Tōkyō Thrift – Japonisme and the Japanese Bauhaus
min Read18 November 2023
The historical narrative of Modernism is overwhelmingly western. However, the history of the movement is, in reality, one of constant diffusion between the East and West; between Europe and Japan. It is an area of study that has been under-explored, but in the development of the Japanese Bauhaus, we can see the evidence of a long history of collaboration between East and West.
In modern vernacular, the concept of East and West can speak of a major contradiction. Ask someone to sum up this opposition (especially in the racially-charged politics of today) and they would relate a major philosophical rift between the two – that “East and West… are not merely geographical terms; they are also modes of thinking and feeling – modes so different as to be virtually irreconcilable.”1 But, as the West has pulled away from religious governance over the past four centuries and the East, in particular Japan, has done the same, whatever dichotomy that existed between the two has become, as described in The Myth of Asia, “less profound – indicative less of different orientations than of different stages of development towards similar norms.”2
Japan is still presented in Western media as an alien, even mystical, land in much the same way as it has been since the 18th century, despite a narrowing of the technical, economic, and political divides between East and West. To most it is the home of vending machines that dispense used underwear, Kawaii, and cosplay.
Shown in a vacuum, bereft of cultural or philosophical context, it is no wonder that many Western observers might see Japan as a bizarre and wholly different country. However, like most impressions taken at face value, appearances are deceptive. For instance, Kawaii culture may appear a surreal and over-saturated devotion to the adorable. But it originated as a powerful counter-culture movement in which teenage girls could “separate themselves from the strict roles […] society was pressuring them compulsorily to take.”3 This was then adopted by the student rebellions of the 1970s from where it eventually morphed into the Kawaii with which we are familiar today.
When considered in its original context, the parallels to a number of recent Western movements including #MeToo and Time’s Up become apparent. Other similarities between East and West aren’t hard to find if one is willing to look. This is at odds with the hazy mirage in the distance with which we often equate Japan. As we drag our perceived borders in tighter, supposing that there are major correlations between the East and West is quickly becoming a problematic supposition.
But they exist everywhere. In art and design specifically, Western influence on Japan fundamentally altered how artisans produced work in a newly international market, while Japanese imports had a major impact on European artists. All of which then filtered into the Bauhaus, where a rapidly globalizing world would dramatically alter the artistic direction of Japan in the mid-20th century. While we often view Modernism in terms of its European narrative, there is more to its development than a group of German artists, and it is important to highlight the global threads that link us before the insular nature of the modern world makes isolationists of us all.
The Asian Foundations of Modernism
When Commodore Perry anchored his four warships across the Tōkyō Bay in July 1853, the development of cultural relationships couldn’t have been further from his mind. His only interest was opening Japan as a port “for fuel and provisions for Pacific merchant and whaling ships.”4 Parading his ships up Uraga Bay was little more than a demonstration of the immense naval power that might be unleashed against the Japanese if they refused to end their long, self-induced isolation.
In the aftermath, Japan underwent an intense period of modernization as the country reluctantly welcomed foreigners onto the archipelago. Chief among these updates was access to Western technology which allowed Japan to “modernize its military, and to rise quickly to the position of the most formidable Asian power in the Pacific.”5 This, in turn, led to significant increases in wealth thanks to trade with America and Europe, as well as radical changes in fashion, economics, and warfare. And while Japan reaped the rewards of opening its international borders, for many Europeans it was the mystery – the sense of oriental exoticism – of the country that proved the most alluring.
Orientalism, of which Japonisme is but a part, originated in the 18th century. It was not as an interest in the Far East but rather the Middle East: a response to European powers warring with the Ottoman Empire. However, as time went on and the mysteries of the Empire were unraveled, fascination moved further East. Once Japan opened its ports, Westerners clambered to claim artifacts of this strange and distant land in much the same way as they had done with Persia and Egypt. Within a short span of time, Asian ceramics became the centerpieces of many art Western collections.
