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Interrogating self and other: mutuality in the visual art of prewar Japan

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-21, 16:25 authored by Barbara HartleyBarbara Hartley
In pre-war Japan, the visual artist often played a complicit role in the circulation of dominant imperialist and militarist discourses. Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958) and Fujita Tsuguharu (1886-1968), for example, produced images extolling Yamato military might. This ‘might’ is evident both in the metonym of Yokoyama’s soaring Fuji-san images, often with rising sun ascendant, and in the more realist representation of Fujita’s Soviet tanks under assault at Nomonhan by ‘triumphant’ Japanese troops. Some pre-war and war-time visual art, however, resists being viewed as a conventional ‘hagiography of Japan.’ This, paradoxically, is especially the case in images depicting sites occupied by Japanese military and capital interests. These images, in fact, often reveal the highly tenuous nature of the discursively constructed border that divided the naichi Japanese self and the gaichi colonised other. Rather they convey a sense of mutual subjectivity in which the agency of the ‘other-ed’ subject insists on asserting itself. This presentation will provide a detailed examination of three pre-1945 works of visual art and consider how these uncover the mutuality inherent in old notions of self and other in pre-war Japan. The first is a 1937 image entitled ‘K?nan no haru’ (Jiangnan Spring) by Arishima Ikuma (1882-1974), a scene from the rural environs of Shanghai featuring two young women in Chinese dress and an Imperial Army soldier mounted on a white horse. The second is a 1942 image entitled ‘Shimai heizaz?’ (Sisters Sitting Side-by-Side), painted in Beijing by Umehara Ry?zabur? (1888-1986). The third is a 1944 work by Tsuruta Gor? (1890-1969) entitled ‘Shiganhei no wakare o tsugeru Taiwan no hitobito’ (People of Taiwan Farewelling the Volunteer Troops) which depicts indigenous people of Taiwan saluting as their countrymen depart for war. Each image confirms the precarious nature of Japanese discursive practice, revealing instead a mutual interplay that refuses dominance of one subject over the other.


Publication title

Mutual Images








School of Humanities


Mutual Images Research Association

Place of publication


Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Literature; Understanding Asia’s past; Other culture and society not elsewhere classified

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