The twentieth century is a turbulent time in Japan, as the country vacillates between unprecedented heights of power and wealth and the depths of poverty and devastation. After the dramatic efforts to modernize politically, socially, economically, and culturally during the Meiji Restoration, Japan seeks to win control over neighboring countries, competing with Western imperialist ambitions. Finally, Japan participates in World War I, fighting on the side of the Allies. Despite dramatic industrial and financial expansion during the war years, along with the rest of the world, Japan is plunged into economic crisis in the 1920s, accompanied by social upheaval caused by the stresses of unemployment, an expanding population, and rapid urban growth. Continuing an imperialist agenda and buttressed by a strong sense of nationalism, Japan, allied with Germany and Italy, enters World War II hoping to gain control of strategic territory and natural resources in East and Southeast Asia. Despite initial successes, Japan is ultimately defeated by the United States, ending with the horrific detonation of two atomic bombs. Japan’s postwar period is marked by a miraculous revival, culminating within a few decades in the nation’s emergence as one of the world’s wealthiest democracies.
Culturally, Japanese art parallels the country’s historical experience during this century. On one hand, interest in traditional art forms, including woodblock prints, kabuki theater, ceramics, and native crafts, continues and is sometimes coupled with nationalistic motivations and identification. On the other hand, not only do Japanese artists and the public continue to study and be influenced by foreign art techniques, forms, and trends, such as oil painting, sculpture, psychologically probing novels, modern dance, and Western-style architecture, but many Japanese artists gain worldwide renown. Japanese artists also master and use expressively and innovatively such new art forms as cinema, animation, photography, and fashion.
The Treaty of Portsmouth ends the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5) and gives Japan full control of Korea, the southern Sakhalin Islands, and China’s southern Liaodong Peninsula. Manchuria is returned to China and Japan agrees to pay Russia for its lost territory.
Japan officially annexes Korea, which remains a Japanese colony until 1945.
Emperor Meiji dies and his third son Yoshihito (Emperor Taisho, 1879–1926) is coronated.
On August 23, Japan declares war against Germany, entering World War I on the side of the allies Great Britain, France, and Russia. Japan is primarily motivated by a desire to expand its territorial interests, especially in China and the Pacific Islands. Although the Treaty of Versailles, which ends the war in 1919, focuses on European concerns, Japan maintains economic influence in China’s Shandong Peninsula, gains control over Pacific islands formerly dominated by Germany, and joins the League of Nations.
The first animated film is made in Japan, beginning an art form that will grow throughout the century to gain worldwide fame. Ofuji Noburo (1900–1961), who creates animated movies using cutout silhouettes, is the first Japanese filmmaker in this field to gain global recognition.
Hara Takashi (1856–1921), head of the Seiyukai political party—the opposition of the Rikken Doshikai party (later called Kenseikai)—is named prime minister and forms what is considered Japan’s first party cabinet. Although nonpartisan senior ministers succeed in appointing a nonparty successor to Hara after he is assassinated in 1921, this important step in the development of a two-party political system in Japan eventually has lasting results.
A major earthquake, followed by firestorms, devastates the greater Tokyo region. After the resulting social uprisings and disorder are quelled, there is an enormous need for new architecture and urban restructuring.
The Diet gives all male citizens the right to vote. This politically liberal action, however, is countered by a series of edicts and actions attacking left-wing political factions, including the recently formed communist and socialist parties. These measures prove to be so drastic and effective that by the beginning of the next decade, the left is almost entirely silenced.
Art historian Yanagi Muneyoshi (1889–1961) coins the term mingei to refer to traditional folk crafts and promotes the study, appreciation, and production of these utilitarian and decorative objects made of relatively simple materials. Ten years later, this aesthetic is institutionalized in the founding of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum (Nihon Mingeikan) in Tokyo.
The Zen monk Suzuki Daisetsu (1870–1966) publishes Essays in Zen Buddhism, which plays an important role in spreading Zen knowledge and practice worldwide.
On July 7, Japanese and Chinese troops clash on Marco Polo Bridge on the outskirts of Beijing. Although this incident is relatively minor, it quickly escalates into the Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese military gains control of major cities on the coast and railroad lines. Although the Japanese government declares its desire not to conquer China but to establish a regional trade and political alliance under its leadership (termed the New Order in East Asia, or Toa Shinchitsujo), the Chinese population remains steadfastly opposed to the Japanese throughout the war, which concludes with the ending of World War II in 1945.
