Written by Lily-Cannelle Mathieu
Edited by Miray Eroglu
Takahashi Yuichi (1828-1894), a Japanese artist active in the early Meiji period (1868-1912), is known for having pioneered oil painting in Japan . Born to a low-ranking samurai family , he abandoned his military functions to attend the governmentally-sponsored Institute for Western Studies, where he studied ‘Western art’ before being tutored by Charles Wirgman, an English journalist and amateur artist living in Japan . In 1873, Takahashi opened a private school for training in the ‘Western art’ tradition, the Tenkai Gakusha , and became well-known for his artistic aptitudes in 1877, with the success of his painting Salmon [Fig. 2]. This work, together with Takahashi’s 1880 Portrait of Emperor Meiji [Fig. 3], epitomizes the Meiji period Realist movement , an artistic movement promoting a naturalism characterized by pictorial three-dimensionality and truthfulness rather than idealization. Interestingly, the evolution of Takahashi’s shifting identity, which evolved from a Tokugawa-period samurai into a Meiji-period Yōga [‘Western-style paintings’] artist, is representative of the political and cultural ambiguity that strived in Japan during the third quarter of the nineteenth century, and is best exemplified by his earliest work known to the public: Oiran (1872) [Fig. 1].
Oiran, an enigmatic oil painting, is said to have been commissioned by a nostalgic gentleman desiring to own the portrait of an oiran [‘courtesan’] exhibiting a formerly fashionable hairstyle from Edo’s pleasure districts . In this essay, I consider Oiran through the lenses of social history, post-colonialism, feminism and intersectionality, and use the art historical tools of formalism and connoisseurship (i.e. visual evidence and archival research). First, by looking into the artwork’s localized  social history, I examine the Tokugawa-to-Meiji political transition and the fall of the ‘pleasure quarters’ as relating to the image, the painter, the work’s commissioner, and the model. Secondly, I analyze the painting’s globalized  history, considering post-colonial theories through an investigation of the work of art and its context as defined by both a sanctioned Western colonization of Japanese consciousness and an incipient Japanese imperialism. I therefore argue that Oirandepicts slippery identities and an ambiguous instant in Japanese history, thus demonstrating that the early Meiji period should be characterized by theoretical pluralisms rather than binaries.
At the outset of this historical study, I want to clarify that although I am trying to write from the point of view of the ‘peripherized’ , I acknowledge my subject-position as a white, Canadian scholar, that possibly impedes my understanding of Japan’s social and colonial history. However, I believe that the complicated permutations resulting from the superposition of the Japanese object and the ‘Western’ scholar  might be necessary to an inclusive discussion – a complex whole made of subjective components – of an historical Japan flirting with international influences. Further, I do not intend to propose the objective meaning of the artwork, but rather my subjective and partial interpretation, and, in so doing, illuminate the work’s plurality.
I. Localized Social History
The local historical setting to Takahashi’s painting is characterized by political and social upheavals, shifts, and deep transformations. In 1868, Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) and a coalition of daimyos [regional military lords] displaced the shogunate [military government], that had ruled Japan through an ‘integral bureaucracy system’ analogous to centralized feudalism since 1615 . The emperor was re-instated as political head of state and established a constitutional monarchy that quickly (re)constructed the nation through its “aggressive modernization program” . Before 1868, the Tokugawa shogunate had promoted and enforced a Neo-Confucian social hierarchy in which the samurai were held as morally superior to the commoners and, consequently, were construed as entitled to rule . In this hierarchical system, the merchants came last, even if (or probably because) they were increasingly wealthy . The inhabitants of the ‘pleasure quarters’ – prostitutes, actors, entertainers, beggars, and the like – were cast outside this social scheme, as “non-humans” . The Meiji Emperor, however, integrated in his ‘new’ state a society organized around industrialization, consumer capitalism, and individualism , thus overthrowing not only the Shogun, but the entire social and moral structure that had been officially enforced since the seventeenth century . The emperor and his government instated a multitude of social policies, such as the establishment of a national school system, military conscription, and the construction of Japan’s first railroad  in the years immediately following the 1868 restoration. Aside from this political and social revolution, the Japanese who lived through this era also coped with severe earthquakes in the 1850s, large-scale crop failures in the 1860s and cholera epidemics from the 1870s .
