The “Authentic” Landscape: Kawase Hasui’s Woodblock Prints and the Longing of Modernity

Written by Erin Sobat
Edited by Gabby Marcuzzi Herie

The prolific twentieth-century Japanese woodblock artist, Kawase Hasui (1883–1957), has been criticized for producing overly sentimental, decorative or picturesque landscape prints.[i] Certainly, as part of the Shin-hanga (New Print) revival of traditional ukiyo-e (floating world pictures),[ii] Hasui was supported by the commercial appeal of his works both domestically and abroad. However, this categorization omits the underlying ideological dynamics of his print production and diminishes the affect of iconic images that continue to appeal to collectors and audiences today. Hasui’s works were based in a conception of Japanese identity borne out of the Taishō period (1912–1926) and an intellectual discourse that called into question the rapid modernization and Westernization during the preceding Meiji Era (1868–1912). This artistic reaction, in turn, contributed to the fascist ideological developments of the 1930s. Hasui’s landscapes can therefore be read as visions of an authentic but fading Japan predicated on a simpler, agrarian world—one that embodied the transcendental nature of ordinary settings. This longing is communicated through the use of organic subjects, dream-like composition, and void perspective—scenes without a formal point of focus. As a result, Hasui’s prints promote an imagined natural identity rooted in timeless tradition, similar to the sense of mythic spirituality that characterized “Japanism” (the uniquely Japanese manifestation of fascism).[iii] Ultimately, these fascist aesthetics of nostalgia represent the core appeal of Hasui’s works and provide a lens into the questions of identity that defined his time.

An emphasis on traditional sensibility is clear in Hasui’s own attitudes, which in turn meshed well with the broader orientation of the Shin-hanga movement. Born in Shiba, Tokyo to an Edo-era (1603-1868) shopkeeper and a mother partial to traditional theatre, Hasui was in many ways still an Edokko—a “child of Edo” who embodied typical urban cultural pursuits.[iv] He studied both Nihonga (Japanese-style painting) with Kaburagi Kiyokata (1878–1973) and Yōga (Western-style painting) with Okada Saburōsuke (1869–1939), although unlike many of his contemporaries he never travelled beyond Japan. Hasui was known for his modest living standards and traditional tastes, particularly his preferences for the Japanese kimono garment, sake liquor, and Kabuki theatre despite the pervasive influence of the Jazz Age.[v] It was perhaps such conservative sentiments that in 1918 drew him to begin collaborating with entrepreneurial publisher Watanabe Shōzaburō (1885–1962). Watanabe was the driving force of the Shin-hanga movement in Japan and the publisher for whom Hasui produced the majority of his over six hundred print designs until his death in 1957. As a dealer of ukiyo-e reproductions, Watanabe recognized the strong foreign market for pre-Meiji Japanese prints, which had become particularly popular in the West by the early twentieth century. At the same time, he lamented the lack of interest in ukiyo-e among native Japanese people and sought to raise the profile of this national artistic tradition.[vi] To this end, throughout the 1910s Watanabe developed Shin-hanga as a new style of woodblock prints that married established Edo production methods with contemporary Taishō sensibilities. He hoped that this approach would prove popular both at home and abroad while retaining its status as a uniquely Japanese artwork. Shin-hanga thus preserved the three-stage ukiyo-e division of labour between artist, carver, and printer while incorporating Western stylistic considerations of perspective, light, and form in the treatment of typical ukiyo-e subjects drawn from contemporary life.[vii]

