of merchandise as well as the store’s effort to create and increase consumer desire by emphasizing the visual and aesthetic experience of shopping. Mitsukoshi transformed consumer goods and everyday objects into works of art by enhancing their appearance through artistic design and manner of display.

The aestheticization of commodities through exhibition formats that mimicked artistic objects displayed at cultural institutions and venues such as industrial trade exhibitions, World’s Fairs, and modern museums not only stimulated consumer desire but also created a new level of visual accessibility and pleasure. Shopping, which had previously been defined as the “purposeful acquisition of goods” (p. 40), quickly became a leisure activity, the visual spectacle of which amused and inspired the customer. In its effort to make shopping the ultimate aesthetic experience, Mitsukoshi appropriated the art of Rinpa School artist Ogata Kōrin (1658-1716) for its textile designs and later anointed itself as the official supporter and protector of Korin’s artistic legacy. Mitsukoshi also employed some of Japan’s most distinguished modern artists to design window displays, advertisements, and architecture. Although most scholarship on modern Japanese art focuses primarily upon “fine art” works, Oh argues that within this context the commercial activities of modern artists like Takeuchi Seihō (1864-1942) and Okada Saburosuke (1869-1939) constituted an important part of their artistic production and even made a significant aesthetic impact on their fine art works. Yet, with the advent of design, or zuan, as an independent profession during the 1910s, “fine” artists were immediately expected to separate themselves from “commercial art” ventures. As a result, the discourse of aesthetic autonomy divorced artistic practices from the commercial realm, marginalizing commercial art and practice to a secondary role.

In Chapter 2, “Art Sections of Department Stores: New Middle Class’s Art Consumption for Distinction,” Oh demonstrates how department stores like Mitsukoshi began to collapse the division between “fine art” and “commercial art” through the designation of art sections, which displayed and sold fine art by prominent Nihonga painters such as Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958), Shimomura Kanzan (1873-1930), Takeuchi Seihō, Imao Keinen (1845-1924), Okada Saburosuke, and Wada Eisaku (1874-1959). In spite of the push for aesthetic autonomy, works of art became highly sought after commodities among Japan’s emerging middle class. The exhibition and sale of “fine art” in department stores created a new level of artistic access that allowed urban middle and upper class members of society participate in the burgeoning aesthetic and cultural development of the modern Japanese citizen.

Fueling the impetus to design and decorate the interior space of the home, in particular the tokonoma, department stores concentrated on the sale of Nihonga or Japanese-style paintings. Very few modern artists were able to make a living solely based upon the awards and prizes won by their “works for salon” exhibited at the Bunten. In reality, many of the top artists who served as exhibitors and jury members of the Bunten also earned a living by selling works of art produced specifically for the purpose of decorating the interior space of private middle class residences. Oh illustrates the crucial role of department stores in cultivating the belief that art was “indispensable for an ideal life in the modern era” (p. 122) by catering to a core clientele of customers known as the Yamanotezoku, or “Yamanote people.”

The term “Yamanote people” referred to the emerging upper middle class, consisting of civil servants, military officers, university professors, doctors, and business professionals all hailing from the Yamanote district of Tokyo and seeking to use their new found cultural capital to transcend social distinctions through the purchase and display of art. Within this context department stores used their magazines and advertising campaigns to propagate the notion that all modern homes must be decorated with contemporary works of art. Utilizing important primary textual sources from the Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya department store archives such as exhibition catalogues, “how to display art guides,” and photographs of model home interiors, Oh illustrates how these marketing tactics were frequently used by the art sections to motivate their customer base, many of whom lacked the knowledge, experience, and confidence in art collecting.

By offering high quality works of art by well known contemporary artists at relatively low prices, department stores created a new form of merchandise that was accessible beyond art galleries and the government sponsored art exhibition known as the Bunten. Yet, as Oh points out, despite working outside the proper channels of “fine art” procurement, the art sections of department stores were able to appropriate the Bunten’s aesthetic reputation as well as make a profit by marketing and selling works of art created by artists vetted by the state sponsored exhibitions. Within this context, Oh adeptly proves how department stores capitalized on the cultural aspirations of the new middle class and in turn how the middle class achieved a mastery of “fine art” through their tasteful consumption of department store art.

Chapter 3, “Art Exhibitions in Department Stores: Marketing the Image of Cultural Institutions,” further explores the division between “works for salon” (kaijō geijutsu) and “works for sale” (urie) through department store sponsored art exhibitions. In particular, Oh investigates how the alternative space of the department store exhibition format not only acquired aesthetic and cultural capital as an important venue for contemporary artists to display their “works for salon,” but, in many cases, became the primary venue for these artists. In spite of the fact that the modern art world of Japan was dominated by the discourse of artistic autonomy, many of the most famous modern Japanese artists of the early 20th century straddled the worlds of “fine art” and “commercial art.”

Established in 1907, the government-sponsored national art exhibition known as the Bunten was the premiere exhibition format open to all artists from all artistic groups. Oh argues that while this public art system, under which anyone was allowed to submit work, may have seemed democratic, the reality was that only works approved by a special jury of judges were accepted for display. This system was developed to enhance the authority of the Japanese Ministry of Education, which sought to serve the needs of the state by controlling the creation and development of modern art in Japan. In response to these government led art policies and institutions, many modern artists formed their own art groups with the purpose of establishing independent venues for exhibition and display.

