HIEA 112 — final assessment “The Conflict of Nationalism”

Illustration of Singing by the Plum Garden, Toyohara Chikanobu, 1887

This piece of woodblock-print is called Illustration of Singing by the Plum Garden by Toyohara Chikanobu, in 1887. I came across this art piece as I searched for “Western Imperialism in Japan.” The piece illustrates a scene of five high classed Japanese women and a young boy. They are all dressed in Westernized clothes: the women are wearing pieces that resembles Victorian dresses with ruffles, puffy sleeves and skirts, and the boy in vest and pant. They are also wearing gloves and some pointy, heels-like shoes which I am certain, are not traditional Japanese sandals. Coming along with these Western-influenced clothing style is a harmonization of the Japanese distinctive fashion features, which can be seen through the Shimada hairstyle, and the dresses made of fabric with big, colorful floral prints — which we normally see in Kimonos. Two of the women are playing piano and violin, which are instruments originally from the West. There are also Western furnitures, and a big Sakura tree by the banister. This scene gracefully embraces the new alteration of Japan under Meiji restoration, yet at the same time, it reveals that Japanese people were still able to reserve important parts of their culture, as well as the pride in the superiority of their nation.

The acceptance of Western Imperialism had brought Japan to a new chapter with new technology and innovation, as oppose to their fear of being taken over by foreign influences in the past. In the document Goodbye Asia,1885, transportation was used as an example to justify Western imperialism, “In this day and age with transportation becoming so convenient, they [Korea and China] cannot be blind to the manifestations of Western civilization”(Yukichi 352). Japan’s degradation on its neighboring countries was a way of proving their superiority and modern thinking, instead of keeping traditions and turn away from new ideologies, which to them, would not be beneficial to a country’s civilization: “They forcibly try to avoid it by shutting off air from their rooms. Without air, they suffocate to death”(352). From this statement, we can see that Japan was mockingly predicting the outcome of China and Korea if they weren’t going to change, but at the same time, they were convincing themselves that death would also be the outcome for them if they did not choose to change, that they were placed in a helpless situation and hence should be justified for it.

Despite the goal of developing into a powerful nation and expanding their imperialism by learning from the West, Japan seemed to be conflicted with idea of whether they should be conquering or surrendering to the western world. While their worship for Imperial Throne did not fade, they had to surrender to the convenient utility of the Western innovation, “If one observes carefully what is going on in today’s world, one knows the futility of trying to prevent the onslaught of Western civilization. Why not float with them in the same ocean of civilization, sail the same waves, and enjoy the fruits and endeavors of civilization?”(Yukichi 351). The contradiction shows when Japan — during the Meiji restoration period — was trying to transition themselves into a strong, undefeatable nation, but they were just following after what they claimed to be the trend of today’s world, like many other countries did. The idea of “floating with them in the same ocean of civilization” somewhat reveals the beginning stage of Japan’s surrender to the western world, which could possibly be a reasonable explantion as to how they were able to form an alliance with the United States so quickly after the end of World War II, despite the disaster that the United States have left. In the document Patterns of A Race War, Dower described this surrender of Japan with a very strong tone, “Even the demonic Other, that most popular Japanese image of the American and British enemy, posed no obstacle to the transition from enmity to amicable relations as Japan quickly moved under the U.S military aegis; for the archetypical demon of Japanese folklore had always had two faces, being not only a destructive presence but also a potentially protective and tutelary being”(Dower 13). Post-war destruction had brought Japan to extreme vulnerability, which left them with no choice but to swallow their pride — after entering the war under the attack of Pearl Harbor — and became an alliance of the United States. This coexistence of preserving nationalism, and the acceptance of Western imperialism seems to be an unsolved conflict that had happened throughout history of modern Japan.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store