This method produced something like modern photographic realism combined with the subtle magic of the ukiyo-e world, differentiating Watanabe’s Shin-hanga approach from the opposing Sōsaku-hanga (Creative Print) movement. From the early 1900s, Sōsaku-hanga developed under the Western ideal of art as driven by self-expression, which on principle called for woodblock prints to be “self-drawn,” “self-carved,” and “self-printed” by a single artist.[viii] These works quickly came to address a broader range of subjects than Shin-hanga and demonstrated a particular ability to deal with the modern effects of natural disaster, industrialization, and commercialization. Their flexibility was such that, by the mid twentieth-century, they came to surpass Shin-hanga as the representative Japanese printing style. However, while Shin-hanga was partly developed in order to leverage a market demand the movement also played a role in reviving the long tradition of ukiyo-e in the Japanese consciousness—a function visible in the similarities between some of Hasui’s prints and the works of Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), a renowned pioneer of ukiyo-e landscape.[ix]

The artistic debates between Shin-hanga and Sōsaku-hanga artists grew out of the search for cultural “self-identity” that defined much of the Taishō era.[x] This context was the result of an intellectual re-assessment following the rapid pace of Meiji modernization, wherein various influential artists questioned the wholesale embrace of Western values and postulated a distinctly Japanese identity that synthesized both East and West. Here, the Sosaku-hanga ideal of independent creation was one means of pursuing a unique cultural personality. In contrast, Shin-hanga artists sought to work within the confines of a traditional practice by “renovating its means of expression” in order to revitalize the impact of their works.[xi] In many ways, then, these revivalist artists sought to provide a “visual remedy” to the ills of Westernization, working to bridge the divide between Nihonga and Yōga aesthetics through their incorporation of Impressionist techniques such as sketching outside the studio or en plein-air.[xii] However, this move to alleviate the anxieties of modernity would also give rise to new ideas surrounding Japanese nationalism. In particular, the search for identity among the challenges of Westernization was catalyzed by the social and political crises following the First World War, in turn contributing to the anachronistic ideal of an “authentic Japanese spirit.”[xiii] This growing sense of “Japaneseness” suggested a natural and transcendental connection to traditional agrarian ways of life, which would later provide the roots of the Japanese fascist movement. This notion of an inherent cultural identity was also reflected in the poetic landscapes of Hasui’s prints.

Figure 1. “The Onsen Range from Amakusa,” Selected Views of Japan (Nihon fūkei senshû, Amakusa yori mitaru Onsengadake), Kawase Hasui, 1922.

That the longing of “Japanism” formed the core of Hasui’s stylistic and subjective focus is clear in the way he drew inspiration for his works directly from nature. This included an emphasis on natural subjects, such as in the pastoral landscape of The Onsen Range from Amakusa (Fig. 1) or his seminal Moon at Magome (Fig. 2). Significantly, in these prints and others the human-made is dwarfed by the natural—whether through the expansiveness of space as seen in The Onsen Range from Amakusa or the towering presence of mountains, trees or hills such as in Moon at Magome. Furthermore, in The Onsen Range the stable composition, natural light, and saturated palette of the piece produce a sense of tranquil calm, while the typical absence of a formal point of focus contributes to the sense of a naturally existing scene—a glimpse into the “real” Japan.[xiv] This speaks to an idyllic Japanese identity tied to pure and harmonious physical space, a representation that is imaginative of cultural continuity as yet untainted by modernity.[xv] Thus, Hasui’s natural landscapes provide the viewer with a sense of timeless connection to the land, an aesthetic often emphasized through cycles of the seasons or elements as depicted in the bright, pastoral fields of The Onsen Range and the cool, serene moonlight in Moon at Magome.

Figure 2. “Moon at Magome,” Twenty Views of Tokyo (Tōkyo nijūkei, Magome no tsuki), Kawase Hasui, 1930.

