Fascism & Japanese War Paintings


A review of Envisioning Fascist Space, Time, and Body: Japanese Painting during the Fifteen-Year War (1931-1945), by Asato Ikeda.

This is a bold dissertation that not only engages with difficult and under-examined subject matter — Japanese war paintings of the Fifteen-Year War (1931-1945) — but in addition, grapples with a complex and much debated topic: the concept of fascism as it relates to wartime Japan. Through an examination of both Japanese-style ink paintings (Nihon-ga) and Western-style oil paintings (yōga) produced during this period, and by a comparative analysis of Japan’s wartime visual culture with those of other, more popularly studied areas such as Germany and Italy, Asato Ikeda explores ways that fascism was mediated through the culture of Japan at war. In particular, she proposes analyses of these paintings in relation to concepts familiar to the culture of fascism including “social regimentation, new classicism, eugenics, and the mechanized human body,” (p. 3) and argues that the manifestation of fascism (both politically and culturally) was not exclusive to Europe.

Fascism itself is a contested concept when discussed in relation to Japan. Scholars have debated the applicability to Japan of this political movement usually associated to European nations such as Italy, Germany, and Spain. As a part of her Introduction, Ikeda provides a careful review of the key literature on fascism both in Japan and elsewhere, which reveals that the scholarship that emerged after 1989 is not as timid compared to the earlier works in addressing fascism as a more global phenomenon and a generic concept rather than a political movement based on narrowly defined criteria. While acknowledging the debates that ensued prior to 1989, particularly in relation to whether wartime Japan can be considered fascist or not, Ikeda proposes to draw upon the definition of fascism that emerged after the Cold War and to discuss its Japanese manifestations using the framework of cultural translation.

Paintings played a crucial role in achieving popular support of Japan’s wars of imperialism throughout the modern period beginning as early as the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-5). But it was during the Fifteen-Year War that paintings were systematically utilized by the Japanese state for the promotion of nationalism in general, and militaristic imperialism in particular. Painters were not only commissioned by the state to depict war, but in the later years of the war, often denied access to necessary materials unless they agreed to produce war-themed paintings. The resulting works, with generous funding from newspaper companies such as Asahi, traveled throughout Japan as exhibits mounted in museums and department stores. Other visual media, such as photography, were also effectively utilized by the wartime state with publications such as Shashin shūhō (Photographic Weekly) that not only promoted nationalism and militarism, but also instructed the readers on how to behave and think as a Japanese. In her later chapters, Ikeda provides a comparative analysis between war-themed paintings and such photographs.

With Japan’s defeat, these paintings largely disappeared from public view (and consciousness). Many were destroyed before the Occupation Forces landed in Japan; those that survived were confiscated by the United States in the 1950s. While they were returned to the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo in 1970 on “indefinite loan,” paintings in the collection are rarely exhibited. But in 2006, a retrospective of Fujita Tsuguharu, perhaps the most well-known Japanese war painter, was organized by the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, a notable event that Ikeda has already analyzed (Ikeda, “Fujita Tsuguharu Retrospective 2006: Ressurection of a Former Official War Painter,” Review of Japanese Culture and Society 21 (December 2009): 97-115).

Such war-themed paintings, which can be considered Japan’s wartime cultural propaganda, are an uncomfortable presence for postwar Japan where there has yet to emerge an official narrative of the Fifteen-Year War that the majority can agree with. Consequently little has been published in the scholarly community. The trend is gradually changing, as Ikeda points out: Japanese art historians Kawata Akihisa and Tan’o Yasunori published Imēji no naka no sensō: nisshin, nichiro sensō kara reisen made [War in Images: From the Sino-Japanese War to the Cold War] a collection of war paintings supplemented by their critical essays; in the United States, Bert Winther-Tamaki has published a seminal article on Japanese war paintings in 1997; more recently, two PhD dissertations on the subject matter have been completed (Mayu Tsuruya, University of Pittsburgh, 2005, and Maki Kaneko, University of East Anglia, 2006). But Ikeda’s work is the first to consider the concept of fascism in Japanese war art, a much welcomed and valuable addition to this field.

The relationship between fascism and culture in Japan is also an important area that demands further examination. This dissertation acknowledges several key works including Leslie Pincus’ work on Kuki Shūzō, Harry Harootunian on the 1942 Overcoming the Modern symposium, Kim Brandt on Japanese Arts and Crafts Movement, and Alan Tansman on wartime literature. But no work, until Ikeda’s dissertation, has provided a comprehensive analysis of Japanese paintings in the framework of fascism.