The kimono was of particular interest to modern artists. Artists such as Rossetti and Klimt amassed extensive collections, which became prominent motifs in their work. And, though there is a long history of the West treating the artifacts of other cultures as collectors’ pieces, there was something else that drew Europeans to Asian art: “the hope of a more spiritual, more expressive idea of design.”6
It was perhaps this line of thought that drove artists towards one Japanese medium more than any other, the ukiyo-e. A type of woodblock print, ukiyo-e typically portrayed everyday events such as market day, drinking or bathing. It is ironic, perhaps, that the obsession with ukiyo-e drove prices of specimens to such exorbitant highs in Europe, as they were mostly seen as cheap throwaways in Japan. Indeed, they may have originally entered Europe as wrappings for more valuable pieces. However, as trade swelled and Japanese art began to appear in many exhibitions of the time, the popularity of ukiyo-e only grew.
Within them, Western artists found something they had been lacking. As much as photography was showing artists how a moment could be captured, the everyday goings-on depicted in ukiyo-e and the many new perspectives from which these daily habits could be viewed showed artists like Degas and Monet how to capture life.
Artists finally left the studio and painted en plein air (in the open air) rather than taking sketches and pursuing “visual reality in terms of transient effects of light and color”7 instead of the flatness of traditional painting. The result was a more vivid style, utilizing movement and natural light, as opposed to the static nature of much traditional art of the time. It was a movement that would come to be known as Impressionism.
This also forced change in Japan where “artists and critics […] kept well abreast of European artistic trends.”8 Artisans began anticipating European interests and overburdened their work with stereotypical oriental motifs. These not only alienated many Japanese, but were also unappealing to Western consumers. The import of new materials such as oil paints and dyes created new modes of artistic expression which drew Japan further from its traditional roots. As a result, Japan only appeared more westernized by a market that was quickly saturated with cheap, ugly ukiyo-e. A fact described in Shimazaki Tôson’s Before the Dawn:
Edo was no longer the Edo of [fifteen years ago]; still less was it the Edo of Bunka or Bunsei… [Everything] was noticeably smaller… poorer in quality… the illustrations cruder, and everything grown flimsier… [T]he weird elements had become still more weird… A tired, late-blooming facileness tinged with a coloring of obscenity and decadence.
Shimazaki Tôson, Before the Dawn. Honolulu 1987, p. 262.
Many later prints felt crude in comparison to even the cheapest traditional efforts and, though ukiyo-e had fallen out of favor by the beginning of the 20th century, the effects of those early pieces were still being felt throughout Europe and Japan. The Japonisme that had followed the opening of Japan had pushed the art of both regions inexorably forward and as the art world became steadily more mechanized, the late-Impressionist artists were at the heart of efforts to create new forms of artistic expression through the use of machines.
Though it appeared Japonisme had become less pronounced, it was the artists who had incited the craze and their students who founded the Werkbund in Germany, morphing it into a new form that would eventually come to be known as Modernism.
The Orientalism of the Bauhaus
The founding of the Werkbund brought artists together from all over Europe and, while a thirst for the exotic no longer appeared to fuel efforts to modernize the artistic landscape, the artists who formed the precursor to the Bauhaus were intimately familiar with the Asian ideals that pervaded artistic trends of the late-1800s.
That many Werkbund artists went on to teach at Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus led to a range of ideas and teaching styles merging at the school – some traditional and others radical. But with so many artists influenced by Japonisme in residence, there existed what Helena Čapková calls a “concentration of a tendency that had already existed in the work of an international body of artists active in the institution.”9 In other words, the Japonisme of the Impressionists endured: and enhanced to become a cornerstone of the burgeoning modernist movement.