Even when depicting towns or cityscapes, however, the influence of Hasui’s pastoral sensibility is present. In most of the artist’s urban scenes, signifiers of modernity such as trains, automobiles, and skyscrapers are absent or marginal. Occasionally, as in Evening Snow at Terajima Village, a depiction of a quiet residential street (Fig. 3), electrical poles or similar elements serve to promote a loose tension between the modern and traditional. However, explicit contrast is generally minimized.[xvi] Here, and in other images from the series Twelve Scenes of Tokyo (1919-21), shadowy or deserted corners of the city retain a sense of mystery that recalls a melancholy past. This effect is also heightened through the depiction of atmospheric weather conditions. In Evening Snow at Terajima Village, the heavy snowfall serves to soften the composition—blurring the impact of modernity and producing a twilight sense of dreamy quiet.[xvii] Elsewhere, Hasui employs mist or rain to create a similarly ephemeral effect. However, while this series was viewed as one of Hasui’s first great achievements, the destruction wrought by the 1923 Kanto Earthquake led him and most other Shin-hanga artists to turn to more overtly rural subjects, leaving modern metropolitan prints to the Sosaku-hanga movement.[xviii]

Figure 3. “Evening Snow at Terajima Village,” Twelve Scenes of Tokyo (Tōkyo jūnidai, Yuki ni fururu Terajima mura), Kawase Hasui, 1920.

Significantly, while Hasui did depict meishō (famous places) in the tradition of his ukiyo-e predecessors, the vast majority of his prints comprise relatively obscure or uncelebrated settings that might remain anonymous without their titles to identify them. This speaks to the ideal of the traveling landscape artist’s “poetic journey,” an exploratory rather than touristic mode that allowed his scenes to transcend a particular site and stand for “Japan in sum.”[xix] Interestingly, the 1930s did see a significant rise in the artist’s prints of the culturally iconic Mount Fuji. For example, Kishō, Nishiizu depicts the mountain through the pleasing branches of a cherry blossom tree (Fig. 4), a standard Japanese scene. Similar to the Fuji paintings of Nihonga artist Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958) or Shin-hanga contemporaries such as Tokuriki Tomikichirō (1902-2000), this suggests a restrained but definite nationalist orientation throughout the inter-war period of Japanese imperial expansion in East Asia. In a similar vein, the expanded market provided by the post-war American occupation of Japan led Hasui to produce a number of increasingly sentimental prints depicting typical Japanese sites. Ironically, these became popular among Americans as souvenir postcards that translated the national landscapes of a former enemy into representative images of tourist destinations.[xx] Similar in feeling to Hasui’s Fuji images, then, these revisionist prints overwrote the violent wartime history of the state by providing a Western-oriented outlook on the “universal” Japan.

Figure 4. “Kishō, Nishiizu (Nishiizu Kishō), Kawase Hasui, 1937.

This concept of universality extends beyond Hasui’s choice of subjects to the role of figural representation in his prints. In his analysis of the literary theory of author Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916), Karatani Kōjin suggests that a Japanese understanding of landscape painting (sansui-ga) in the Western sense did not exist in Japan until the later Meiji period. He argues that pre-modern sensibilities did not understand landscape as an externalized art object, meaning that in order to depict it as such painters had to recognize the alienating effects of technological modernity that divorced them from the natural world. It was this very process of de-familiarization that led to a conception of the interior self alongside the landscape as “other.”[xxi] Thus, sansui-ga was actually predicated on a process of interiorizing modernity, leading to the pursuit of a landscape painting that went beyond objective representation and allowed the viewer to envision a transcendental relationship with the land. Hasui’s printmaking process, predicated as it was on the reproduction of “souvenir” images from his travels, might then be understood as an attempt to discover his own “interior landscape.”[xxii]

However, this attempt at reconciliation also had ramifications for figural representation in such artworks, with characters imagined not as individuals but as “organic” to the landscape.[xxiii] In Hasui’s prints, most human subjects are depicted as tiny and expressionless, their faces often hidden in shadow or under umbrellas. These characters meld harmoniously into the contours of the landscape like “rocks and reeds,”[xxiv] such as the traveling figure in Suhara, Kito who is barely visible in the downpour (Fig. 5). This anonymity allows Hasui’s figures to stand in for the universal Japanese person—sites of projection that lead the viewer to imagine a natural connection to the homeland.[xxv] Taking this a step further, the Japanese native is directly organic to the landscape of the nation. In this way, Hasui’s prints can be seen to present a Japaneseness that envisions the individual as tied to the eternal soil. This pastoral aesthetic simultaneously presents Old Japan and links traditional legacy with contemporary ethnic identity.

