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 Art and Legend in Meiji-era Japan



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            Art appears in all the books. Though that's unusual in all-ages fiction, it works in this unique series about a most unusual time and place.

            For the second, 2019, editions,  (v. 1- 6) Hiromi Kozuki (Kozu), Japanese manga artist, contributed to the cover art and provided frontispieces and end pieces for Coming Home and The Dragon Sisters. American artists Pam Parisi and Michael Melahn have contributed fantastic dragons and delightful birds to The Shadows of War.  Shelley Glasow continues to design beautiful covers for all the books that reflect the history, folklore and whimsy inherent in this unusual mix of magical realism and historical fantasy.

            Interior art also comes from classic woodblock prints and contemporaneous drawings. This wonderful form of art illustrates all volumes in the 2019 editions and appears in later works. 

            Woodblock printing in Japan dates from at least 764 CE. At first, it was used mostly for Buddhist works. Because of the way Chinese and Japanese are written, using moveable type was not practical at that time. Carving wood blocks was easier.

            Starting in the 1600s, from early in the Edo (Tokugawa) period, advertisements, cartoons, satires, poetry and commercial illustrations were suddenly everywhere. All were created using woodblocks. By carving different blocks for different colors, artists discovered inking one color over another would make a full-color print.

            Then came series of scenic views along famous roads, highways and routes. Views of particular sights and areas followed. Mount Fuji was always popular, as were sacred sites and vacation destinations of which most people could only dream. Scenes of the big cities of Edo, the Shogun's capital, and Kyoto, the Emperor's national capital, were also the basis for exciting and popular glimpses of life most people would never see.

            Folios of birds and flowers appeared. The most prolific artists established “schools” and produced hundreds, even thousands, of copies of individual works. Many of these exist today, in private collections, museums and other repositories.

            As the 19th Century progressed, the ways such art was produced changed due to new materials as well as new uses for the finished works. Its subjects, particularly for the growing export markets and showcasing Japan's rapid industrial development, also changed. Eventually, photography usurped much of the field. 

            Later artists returned to classic forms, methods and subjects imbued with a new sensibility that reflected Japan's social and political growth. From this period a resurgence in Japanese art and aesthetics exploded both in Japan and in Europe and the Americas.

            I have done my best to pick art that goes with the stories and their times to give the best possible sense of the period and the lives the characters lived. 

            Generally, the works, as far as I can determine, are public domain and available to use freely. Many are represented in more than one collection. The Tokyo Metropolitan Library has a notable collection. So does the United States Library of Congress. I've been around the virtual and sometimes physical world exploring this rich history. I hope I've given you a map so you can do the same if they captivate you as they do me.

            Textile art, in weaving, dying and embroidery, is another area in which Japan has traditionally excelled. Saga brocade weaving is also called Kashima Nishiki or, more recently, Saga Nishiki. It is woven by incorporating gold, silver or paper into the weft of the fabric. Its invention is attributed to one of two women. One duplicated a wicker pattern she’d seen in Kyoto. The other, the 9th Nabeshima Daimyo’s wife, is said to have duplicated a pattern she saw on her ceiling. The Daimyo, Kashima Nabeshima, took public credit for the invention, which occurred at the end of the Edo period, right before the Meiji era. The fabric was popularized by Marquis Shigenobu Okuma, of Saga, who was twice Japan’s Prime Minister during both the Meiji and Taisho eras. Azuki and Tsuruko’s use of feathers seems a natural extension of the style, which is still practiced in Saga. This is only a small part of the wonderful originality of Japanese textiles. The artistry and innovation continues to this day.

            As the Meiji era progressed, not only did photography become a preferred method for recording events around the world, but even classic wood-block prints changed, and not just due to the availability of the bright aniline inks. Japanese politicians, diplomats, merchants and artists wanted to convey their country's technological growth and artistic prowess as Japan moved closer into what it saw as its rightful place on the world stage.

            Western people became fascinated with Japanese art and design. Export became a huge industry as Japan both created and took advantage of that. Prints became art that was both saleable in and of itself and also showcased elements of art and culture that might appeal to Westerners, featuring any and everything one might think of. This meant many pictures of innovative technology, modernity and beautiful women in gorgeous outfits. 

            Women of the Imperial O-Oku, with simple hairstyles and beautiful costumes, were often subjects of Chikanobu. He also enjoyed capturing images of oiron, with their elaborate hair and fabulous costumes and their obi always tied in front. Ordinary people were eclipsed. Rural life and landscapes were shunted aside. Only near the turn of the twentieth century did such subjects become popular again. Actors, demonstrating their arts of Kabuki, Bunraku and Noh, remained on the scene for everybody loves a good show. Folklore and myth were shunted aside. Those wouldn’t promote Japan’s interests in the outside world.

            Yet, folklore was always there, in the theaters, in the living rooms, in books and drama. Folklore doesn't go away. Literature and legend survived in books and all the various kinds of theater. The western journalist and naturalized Japanese citizen Lafcadio Hearn arrived in Japan in 1890, already in love with the country and its culture. He spent the rest of his life studying Japanese culture and collecting folklore. His works are vital to any understanding of Japan then and now. Anyone interested in Japanese folklore owes him a huge debt. Though as is true of folklore anywhere, there are as many stories as grandmothers and grandfathers to tell them, Hearn sought out and saved the most basic stories, the most primal legends, the ones that have stood the test of time and survive in modern culture, carrying forth the phenomenon that is Japan. 

            From many of these stories come the cultural backdrop for the Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy and our tales of the Meiji Era. 

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