It is only natural, then, that Japanese students felt so at home at the Bauhaus. Activities such as meditation and ink-painting were common, reminding Asian students of their native spiritualism, and they “noted the uncanny feeling in relation to the Bauhaus modernist space and architecture [that] reminded them of Japanese traditional architecture.”10 Indeed, though the Japanese students at the Bauhaus were few, their presence and easy familiarity with much of the cultural and spiritual background of this new modernist movement cemented what Bruno Taut would later communicate, that “the exotic no longer exist[ed] in Europe for Japan, or in Japan for Europe.”11
By the 1920s and 1930s, Asian influence in Europe had taken on an element of normalcy. The mysteries with which Europeans of the late 1800s fascinated themselves had dissipated. “Japanese artists took an active part in artistic dialogue internationally, and intelligentsias all over the world contemplated Japanese aesthetics and philosophical ideas.”12 The presence of Japanese students at the Bauhaus in itself demonstrates the level to which diffusion had already become commonplace between East and West at the time.
Principal in the Bauhaus’ Japanese roots was Johannes Itten, a man to whom it is alleged “meditation and rites were more important… than work.”13 Itten “practiced vegetarianism, fasting, unique breathing exercises and a special form of sexual discipline”14 and encouraged his students to do the same. While much of his spiritualism was motivated by a particularly problematic interest in German mysticism, Itten still prescribed many Japanese and Asian principles of study – at least in a practical sense. Itten incorporated lessons from Japanese and Chinese art in his teachings as well as implementing yogic exercises within classes. He was invited by Walter Gropius to develop the Bauhaus’ Vorkurs (a preparatory course) in 1919, which all students entering the school would undertake.
In Bauhaus and Tea Ceremony, Helena Čapková describes Itten’s teaching thus:
In explaining the rhythm of the brush and composition, Itten drew on examples from Japanese and Chinese ink paintings, especially from the Nanga School (‘literati painting’) from the Japanese nanshūga, southern style painting—also termed Bunjinga (‘scholar painting’)—and the calligraphy and artwork of Zen Buddhist monks. Zen paintings were, in his opinion, an ideal example of art that operated through spiritual rather than formal values. Itten made his students draw abstract feelings, moods, weather conditions and seasonal ambiances. In fact, he did not teach mimesis but rather encouraged his students to search for a sense of unity with the painted object.
N. Berghausen: Eight Things You Should Know About the Bauhaus, 2019.
In this way, every student who attended the school was introduced to a version of an Asian way of life, as well as being taught Eastern artistic technique and philosophy. It is curious that, in a school founded upon German nationalism, Asian techniques became such an integral part of its pedagogy.
However, this focus on the Asian – not to mention Itten’s Gothic mysticism – did not please everyone. Gropius initially encouraged Itten’s free-thinking approach; he delighted in a course that encouraged students to “get in touch with their creative selves, meditating on the ‘inner forms’ of Old Master paintings, and making junk constructions intended to put them in tune with the logic of materials.”15 It wasn’t long, though, before Itten’s philosophies and indoctrination of many students began to grate upon the Bauhaus’ founder. Conversely, Itten resented Gropius’ use of students in private commissions and his mission to turn the Bauhaus into a practicing architecture firm. After a final blowout with Gropius, Itten left the school in 1923.
When Iwao Yamawaki and Michiko entered the Bauhaus in Dessau, a number of Japanese students had already attended throughout the 1920s, including architect Ishimoto Kikuji and the artist Nakada Sadanosuke. Eastern influence was still in evidence at the school’s second iteration, with Yamawaki Michiko remembering that “[Josef] Albers looked and dressed like someone who performed the Japanese Tea Ceremony.”16 Iwao studied photography while Michiko was sent to study weaving under Gunta Stölzl. The two engaged with many of the Bauhaus’ extracurricular activities, especially its festivals. The February 1931 edition was an “Oriental Night” for which Iwao built a set while Michiko “learned a traditional Japanese dance… which she performed, dressed in a kimono.”17
While the Yamawakis never worked with Itten, they still felt his influence through the Vorkurs. It is clear, too, that the Asian influence on the school – maintained by the likes of Josef Albers and Paul Klee – served as a comfort for the couple while the amalgamation of East and West that formed the cornerstone of its curriculum was a great influence on both of them.