Figure 5. “Suhara, Kito,” Selection of Scenes of Japan (Nihon fūkei senshū, Kiso no Suhara), Kawase Hasui, 1925.

This conception of pastoral identity also bears similarities to Japanese agrarian rhetoric of the 1930s, which was defined by a somewhat contradictory movement among Rightists to increase rural autonomy while simultaneously promoting unbridled urban, industrial expansion. In particular, agricultural communities were described as the “core” of Japan, with figures such as Tachibana Kōsaburō (1893-1974) praising the merits of a “life bound to the soil.”[xxvi] Others championed the healing power of the countryside based on both its natural beauty and association with traditional values. Here, the land was held up for more than its economic role—tilling the soil was the very basis of spiritual life and agrarianism was the foundation of an eternal Japanese nation. Many intellectuals of this period seemed obsessed with an ideal landscape in their conception of a productivist modern Japan without excess. This “folk nativism revival” was similarly felt by Hasui and other Shin-hanga artists of the 1930s who depicted these ideal scenes in their work.[xxvii]

Furthermore, the development of what can be called Japanese fascism was, as elsewhere, tied to the desire to regain a sense of the sublime in disenchanted modern life.[xxviii] Insofar as Hasui’s prints promoted the innate spirituality of the ordinary landscape, his transcendent vision betrays a similar attraction to fascist ideology. Alan Tansman suggests that, when viewing the development of “Japanism” from a cultural perspective, it was largely individuals outside of the state authority—many of whom did not consciously identify with fascism—who “offered new forms of beauty (dressed in old clothes) as solutions to existential and aesthetic malaise.”[xxix] Thus, through a claim to represent the authentic Japanese spirit, these artists and cultural producers can be seen to have contributed to the rise of fascism beginning as early as the 1920s. While we need not suggest that Hasui played an active role in promoting a fascist aesthetic, his suggestion of a transcendent Japanese identity can be compared with the fascist drive for spiritual renewal in a changing world. His works represent a kind of pastoral escapism that invokes parallels between landscape revivalism and the struggles with modernity that birthed an overtly fascist ideology in Japan.

In this way, Hasui’s images of an authentic Japan, while geared towards a commercial market, present something more than mawkish sentiment. Kendall Brown suggests that Shin-hanga were most effective as symbols of a vanishing culture, satisfying the nostalgia of Western and Japanese urbanites for places never to be visited—or indeed, never to have truly existed.[xxx] Yet beyond this “thematic of loss” associated with the advent of modernity is Hasui’s vision of a timeless past to which all Japanese remained connected—the heart of which was to be found in the pastoral sensibilities of the landscape. To this end, his works emphasize the tranquility and mystery of the natural world through formal techniques such as void perspective and atmospheric mood, while the anonymity of his settings and figurative subjects alike speaks to the universality of this Japanese identity. Hasui’s search for spiritual truth was spurred on by the same crisis of modernity that led to the development of fascist ideology and agrarian idealism during inter-war Japan. However, while his prints suggest that tradition is ever-present and in-reach, in reality this vision was kept afloat by market demand and the susceptibilities of a world increasingly cut off from its perceived roots. The longing produced by this contradiction between modern experience and intrinsic tradition is both visualized and navigated in Hasui’s works and provides for the central challenge in defining a uniquely “Japanese” identity.

