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City and Country: Prints from Early 20th-Century Japan

During the first decades of the 20th century, Japan’s cities developed at an astounding rate. The change was particularly noticeable in Tokyo, where the Ginza district bustled with shoppers and Shinjuku was home to fashionable cafés. The new urban landscape became a favorite subject for print artists, who portrayed the crowded streets and nighttime entertainments. In Café District in Shinjuku (Shinjuku kafe gai) of 1930 by Oda Kazuma (1882–1956), revelers make their way home down a darkened narrow street lit only by shop signs. The city is also the subject of one of the most famous Japanese print series of modern times, the landmark Recollections of Tokyo (Tokyo kaiko zue). When this set was issued in 1945, many original and recut blocks from the 1930s were used. In these images, well-known sites of the city such as Tokyo Station and the Ginza area are frozen in time, shown in their more thriving prewar versions.

Among Japanese city dwellers, the rapid urbanization process sparked nostalgia for the scenery of the countryside and of their hometowns, or furusato. Many felt that foreign collectors would not buy prints featuring the modern city—that rather, they would prefer a more traditional and serene vision of Japan. As a result, artists produced idealized visions of rural Japan that would appeal to those both at home and abroad. In Catching Whitebait at Nakaumi in Izumo (Izumo Nakaumi Shirauo tori) of 1924, also by Oda Kazuma, a lone fisherman plies along under the moon and stars, and lanterns create dancing reflections on the currents. He gazes out upon the distant hills described in beautiful shades of deep blue.

The kind of life seen in the placid views of fishermen and farmhouses was disappearing, and life in Tokyo would never be the same after World War II. In these images, however, they both remain unchanged. This exhibition offer views of the city juxtaposed across the gallery space with with images of the country, allowing viewers the opportunity to compare these two sides of modern Japan.

Relevant research areas: East Asia, 20th Century, Relief printing

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