The Yamawakis enjoyed only a brief stay at the Bauhaus Dessau, leaving after its closure in 1932 and electing not to attend the Berlin Bauhaus under Mies van der Rohe.
The Japanese Bauhaus
By the start of the 20th century, Japan had evolved into a dynamic cosmopolitan country, poised precariously between traditional values and the growing influence of the West. The city of Yokohama, in particular, epitomized the international nature of Japan in the inter-war period. Founded as a port city soon after Perry’s opening of the country, it now attracted “entrepreneurs, fugitives, traders, spies and drifters from every corner of the world… [becoming] a riot of loud Western colors and smells—the odor of cigars, the aroma of chocolate, the fragrance of flowers, the scent of perfume.”18 Yokohama became the focal point of merging Eastern and Western interests, more than anywhere in Japan; where democracy was debated in traditional tea rooms and women’s liberation was advocated for while Geisha passed by on the street.
This mounting spirit of collaboration was, however, short-lived. On September 1st, 1923 a massive earthquake struck Japan, followed swiftly by a 40-foot wall of water that ripped across the shoreline. Fires swept through the wooden structures of Tōkyō and Yokohama. After the ash had settled, 140,000 people would be counted among the dead. The Great Kanto Earthquake was regarded as the worst disaster in Japanese history up to that point. In an instant, an atmosphere of distrust and xenophobia replaced the goodwill and cosmopolitan air of Yokohama. Japanese resented Western intervention while Westerners fired back that Japan was ungrateful. Meanwhile, lost in the chaos were the thousands of Korean immigrants massacred by roving bands of Japanese outlaws.
It is interesting to note the parallels between Germany’s progression towards Modernism in the wake of the World War I and Japan’s similar trajectory following a major catastrophe. In both cases, a strong sense of nationalism catalyzed sweeping reforms across the country – with artistic trends, in particular, changing dramatically. It is also interesting that the direction both took in the face of widespread racism was away from the traditional.
Yamawaki Iwao and Michiko returned to Japan in the 1930s in time to play a major part in this transition. They found that the Bauhaus had made a dramatic impression on the art world of Tōkyō, with László Moholy-Nagy’s Von Material zu Architektur already in high demand – and continuing to be a core reference for many Japanese architects today. The book was translated from German by Renshichirō Kawakita who went on to found a study group with Bauhaus alumnus Takechiko Mizutani. It was this group that eventually developed into the Shikenchiku Kōgei Gakuin (School of New Architecture and Design), colloquially known as the “Japanese Bauhaus.”
In 1934, Kawakita invited the Yamawakis to instruct at his new institution – Michiko to lead the new weaving workshop and Iwao to teach architecture. The Yamawakis found the school’s teachings reminiscent of the Bauhaus, and this became a foundation of Japanese design pedagogy from then on. The number of Bauhäusler that visited Japan and taught in its schools only compounded this impression, in much the same way as many would flee to America after the start of World War II. Indeed, when Walter Gropius visited the new Kuwasawa Design School, an institution that owed much to the pedagogy of the Shikenchiku Kōgei Gakuin, in 1954 he wrote: “Here I have found genuine Bauhaus spirit… The inspirational bridge between East and West.”19
While the school’s European roots were palpable and, though much of the work it produced resembled the Bauhaus’ output, in retrospect, it feels like a reclamation. So heavily did 19th-century artists borrow from Eastern art that many of the ideals that returned to the Japanese Bauhaus felt less an appropriation and more a homecoming. This is not to say European Modernism and its ideal weren’t evident; reading Kawakita’s opening declaration, one can be forgiven for thinking it was Gropius speaking:
Now, throughout the world, the age of technology has begun. All crafts and sciences are firmly and technically integrated. We, who encompass crafts and sciences, appeal to the masses from the midst of these new crafts and sciences. Here, new architecture and crafts are elevated by easily understood illustrations, in which the myriad difficult and circuitous expressions and mathematical equations are cancelled out. This is a free al fresco school, liberated from the stiff and formal schoolroom and all old restrictions.
