Mead Art Museum display reveals dramatic history of Japan's largest city

Last modified: Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world, a megalopolis that serves as a major center of finance, culture and communication. But the road to that status has been a rocky one, with cultural changes, natural disasters and a devastating world war all dramatically reshaping Japan's capital in the past 150 years.

That history is the impetus behind a new exhibit at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, "Reinventing Tokyo: Japan's Largest City in the Artistic Imagination." Using a diverse collection of more than 100 prints, photographs, paintings and other items, the exhibit offers a compelling narrative of how Tokyo began to change after Japan first opened its doors to the outside world in the 1850s and '60s, modernizing and adopting Western influences, then repeatedly rebuilding itself after fires, earthquakes and U.S. bombing raids in World War II laid waste to wide sections of the city.

According to Mead officials, "Reinventing Tokyo" is the first show in the United States to portray the city in light of its continual reinvention. Staging the exhibit this year - it runs through Dec. 23 - also marks the 100th anniversary of a significant U.S.-Japanese bond, one that transformed our own nation's capital: the gift in 1912 of 3,000 cherry trees from Tokyo's mayor, Yukio Ozaki, to Washington, D.C.

In effect, the exhibit provides a mini-history lesson on Tokyo during the past 150 years. Visitors can see the transition from the semi-bucolic look of the mid-19th century to the sprawling urban center it is today - a change that's also reflected artistically, as traditional Japanese wood-block printing of the earlier era gives way to stylized modern photographs.

There's even a look - a sobering one - at a futuristic Tokyo, via a number of lithographs of a post-apocalyptic city in ruins: collapsed buildings, streets choked with rubble and rusted-out cars, and not a person in sight, though nature is forcing its way back into the picture, as weeds, vines and small trees sprout in the wreckage.

The artwork, drawn from the Mead's permanent collection and private and public collections in Japan and the U.S., is presented chronologically, beginning with several wood-block prints by Utagawa Hiroshige, considered one of the masters of that style. In the 1850s, Hiroshige created a series called "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo," as Tokyo was then known. These soft, colorful images, such as an arched bridge near Tokyo Bay where merchants, commoners and even a samurai warrior are seen crossing, focus on Tokyo before Western influences appeared.

But by the 1870s, Western influence was making inroads in the city. Wood-block prints, paintings and period photographs highlight one aspect of that change: the growing use of brick for building. Tokyo, a city of mostly wooden buildings, was periodically riddled with crippling fires. The use of brick was seen as a way to lessen that danger and to incorporate Western architectural styles.

Some of the most compelling art from this period came from Kobayashi Kiyochika, a painter and printmaker who was drawn to the increasing use of gaslight in the city. In exhibit notes, Amherst College Professor of Asian art Samuel Morse, the show's guest curator, points out that Tokyo had been largely dark at night before the 1870s.

Kiyochika captures the new look of the city in "Night on the Sumida River," an 1881 wood-block print that shows a silhouetted couple at dusk on the banks of one of Tokyo's waterways. Lights from restaurants on the opposite side of the river cast a muted, inviting glow that reflects on the water. In a further nod to the changes of this era, the figure of the man appears to wear a traditional Japanese cloak but a Western-style Homburg hat.

War takes a toll

Perhaps the most artistically varied era of the exhibit encompasses the turn of the century and the years leading up to World War II. It was a time of considerable change in Japan, which fought the Russians in 1904-05, expanded its navy and territorial possessions after World War I, and witnessed growing Western cultural influences, from clothing to music to architecture.

The devastating Kantu earthquake in Tokyo in 1923, which killed over 140,000 people and razed 60 percent of the city, is also reflected in art of this period.

The exhibit captures the tenor of those changes, as wood-block prints took on a more expressionistic look. One showing a ruined section of the city after the earthquake has the stark lines of burned buildings and trees and buckled roadways. Another depicts a grimy industrial area, with streams of factory smoke tilting sharply to the left.

About that time prints gave way increasingly to photographs. Gruesome images are captured in photos taken after the 1923 earthquake, including an enormous pile of human bones, piled several feet deep and extending along the edge of an open area by a road. It was all that was left after a fire storm triggered by the quake tore through a park where 38,000 people had sought shelter.

Other images, though, capture the energy of the late 1920s and '30s as Tokyo was dramatically rebuilt. Photos and prints depict busy city streets, crowded jazz clubs and nightlife scenes, particularly in the fashionable Ginza district, where a neon sign in the shape of the Eiffel Tower is seen outside the Colombin, a popular European-style patisserie.

Kageyama Koyo, a photographer of the pre- and post-WWII era, showcases that mood and adds a dash of humor in a 1934 portrait of himself and his wife, "Our New Life on 100 Yen a Month." It shows the couple in one of Tokyo's "modern" apartments, with amenities like plumbing and electric toasters; a portrait of Beethoven adorns one wall.

During the war the mood of Koyo's photos changed. One, taken in 1944, shows the photographer's family outside a bomb shelter.

Other photographs of the era are equally haunting: One shows a wide swath of downtown Tokyo, flattened and burned by U.S. bombers. In another, numb-looking soldiers, demobilized after Japan surrendered in September 1945, thread their way through a train station.

'Economic miracle'

After the war, Tokyo "reinvented" itself again, becoming - with U.S. help - an economic powerhouse by the 1960s. The city grew ever larger, one of the most densely populated regions on Earth, as Japan's "economic miracle" brought unparalleled levels of prosperity to the country until a downturn in the 1990s.

Yet all that growth came with costs, reflected in many of the photos from this part of the exhibit. Two show huge, faceless apartment blocks that were built after the war to accommodate a growing population; another is of a string of billboards, each adorned with a picture of a topless woman, advertising strip clubs. A more recent photo - an image of hundreds of discarded cellphones - illustrates how quickly technology is tagged as obsolete.

It's not all downbeat. There are pictures of teens and young people hanging out by a popular store, their clothing and backpacks displaying various logos and symbols of pop culture, both Japanese and Western. "Tokyo Twilight Zone," a series of photos by Sato Shintaro, captures skyline and rooftop views of the city at dusk that burst with color and an intoxicating mix of artificial and natural light.

Still, the disturbing post-apocalyptic lithographs of Motoda Hishaharu close the exhibit on a more ambiguous note: In the face of climate change, economic uncertainty, resource depletion and environmental degradation, as well as the massive destruction it endured in the 20th century, just what does the future hold for Tokyo?

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

"Reinventing Tokyo" is on display at the Mead Art Museum on the Amherst College campus through Dec. 23. Museum hours are Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to midnight and Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

During the semester, the museum will host special events connected with the exhibit. For more information, visit or call 542-2335.


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