Japan signs the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, inspired by Germany’s recent military successes in Europe. As was the case in World War I, Japan’s primary goal is expansion into China and Southeast Asia. Hostilities escalate in December 1941 when Japan declares war on the United States and attacks the American naval base at Pearl Harbor.
Despite early martial victories, after a naval defeat at Midway Island on June 3–7, 1942, the Japanese war effort declines and ends with Japan’s surrender on August 15, when Emperor Hirohito (1901–1989) delivers an unprecedented radio broadcast. During the war years, Japan suffers more than 3.5 million casualties, economic devastation, and decimation of its cities, including the detonation of atomic bombs by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, respectively.
Beginning in September and lasting until April 1952, Japan is occupied by a foreign power for the first time in its history. The Allied Occupation, under U.S. General Douglas MacArthur (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers or SCAP) and with 500,000 troops, demilitarizes the country, tries war criminals, enacts important reforms in Japan’s industrial organizations, and implements an American-style school system. The Occupation also establishes a new constitution, which reduces the emperor to a figurehead without political power, abrogates military force and warfare, and guarantees a host of individual freedoms. This period coincides with the beginning of Japan’s striking economic recovery and growth in the early 1950s.
Architect Murano Togo (1891–1984) completes the World Peace Memorial Cathedral in Hiroshima to commemorate the first deployment of an atomic bomb. This stark and poignant structure of an exposed skeleton of concrete columns and beams is one of the most expressive endeavors by this influential architect.
Director Kurosawa Akira (1910–1998) films his highly acclaimed Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai). Thanks in part to the encouragement of the Occupation Authority, Japanese cinema thrives in the postwar period. While The Seven Samurai resembles in many ways an action-packed American western, Kurosawa not only bases his movie on a traditional Japanese tale, but he also imbues the film with characteristically Japanese attention to atmosphere and mood. Bolstered by Kurosawa’s receipt of a number of international film awards, his movies also succeed in attracting Western audiences to Japanese cinema.
With the merger of the Liberal party (Jiyuto) and the Japan Democratic party (Nihon Minshuto), the Liberal Democratic party (Jiyu Minshuto) is formed. This conservative party, which relies on the support of farmers, professionals, and corporations, among others, dominates Japanese politics to the present day.
Potter Hamada Shōji (1894–1978) is named a Living National Treasure, a status bestowed by the government on men and women engaged in traditional crafts and performing arts to encourage the continuation of native art forms. Hamada, who spent several years working with Bernard Leach in England, is best known for using local clay and ash to fashion ceramics decorated with expressively applied glazes. The distinctive style of his work is typical of the studio potters whose individualistic styles and fame replace the anonymity and familial connections of pottery craftsmen of earlier centuries.
Sony Corporation produces the first mass-marketed transistor radio, launching Japan’s phenomenally successful electronic appliance industry.
Dancers Hijikata Tatsumi (1928–1986) and Ono Kazuo (1906–2010), who had been trained in classical ballet, present Kinjiki (Forbidden Colors). This shockingly violent and erotic performance inaugurates the new and modern dance form Ankoku Butoh, or Dance of Darkness, which is characterized by dancers covered with minimal costumes and white body paint performing slow and often contorted movements.
Author Kawabata Yasunari (1899–1972) is the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Well known for his novel Snow Country (Yukiguni), Kawabata applies his knowledge of Western literary forms to an exploration of traditional Japanese themes and concerns.
Prime Minister Sato Eisaku (1901–1975), who held the post for the longest period in Japanese history, receives the Nobel Peace Prize for normalizing relations between Japan and South Korea, supervising the return of Okinawa from U.S. to Japanese control, and signing the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
After the longest rule recorded in Japanese history, Emperor Hirohito (1901–1989) dies and is succeeded by his son Akihito (born 1933).
Oe Kenzaburo (born 1935) is the second Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. An author of short stories, essays, and novels such as A Personal Matter (Kojinteki na taiken), Oe explores human struggles brought on by suffering, war, and dislocation in a strong and evocative prose.
“Japan, 1900 A.D.–present.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=11®ion=eaj (October 2004)