H. Čapková, op. cit. 2014.
The school was forced to close, however, in 1936, when suspicion about its links to Europe began to grow and it was unable to secure a permit from the Ministry of Education. It is another eerie parallel with the Bauhaus, which had closed three years prior following pressure from the Nazi regime.
“The concept that art, architecture in particular, was to represent the nation and the national identity intensified” as the 1930s progressed.20 The Yamawakis aligned with nationalistic ideals, with Iwao employed by the Ministry of Propaganda while Michiko worked with the government in fostering “a nationalistic image of Japanese women.”21 For all this though, the work of the Yamawakis – and Japan in general – appeared almost European. This was no accident. What started as a “passive response to satisfy foreign clients” was turning “into a style that aimed to be universal, satisfying the taste of both Japanese and foreigners.”22
This new Japan, as defined by its xenophobia and militarism, was unsustainable as the country moved into the 1940s. A catastrophic war marked by nationalistic brutality on the part of Japan’s armies in the Pacific ended with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Japanese artists responded to Japan’s humiliating defeat by turning “their back on the traditional Japanese culture implicated in World War II, instead taking inspiration from pre-war European and American avant-gardes.”23
And while many of their contemporaries embraced Western influence, the Yamawakis retreated further into conservative values. Michiko took on a more traditional role beside her husband and mostly disappeared from public after the birth of their child. Without the guiding hand of some of the Bauhaus’ most prominent Asian students, the didactic approach adopted across Japan was less robust than seen in the pedagogy of Kawakita’s Shikenchiku Kōgei Gakuin, reflecting the “processes of adaptation and appropriation of outside influences and technology that are a hallmark of modern Japanese society.”24
However, the notion is something of a tautology. Yes, Japan had been heavily influenced by European design but only after Europe had adopted many Japanese artistic trends in the Japonisme of the 19th century. These ideals returned, albeit diluted, in the mid-1900s and represent a culmination of the strange diffusion that, without constant communication between East and West, otherwise might have seen two completely different modernist movements emerge in Europe and Asia.
A Globalist Movement
It may be a popular idea to suggest that Japan is reactionary to external trends, especially since the American occupation, but it is somewhat lazy to brand its assimilation of European artistic conventions as appropriation – whether the connotations are negative or positive. The Westernization that has been a hallmark of modern Japan was less a casual borrowing of ideas and more a case of diffused knowledge, mostly the result of European colonialism, and an assimilation by the Japanese of the universal ideals of Modernism – a process that today would be seen as globalism.
That the integration of Bauhaus ideals was so easy for Japanese artists is simply testament to how Japanese influence on the West had created the first truly globalist art movement – one that would eventually be considered early-Modernism. The economic boom that followed the war encouraged major growth in the country, and brought Japan back to the cosmopolitan nature it enjoyed between 1853 and 1923. As the bubble extended into the late 20th century, the influence of the Bauhaus continued to show in the work of influential Japanese artists such as Taichi Naito, Kenzō Tange, and Kazuo Shinohara.
We claim that deep tradition and rigid borders are the roots of our identities. But the truth is, the world is a muddy and heady mix of universal ideals that link us all. History often presents us as a mix of disparate tribes but as Joseph Campbell said, “History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is.” Art has the power to transcend cultural boundaries in much the same way as the stories highlighted by Campbell are universal to us all. In the diffusion between Europe and Japan – and the development of the Japanese Bauhaus – we see evidenced just how, on a fundamental basis, we really are intimately related.
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