Formally Dressed Emigrant Family Listening to the Record Player (in South America)

During the period of Japanese emigration to other countries, Japanese diplomatic establishments abroad recommended that Japanese immigrants adopt local customs and manners so as to avoid friction with local inhabitants. This photograph illustrates the assimilation of Japanese emigrants. Japanese emigration to Brazil began in 1908, and reached its peak in 1926–35. Following the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888, the government of Brazil looked to immigrants to address a labor shortage in the increasingly important coffee industry. European immigrants, particularly Italians, filled the gap at first, but were later joined by immigrants from Japan, where rural poverty was widespread and the economy was struggling to modernize and to reabsorb soldiers returning after the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5).

Privy Council Meeting

This woodblock print, dated October 1888, depicts a meeting of the Japanese Privy Council, which was established in 1888 for the purpose of deliberating drafts of a constitution. The idea of writing a constitution had been discussed, both within and outside the government, from the very outset of the Meiji era (i.e., from 1868), which returned Japan to imperial government after the Tokugawa shogunate. However, the detailed work on a draft constitution that led directly to the Meiji constitution did not begin in earnest until around 1886 (Meiji 19). Itō Hirobumi (1841–1909), Japan’s first prime minister, supervised the work. A clean copy of the constitution reflecting the debate on each provision was presented to the Privy Council by Itō in March 1889 (Meiji 21) and it became law the following year. The print is by Yōshu Chikanobu (1838–1912) who, along with other artists in the 1870s and 1880s, began to produce kaika-e (prints that documented Japan's modernization and Westernization) as well as prints of more conventional subjects.

Poster from the First Postwar General Election

The first general election in Japan after World War II was held on April 10, 1946, in Showa 21 (Showa years number the regnal years of Emperor Hirohito, starting in 1926). This was also the first election to be carried out after the electoral law reforms of December 17, 1945 (Showa 20), which granted all men and women aged 20 years and above the right to vote. This election poster includes text by the female author Ikuta Hanayo (1888–1970) and calls upon women to cast their votes. The voters elected 39 women to the Diet, the first female legislators in Japanese history.

Cool Evening at Shijogawara during the Gion Festival

This work depicting the Gion Festival in the mid-19th century is by Gountei Sadahide (circa 1807–78), also known as Utagawa Sadahide and Hashimoto Sadahide. The festival, one of the major summer events in Japan, dates back well over 1,000 years and is still held in Kyoto for the full month of July. Its purpose traditionally is to pray for the protection of the populace from disease during the hottest season of the year. Sadahide belonged to the Utagawa school and was a pupil of Kunisada, also known as Utagawa Toyokuni III (circa 1786–1864). Sadahide created many pictures of Kabuki actors and beautiful women, as well as genre paintings and landscapes. He was much appreciated for his representations of life in Yokohama, showing the Western influence on his country. Sadahide was particularly skilled at detailed landscapes, panoramas with map-like elements and a bird's-eye view, such as these evening scenes at Gion published in 1859.

January Sekku Festival

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861) was a disciple of Utagawa ToyokuniⅠ (1769–1825), founder of the Utagawa school. In this work produced in about 1847, Kuniyoshi presents a typical New Year’s scene of the Edo period (1600–1867). In the center of the picture is a large kite with the image of Bodhidharma (also called Daruma), a Zen Buddhist sage of fearsome appearance who was often caricatured in Japan. Children are playing with the kite, around which stand three mothers with children. The pair in the middle is on the way to take the first bath of the year. The pair on the right plays battledore and shuttlecock, and the pair on the left is watching the kites fly. In the distance a merchant draws a cart loaded with the year’s first cargo, with Mount Fuji symbolically looming beyond the cloud. Five annual festivals, Go-Sekku, mark the changing cycle of seasons, and the January Sekku contains the New Year celebrations. Kuniyoshi’s colorful ukiyo-e prints were wildly popular in his day.

Kanjinchō, One of the 18 Great Plays of Kabuki

Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900) has been called the last great master of ukiyo-e. His dramatic Kabuki three-page sets of prints are much admired for their skilled use of color. Here he portrays Kanjinchō, a Kabuki play written earlier in the 19th century. This nishiki-e (Japanese multicolored woodblock print) was based on a performance of the play in May 1890 and published that year. The story is set in the late 12th century and shows at left Minamoto no Yoshitsune, played by Onoe Kikugorō V (1844–1903). Yoshitsune is a son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, the former head of the Minamoto clan (also called Genji clan), and he and his followers are being hunted by his brother, the Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo, the present head of the clan. While they are fleeing in the disguise of yamabushi (Buddhist mountain priests), they come to a checkpoint at Ataka in Kaga Province. There they are harshly interrogated by Togashi Saemon no jō, seen at right played by Ichikawa Sadanji I (1842–1904), who is under Yoritomo’s orders to arrest them. One of Yoshitsune’s followers, the quick-witted Benkei, seen at center played by Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1838–1903), asserts that they are not Yoshitsune’s party but real yamabushi, journeying around the provinces seeking donations for the rebuilding of the Tōdaiji Temple in Nara, which burned down in a battle. Challenged to prove his identity, Benkei takes out a blank scroll and says that it is a kanjinchō (subscription list formally laying out the benefits of donating to rebuilding temples) and pretends to read from it. Sparks fly from the eyes of one man to another. Benkei, anticipating that his ruse will be exposed, stares hard at his opponent. Togashi, sniffing out Benkei’s deceit, unsheaths his sword. Yoshitsune, dressed as a porter but behaving as if the deception has been detected, prepares to fight. The triptych depicts the whole situation, showing the complex feelings of each man through the expressions and gestures of the players. The old pine tree and the young bamboo trees painted behind the actors are based on the backdrop of Noh plays, which predated Kabuki.