The first two chapters of the dissertation focus on Nihon-ga, which, at a glance, hardly seems compatible with notions of war or politics, let alone fascism. But Ikeda convincingly argues that even these painters cooperated with the war effort. For example, looking at a renowned Nihon-ga painter Yokoyama Taikan, Ikeda asserts that even though he never went to the front, “his wartime activity illuminates how one could support the state without going to battle.” (p. 16) In Chapter 1 “The Fascist Social Space of ‘Proper Place’ and Japanese-style Machine-ist Paintings 1935-1940,” Ikeda analyzes representative Nihon-ga paintings from this time period. While the ink paintings examined here visually have little in common with art works promoted by Germany or Italy in the same time period, Ikeda observes similarities in ideological qualities: namely machine aesthetics and rationalism. Drawing on the concept of cultural translation, Ikeda argues that visual similarities are not necessary to identify the same political ideologies in a painting. In these Nihon-ga works, the “visual field… can be understood as metonymic of a regimented, over-homogenized fascist social space wherein individuals are subsumed under the state, being surveilled, mobilized, and disciplined for war.” (p. 55)

The topic of Chapter 2 “Uemura Shōen’s Bijin-ga, New Classicism, and Fascist Time,” also seems foreign to the discussion of fascism. In this chapter, which examines the period that follows the previous one chronologically, Nihon-ga paintings from the 1940s (and specifically, bijin-ga, or pictures of beautiful people) are examined for fascist qualities. In particular, Ikeda focuses on works by female painter Uemura Shōen (1875-1949) as works of new classicism: a key characteristic of fascist visual culture that demonstrates the quality that is simultaneously modern while rooted in tradition. While Uemura is well known for her depiction of female subjects, Ikeda notes that her wartime works have not been studied critically, and situates Uemura’s works within the discourse of reactionary modernism by asserting that the artist’s works, modeled on Edo-period art, can be “considered in relation to the fascist conceptualization of time, which envisions the future as a recreation of the past.” (p. 100)

The subject matter of Chapter 3 “War Campaign Record Paintings,” is what we typically associate with paintings of the Fifteen-Year War, the War Campaign Record Paintings (Sensō Sakusen Kiroku-ga), works that were officially commissioned by the Japanese state. The chapter examines the yōga (Western style) painters as they followed the military campaign to paint battle scenes for homefront consumption. In contrast to the previous chapter where Ikeda situated the new classicism in a Japanese tradition, the determining factor of these paintings is the new Western classical preference for realism rather than abstraction. Through an examination of these official works of art, Ikeda further develops the idea of disembodiment in Japanese war paintings introduced by Bert Winther-Tamaki. For example, Ikeda finds in Fujita Tsuguharu’s Honorable Death on Attu Island, “an intricate balance of defying the Western Classical discourse of idealized, perfectly proportioned male bodies and eulogizing death without representing the dead body as terribly abject.” (p. 178) Ikeda argues that while Japanese artists received training in European style art, they did not represent the Japanese body as those of individual human beings, but rather, that of a collective body of the kokutai (the national polity).

Chapters 4 and 5 further examine the War Campaign Record Paintings in order to develop the concept of the wartime body through a discussion of eugenics, the concept of scientific racism. While scientific racism is popularly associated with Nazi Germany, it was also practiced in wartime Japan, where the idea of a healthy and strong body was promoted particularly through selective marriage, hygiene, and exercise. However, as Ikeda notes, this idealized body was rarely represented in paintings of the time. In chapter 4 “Representing the Fascist Body I: Scientific Racism and the Japanese Concept of Minzoku,” Ikeda locates this disparity in the idea of minzoku (ethnicity), a modified version of jinshu (race), which focuses on the spiritual, internal qualities, rather than external traits often utilized as markers of race. Ikeda argues that Japanese wartime paintings “materialize[d] this ideology, which privileged the internal rather than external characteristics of the Japanese.” (p. 200)

Chapter 5 “Representing the Fascist Body II: Human Weapons and Japanese Traditional Aesthetics,” focuses on the depiction of the Kamikaze pilots in the war paintings. Ikeda argues that “Japan’s fascist practices around the bodies of Kamikaze pilots… were (not) represented in wartime paintings.” (p. 216) She attributes the absence of the mechanized body (a favorite of fascist art), to the idea that “the mode of representation was highly entrenched in the larger politicized cultural discourse wherein the individual bodies of the Japanese populace were abstracted and considered to constitute the metaphysical, collective ‘national’ body of kokutai.” (p. 216) Instead, Ikeda identifies an alternative form of representation in Nihon-ga, which she analyzes through the works of Ikegami Shūho (1874-1944) and Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958). Here, she argues, the body is represented symbolically through natural themes such as eagles, cherry blossoms, Mt. Fuji, and the sun. Ikeda concludes that “[t]he human body was an extremely important medium for the political subjugation of fascism, but at the same time it was also a thing and an idea on which the Japanese wanted to inscribe their cultural difference from the West.” (p. 254)

This dissertation is the first monograph-length investigation of the relationship between fascism and Japanese visual culture, with a particular focus on paintings. It also provides a thorough historical context, including key wartime political developments, that enables the reader a better understanding of the visual works. The work will no doubt provide a major contribution not only to the discussion of fascism and Japanese culture, but also to a larger body of scholarship that examines the relationship between art and politics more generally.

Akiko Takenaka
Department of History
University of Kentucky

Primary Sources

Wartime magazines: Kikan bijutsu 季刊美術, Bijutsu hyōron 美術評論, Asahi Gurafu 朝日グラフ, Shashin shūhō 写真週報
National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo

Dissertation Information                             

University of British Columbia. 2012. 324pp. Primary Advisors: John O’Brian and Joshua S. Mostow.


Image: Uemura Shōen, Dance Performed in a Noh Play/Jo no mai, 1936.

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