Within this milieu department stores provided an alternative space for these artists who were seeking a certain level of artistic autonomy from the government’s control over modern art. As a result, department stores became a critical space for the exhibition of major art groups such as the Nihon Bijutsu-in (Japan Art Institute) and the Nika-kai (Second Section Society) until the establishment of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum in 1926. The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum’s primary focus was on providing temporary exhibition space for various art groups rather than pursuing collection based practices dominated by the direction of a specific curatorial authority. While department stores did not reap immediate financial rewards for hosting these art exhibitions, the long-term benefits were lucrative as they expanded their customer base by attracting a diverse array of visitors to the exhibitions. More importantly, however, through the sponsorship of a number of major art exhibitions, department stores were able to enhance their reputations as cultural institutions. Ultimately, this cultural capitol became an essential component to the overall success of department store’s business, which as Oh contends, relied heavily upon cultural and aesthetic authority to set trends and create new fashions.

Chapter 4, “Incongruous Alliance: Avant-garde and Department Store in the 1920s,” examines the transition from the autonomy of the artist to the autonomy of the work of art. According to Oh, during the Taishō period (1912-1926) works of “fine art” became free-floating commodities in the bourgeois market of luxury goods, “generating and legitimating social differences” (p.13). As Oh persuasively argued in chapter three, the autonomy of “fine art” and its associated exhibition practices were appropriated by department stores in their attempt to raise aesthetic prestige through an association with high culture. Yet, Oh contends that the very discourse of artistic freedom “concealed its internal contradiction that the autonomy of ‘fine art’ could be guaranteed only in the commodity structure of the work of art” (p.13). It was the avant-garde art groups of the 1920s who first challenged the autonomous institution of “fine art” by attacking the privileged status of artworks and reintegrating art into the praxis of daily life. The zaiya (anti-official) artists who comprised these avant-garde groups contested the institutionalized discourse of art itself by actively resisting the exclusive hierarchical art establishment, which considered art to be detached from society and the reality of everyday life.

But what did department stores gain from sponsoring exhibitions by provocative and confrontational avant-garde groups? Oh argues that while the capitalist nature of the department store and the leftist nature of the avant-garde artists would seem like a contradictory pairing, in reality these two groups shared a common desire to stand on the sentan or “cutting edge” of current artistic and cultural trends. The department store’s desire for sentan was predicated on the need to remain relevant and accessible to the broadest audience possible. Their embrace of avant-garde art allowed them to generate an image that was “new,” “advanced,” and “modern,” detached from society in an ivory tower of “fine art.” Likewise, the avant-garde artists’ desire for sentan was based on their need to question the role of art in society as well as an attempt to transform their artistic pursuits from an “art for art’s sake” to “art for social utility” (p. 265).

As a result, commercial art and consumer culture allowed avant-garde artists to integrate modern aesthetics with the everyday. The department store became the primary forum for showcasing the activities of avant-garde art groups like MAVO, Action, Sanka, Zōkei and Tani Sanka. For many of these avant-garde groups their relationship with department stores went beyond exhibitions and included design projects for the stores as well. Department stores, in turn, put their advertisements in many of the major leftist literary magazines of the period. Oh illustrates that by making art an integral part of daily life, department stores provided the means for many avant-garde artists and collectives to reach a mass audience of consumers. Department stores also allowed avant-garde artists to obliterate what they believed to be the artificially constructed division between “fine art” and “commercial art.” As Oh concludes at the end of this chapter, “within this ambivalent culture and social environment, it was not considered unacceptable for revolutionary avant-garde artists to exhibit in capitalist department stores” (p. 312).

Overall this dissertation represents an extremely important contribution to the field of modern Japanese art history. First, Oh’s research builds upon the scholarship of Japanese art historians like Kinoshita Naoyuki and Omuka Toshiharu, whose work focuses on modern artistic practices of production and consumption excluded from the discourse of “fine art” as well as the formation of new audiences and subsequent reception of modern art by these audiences. In a similar vein, Oh’s dissertation also joins a growing body of literature in English on modern Japanese art by art historians Alice Tseng, Kim Brandt, Christine Guth, Jordan Sand, Alicia Volk, and Gennifer Weisenfeld, all of whom explore how the modern construct of “fine art” and exhibition culture was interpreted within a range of art making, collecting, and exhibition practices, such as imperial museums, folk art, tea culture, architectural interiors and domestic space, and avant-garde art collectives. Second, Oh’s examination of the historical conditions that led to the creation of department stores as important cultural institutions engages with the work of scholar Jinno Yuki, who views the department store as marketing a specific cultured life-style targeted to a new urban middle class. Finally, Oh’s research contributes to the primary literature on Japanese department stores found within Julia Sapin’s dissertation, “Liaisons Between Painters and Department Stores: Merchandising Art and Identity in Meiji Japan, 1868-1912,” which examines the relationships between Japanese painters and department stores during the Meiji period. Building upon Sapin’s research, Oh’s study encompasses the artistic practices of Meiji, Taishō, and Showa artists through an exploration of merchandising art beyond the painter’s practice and examines more closely the commodification of art exhibitions by department stores. Through a comprehensive investigation of the artistic practices of department stores during the early twentieth century, Oh substantiates the department store as an important cultural center within modern Japanese art history.

Erin K. Schoneveld
Department of East Asian Studies
Haverford College

Primary Sources

Advertising Museum, Tokyo
Department Store PR Magazines such as, Mitsukoshi Taimusu, Jikō, and Ryūkō
Mitsukoshi Archive, Tokyo
National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo
Takashimaya Historical Museum, Osaka

Dissertation Information

University of Southern California. 2012. 348pp. Primary Advisor: Jonathan M. Reynolds.


Image: Mitsukoshi postcard featuring the art exhibition floor of its store, 1910.

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