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Japan in modern times

Shuzaburo Usui

Shuzaburo Usui (attrib.) | Japan | (Oiran (courtesan)) c.1887 | Large format hand-coloured albumen photograph mounted on an album page board | 26.8 x 21cm | Purchased 2010 with funds from the Henry and Amanda Bartlett Trust through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

This selection of ukiyo-e prints, studio photographs and moving images examines the cross-cultural interaction and exchange that occurred between Japan and the West during the period of the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912).

Since the late seventeenth century, Japan had been governed by the Tokugawa shogunate – a feudal regime whose strict isolationist policy prevented locals from leaving and foreigners from entering the country for over 200 years. During the short period of Emperor Meiji’s reign, Japan swiftly metamorphosed from feudal state to modern industrial nation and became a major military power in the region. The new spirit of the Meiji years saw the Japanese eager to adopt Western innovations in technology, governance and nation-building. New technologies caused an explosion of industrial productivity and diversification, and a national military was established. Compulsory public education was introduced, teaching the skills needed to maintain the new nation and instilling the values of Japanese citizenship. Local industry expanded in light-export industries such as textiles as well as in heavy industries such as steel and shipbuilding. Cities grew and commerce flourished: what had taken centuries for the West to accomplish was achieved in Japan in a few short decades.

Woodblock printing (ukiyo-e) of the Meiji period was a popular method of conveying the monumental shifts taking place in Japan. This display considers pivotal events in Japan’s program of nation-building, from the signing of the constitution to the major land and sea battles that established the country’s military prowess in the region.

Also at this time, photography was introduced in Japan. As a medium unbound by tradition, photography not only signalled the onset of modernity but also provided new ways of ‘picturing’ a wide spectrum of Japanese life and culture. This display features prints by pioneering European photographers Felice Beato and Baron Raimund von Stillfried-Ratenicz, and those by later Japanese exponents Usui Shuzaburo, Kimbei Kusakabe and Kuichi Uchida.