Mitate-e:Crossing at Sano

Suzuki Harunobu (circa 1725–70) was a master of ukiyo-e in Edo (present-day Tokyo) and the key figure in developing nishiki-e (Japanese multicolored woodblock prints), such as this one. It shows a young woman at dusk in heavy snow, trudging across a bridge. Her feet are bare except for black lacquered clogs, and she is holding one long sleeve of her kimono over her head to protect her from the driving snow. The picture is based on the waka (short poem) “Sano no watari” (Crossing at Sano) by Fujiwara Teika (1162–1241) in Shin kokin wakashu (an imperial poetry anthology). The original waka features Teika himself, but in this mitate-e (a picture substituting a contemporary figure for a person in the past), a young woman takes his place. This picture is an e-goyomi (picture calendar), of a type called daishō-reki. The daishō-reki showed the long months (of 30 days) and the short months (of 29 days), which changed each year. This one is a calendar of 1765. The numbers are printed very small, at the bottom right corner of the picture on the side of the snow-covered bridge. Little is known about Harunobu’s life. His work is celebrated both inside and outside Japan for its colors, poetic atmosphere, elegance, and refinement.

Momotaro and Kaidomaru Wrestling

This nishiki-e (multicolored woodblock print) is by Utagawa Kunisada I, also called Toyokuni III and other names, who lived circa 1786–1864 and was a leading artist of ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world). He was famous for his prints of Kabuki actors, beautiful women, and sumo (Japanese traditional wrestling). A favorite pictorial joke in the Edo period (1600–1867) was the depiction of sumo performed by unusual participants. In this print Kunisada shows the meeting of the two strong boys of Japanese folktales, Momotarō and Kintarō. Momotarō, born from a giant peach, defeated ogres with the help of his trusty dog, monkey, and pheasant. Kintarō (here called Kaidōmaru), grew up on a mountain with animals for his friends. In this match, Momotarō's pheasant appears as the gyōji (referee), while Kintarō's bear acts the yobidashi (announcer). Such nishiki-e served the function of increasing the popularity of sumo. The National Diet Library, which holds this work, has more than 100 of Kunisada’s sumo prints. From the name and the seal, this work can be dated 1843–44.

Gifts from the Ebb Tide

In Japan, collecting beautiful shells and decorating them with poems is an elegant pastime dating from ancient times. Shiohi no tsuto (Gifts from the ebb tide, popularly known in English as The Shell Book), is an illustrated book of multicolored woodblock prints by Kitagawa Utamaro (circa 1753–1806). Such ehon (picture books) are part of a long tradition featuring the fine collaborative work of artists, calligraphers, writers, papermakers, block cutters, and printers. This one, published in about 1789 by Tsutaya Jūzaburō, has 36 kyōka (humorous and satirical Japanese poems of 31 syllables) by a number of different poets illustrating the 36 shells. The book begins with a scene of shiohigari (clam-digging), followed by six pages of elaborately drawn pictures of shells with the kyōka, and concludes with a scene of the shell-matching game. On some pages, metal dust, crushed shell, and mother-of-pearl has been applied, conveying sheen or sparkle, and the texture enhanced by pressing carved stone against the paper without ink (blind embossing).

Ito Hirobumi's Handwritten Diary of His Foreign Journey

In December 1871 (lunar November, Meiji 4), the Iwakura mission departed Japan, led by Iwakura Tomomi serving as ambassador plenipotentiary, and including Kido Takayoshi, Ōkubo Toshimichi, and Itō Hirobumi as deputy ambassadors. The mission lasted approximately two years, and its members made a circuit of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and other European countries. One of its purposes was to promote international recognition of the Meiji Restoration, which returned Japan to imperial government in 1868 after the Tokugawa shogunate. The others were investigation of the institutions and cultures of different countries with a view to adopting parts potentially suited to Japan, and possible revisions to the “unequal treaties” forced on Japan by foreign powers. This diary, by Itō (1841–1909), was written in March 1873 (Meiji 6) during his stay in Prussia (Germany). It includes detailed notes about the parliamentary and electoral systems of different European countries. Itō, who four times served as Japan’s prime minister, later began work on a draft of Japan’s first constitution, which became law in 1890 and bore striking similarities to that of Prussia.