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The Ukiyoe Boom and Twenty-First Century Japonism

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Kang, Tae-woong

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Institute for Japanese Studies, Seoul National University
Seoul Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol.5 No.1, pp. 23-43
UkiyoeJaponismHokusaiHayashi TadamasaShunga
Ukiyoe precipitated Japonism in the West more than 150 years ago but has yet to receive a fair evaluation in the country of its birth. In twenty-first century Japan, Ukiyoe has been publicly popular and has served as a government resource representing Japanese culture. There has thus been a significant time lag between its being embraced in the West and in Japan. In this article, I trace changing Japanese perceptions of Ukiyoe. The recent shift is related to the surging popularity of popular culture media such as manga and anime, and the governments emphasis on popular culture as a component of its soft-power policy. Ukiyoe has come to serve as a symbol of Japanese cultural power in discourse praising all things Japanese, also known as Edo Utopianism and the glorification of Japan discourse. This discourse has also influenced conservative historical views. The Society for Writing New History Textbooks emphasizes Ukiyoe and Japonism as representative of Japanese culture.
However, this view overlooks the Wests reception of Ukiyoe in terms of its own particular interests, depicting Ukiyoe as a Japanese gift to the world. It thus reflects a distorted pride in the superiority of Japan, which also serves to obfuscate censorship issues with regard to Ukiyoe. Japanese society needs to reconsider Japonism. It was not a product of Japanese art infiltrating the West, but cultural exchange. Japanese society also needs to reflect on the tendency to consider Ukiyoe merely in terms of its achievements.
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