Taisho Period Art & 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, explore the Taisho period in Japanese history, a time often considered the first era of modern Japan. Learn about the innovative architecture and also, the painting and other forms of art from this time.

The Taisho Period

Japan's transformation into a modern nation started in the late 19th century. By the beginning of the 20th century, the cultural and artistic change was evident. The Taisho period is often considered the first era of modern Japan, when many western influences lived side by side with tradition.

Tokyo Railway Station (1914)
Tokyo Railway Station

The Taisho period started in July 1912 and ended in December 1926, while Emperor Taisho, son of Emperor Meiji, was in power. It was a time of political changes; the universal vote was adopted, and there were some communist uprisings. World War I was of great importance for Japan, widening its influence in China and the Pacific.

The Taisho period was a continuation of the westernization that started during the Meiji era. Arts and culture flourished as a result of the opening to western influences and technologies. There was an interesting fusion of imported styles with traditional arts. This era was the final jump from a traditional society into a modern nation.

Architecture

Architecture continued to be influenced by western styles. Different innovations and design ideas from Europe and North America were adopted. Japan was now part of the modern world. If you looked at a building without any context, it would be difficult to know it is located in Japan.

former Prefectural Building of Yamagata (1916), Neoclassic Style
Former Prefectural Building of Yamagata

Taisho architecture is considered an eclectic mixture of styles, no longer linked to local history. Traditional Japanese architecture was limited to the construction of temples and shrines.

The neoclassical and Art-Deco styles were present. Japanese architects also showed interest in modern architecture from the Bauhaus and some European and North American architects worked in Japan. Frank Lloyd Wright was one of them, although he was not as influential and some of his buildings were later demolished. Some Japanese architects went to study in Europe or became apprentices of the foreign architects working in the archipelago.

Yasuda Auditorium in the University of Tokyo (1925), Art-Deco Style
Yasuda Auditorium

There were significant technological advances. Many bridges and roads were built. Electricity started to be widely available, so many power stations were constructed. After the strong earthquake of 1923, large areas were rebuilt and modernized. Also, reinforced concrete was introduced, expanding the possibilities in architecture and engineering.

Painting

There was an important evolution in painting and the duality of modernity and tradition was evident. Both western styles and traditional paintings developed. The growth of printed media promoted a substantial development in the creation of images and illustrations.

Western style and techniques were followed by some artists who experimented with Cubism, Impressionism and other European artistic movements of the time.

The Children Who Play under Trees, by Kimura Shohachi
The Children Who Play under Trees

The traditional woodblock prints were another important form of art. They consisted of carving an image on a wooden plate and then stamping it on a piece of paper. These prints became popular as art pieces and also as images for newspapers.

There were two main currents:

  • The Sosaku-Hanga: Meaning creative-prints, it was characterized for the innovative designs, with artistic themes uncommon to Japanese tradition, like portraits and people in western attires. One artist was in charge of all the stages of the process, so it became a form of individual expression.
  • The Shin-Hanga: The new-prints. This genre continued the traditional division of duties, but the artist worked closely with the publisher, producing more accurate pieces. The common motifs were traditional women and landscapes.

Kimono of the Pattern of Herons, by Yamakawa Shuho
Kimono of the Pattern of Herons

Porcelain

In the previous decades, porcelain items were often conceived for the western public and produced for export. During the Taisho period, the local demand for products rose and items that combined western influences with traditional elements became popular among the Japanese public. The pieces were mostly tea sets, serving dishes, ashtrays and other items for everyday use.

The more traditional pieces consisted of white glazed porcelain with blue decoration. The common motifs were flowers, landscapes, and calligraphic texts. More innovative styles incorporated western colors and Art Nouveau and Art-Deco influences. Eventually, the traditional artisan was displaced by mass production.

Porcelain Teacups
Porcelain Teacups

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