[i] Lawrence Smith, The Japanese Print since 1900: Old Dreams and New Visions (London: British Museum Publications, 1983), 17. Smith describes a tendency of Hasui’s prints towards “touristy Japaneseness.”
[ii] The ukiyo-e print genre developed during Edo Period Japan (1603-1868) and depicted typical subjects including female beauties, actors, folk tales, landscapes, flora and fauna.
[iii] Alan Tansman, “Introduction,” The Culture of Japanese Fascism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 3. Japanism sought to reconcile Western modernity with local tradition.
[iv] Kendall H. Brown, “Poet of Place: The Life and Art of Kawase Hasui,” in Amy R. Newland (ed.), Visions of Japan: Kawase Hasui’s Masterpieces (Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2004), 20.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Barry Till, Shin Hanga: The New Print Movement of Japan (San Francisco: Pomegranate Communications, 2007), 15.
[vii] Ibid. These included beautiful women (bijin-ga), Kabuki actors (yakusha-e), birds and flowers (kachō-ga), famous places (meishō), and landscapes (fukei-ga).
[viii] Lawrence Smith, “Japanese Prints 1868–2008,” in J. Thomas Rimer (ed.), Since Meiji: Perspectives on the Japanese Visual Arts, 1868–2000 (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2011), 370.
[ix] James King, Beyond the Great Wave: The Japanese Landscape Print, 1727-1960 (New York: Peter Lang, 2010), 141. As we will see, Hasui prints can be read as “melancholy” vis-à-vis the more “celebratory” works of Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai (ca. 1760–1849).
[x] Amy Reigle Newland, “The Appreciation of Shin Hanga in the West: The Interwar Years, 1915–40,” The Female Image: 20th Century Prints of Japanese Beauties (Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2000), 25.
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] Till, 15. The watercolorist-cum-print artist Yoshida Hiroshi (1876-1950) is perhaps the clearest example of this syncretism, visible in his painterly Shin-hanga depictions of both Japanese and international settings.
[xiii] Alan Tansman, Aesthetics of Japanese Fascism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 3.
[xiv] Brown, “Poet of Place: The Life and Art of Kawase Hasui,” 26. Here, the perspective might be described as “void” or vacant, drawing in the imagination as well as the eye.
[xv] Kendall H. Brown, “A Place for Poetry: Shin-hanga Landscape in Modern Japan,” in Amy R. Newland (ed.), Visions of Japan: Kawase Hasui’s Masterpieces (Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2004), 11.
[xvi] Brown, “Poet of Place: The Life and Art of Kawase Hasui,” 26.
[xvii] King, 147.
[xviii] Smith, “Japanese Prints 1868–2008,” 375. The earthquake destroyed Watanabe’s print shop, Hasui’s home, and all of his blocks and sketches to-date, in addition to dramatically altering the Tokyo cityscape.
[xix] Brown, “A Place for Poetry: Shin-hanga Landscape in Modern Japan,” 11.
[xx] Brown, “Poet of Place: The Life and Art of Kawase Hasui,” 30.
[xxi] Karatani Kōjin, “The Discovery of Landscape,” in Brett de Bary (trans. and ed.), The Origins of Modern Japanese Literature (Durham: Duke University Press 1993.), 21.
[xxii] King, 142. Here, the reassuring intimacy of a remembered past stands in contrast to the alienating uncertainty of the present moment.
[xxiii] Ibid., 24.
[xxiv] Brown, “A Place for Poetry: Shin-hanga Landscape in Modern Japan,” 12.
[xxv] Ibid., 14.
[xxvi] Maruyama Masao, “Characteristics of Japanese ‘Fascism,’” in Ivan I. Morris (ed.),-Top of Form Japan 1931–1945: Militarism, Fascism, Japanism? (Boston: Heath, 1963), 59.
[xxvii] Brown, “Poet of Place: The Life and Art of Kawase Hasui,” 29.
[xxviii] Tansman, The Aesthetics of Japanese Fascism, 4.
[xxix] Ibid.
[xxx] Brown, “A Place for Poetry: Shin-hanga Landscape in Modern Japan,” 16.

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