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Meiji Period Art, Porcelain & Architecture in Japan

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, learn about the foreign-inspired artwork of the Meiji Period in Japanese history. Explore the key characteristics of art and porcelain of this time. Also, discover its innovative architecture.

The Meiji Period

Japan is a modern industrialized country, with plenty of Western influences but still deeply connected to its traditions. The process of modernization and interaction with Western powers started during the Meiji Period, while the British Empire was under Queen Victoria's rule. Before, Japan was still a very traditional nation.

The Meiji Period was a time of innovation and change in Japan. It started in 1868 and ended in 1912 and received its name from Emperor Meiji. The previous isolation enforced by Japanese rulers suddenly changed with an opening to European influences. That greatly changed Japan and helped it evolve into a more cosmopolitan society. A general interest in foreign artwork, architecture, and culture developed.

Emperor Meiji
Emperor Meiji

Meiji Architecture

Emperor Meiji had a fascination with western culture and since he ascended to power, a process of westernization took over Japan. Overseas designers and western ideas defined the architecture of this period.

Model of the Ginza District in the 1870s
Model of the Ginza District in the 1870s

The Meiji architecture was characterized by using of brick and stone as construction materials, instead of the traditional wood. The intention was not only to copy western structures but also to prevent fires. Influenced by the industrial revolution, materials like concrete, steel, and glass were also used for the first time, although they were rare.

Designs had gardens with fountains that served as decorative elements and also showed some opulence, influenced by the neoclassic ideas of foreign architecture. Porticos and arches were widely used. These constructive elements were introduced by Thomas Waters, an Irish architect who implemented them on several projects while he was working in Japan.

The Rokumeikan Hall in Tokyo
The Rokumeikan Hall in Tokyo

Many government buildings like the Japan Mint in Osaka and the Rokumeikan Hall, were designed following western styles, leaving behind the traditional Japanese structures and standards. In Tokyo, the Ginza District was built as a symbol of modern architecture. However, western-like buildings were very expensive and became nearly abandoned because most Japanese people couldn't afford to live there.

The Japan Mint in Osaka
The Japan Mint in Osaka

The Giyofu Movement

The government encouraged Western influences. In response, Japanese craftsmen developed a new style, known as Giyofu. Wood was used as the main material, but it was plastered on both sides, creating the illusion of stone buildings. The Chinese octagonal tower was incorporated into many designs, inspired by the bell towers from European churches and the Chinese influences also present at that time.

Meiji Porcelain

Porcelain wasn't just decorative but had also a political meaning. It represented the first major exhibition of Japanese crafts at the Paris' World Fair of 1867 and was seen as a major opportunity to establish trade businesses with the West.

However, porcelain saw a decline during the Meiji period. The refined and delicate porcelain from the preceding Edo era was often replaced by mass produced and less detailed products. Porcelain remained a high-valued item for decoration in Europe, but the poor quality eventually made customers lose their interest.

Porcelain often had dense flower designs that didn't leave any uncovered background. Trying to appeal to Western customers, the motifs became more stereotypical; pagodas, females wearing kimonos, folding fans, and traditional landscapes were common. Dark colors like black, brown and gray eventually replaced traditional lighter blues and pinks.

Porcelain Vase by Asai Ichigo, 1892
Porcelain Vase by Asai Ichigo, 1892

Other Artworks from the Meiji Period

The foreign influences quickly turned Japan from a feudal to a progressive society. Forms of art, like painting and woodwork, evolved and adapted to the changing times.

Painting

Many promising artists were sent to study abroad so they could eventually return and impart their knowledge. The Japanese government even invited western artists to develop new artistic curricula on local schools.

The government and its western fascination created a division in the world of art and two schools developed:

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