To Takahashi Yuichi, who came from a samurai family, the governmental shift meant that he had to observe the new cultural policies conscientiously in order to be successful and maintain an acceptable standing within the new social hierarchy. The artist did so with Oiran, which he painted four years after the restoration as a response to the governmental interest in ‘new’ technologies of realistic, ‘scientific’ representation , which repudiated media reminiscent of the ancient regime  by employing oil painting on canvas, the imported medium he had been studying since before the restoration . Although Takahashi’s 1872 painting is rendered in a certain flatness evocative of Japanese traditional images and although some formal details of the painting, such as the abruptly white neck and the slightly distorted face of the subject, reveal an inexpert brush, which I interpret as becoming more adroit in the artist’s later paintings [Fig. 2 and Fig. 3], Oiran certainly addressed the imperial impetus for a new realism in Japanese art.
The decision to use oil painting as a medium was most probably strategic to the work’s commissioner as well. Although there is not much information available about the commissioner, we can conjecture that due to the fact that he was wealthy enough to commission an original painting, he was probably a merchant who had made his fortune in Edo (present day Tokyo) during the Tokugawa period as, by mid-nineteenth century, most samurai were highly indebted and impoverished . Freed from Tokugawa period’s hierarchizing sumptuary rules and constant oppression of the merchant class , the commissioner, considered to be a commoner, could finally display his wealth and power openly: how better could this have been done than by commissioning one of the first – if not thefirst – Japanese oil painting?
However revolutionary was the painting’s medium to its Japanese contemporaries, its subject-matter, a high-ranking courtesan , conformed to the ukiyo-e  tradition of representing idealized ‘beauties’ – prostitutes and courtesans raised to celebrity status within the ‘floating world,’ a segregated yet increasingly popular world characterized by the “raw” pleasures of sexuality and commoners’ arts . These prints, which had a romantic, often sexual character [Fig. 4], were “images of women as pleasure-givers [and conveyed] the requisite sense of surface delight” . Thus, these images of women evoked the dichotomous existence of Edo prostitutes: non-humans, who were social outcasts from the Neo-Confucian system,yet who were considered to be highly desirable and celebrated figures . Takahashi’s Oiran unequivocally refers to the printed ukiyo images of ‘beauties,’ [see Fig. 5 and Fig. 1 for a striking comparison], although in the 1872 painting, the woman appears jaded, idiosyncratic and realist compared to the flirtatious, generic, and idealized women of the traditional ukiyo prints. This might be explained by the difficult way of life in 1850s-60s Edo, a city that was punctuated by earthquakes and epidemics, but I believe that the woman’s strained look  has more to do with her intersectional position as a courtesan in the collapsing world of mid-19thcentury ‘pleasure quarters.’ Prostitution in the ‘floating world,’ even at its most sophisticated, was dark; and life in the ‘pleasure quarters,’ hard . Further, as the Yoshiwara brothels  suffered from a “loss of cultural significance by the early nineteenth century [caused by] competition from illegal prostitutes, changes in type of patronage, and Yoshiwara’s own inflexibility in the face of progress in the outside world,”  the prostitutes and courtesans were forced to manage an increased workload and were inflicted by rising cruelty from their proprietors . The woman in the painting evokes the manner of life experienced under these ever-more strenuous conditions, the collapse of her world, and a probable anxiety concerning her post-courtesan near-future (as, compared to most courtesans who were expelled from the brothels in their twenties, she seems quite aged) . Furthermore, in a post-restoration, changing world, her somewhat wistful expression and the ‘loss of former graciousness [and] charisma’ of her class as a whole  is intelligible and, I would argue, predictable given these circumstances.
As the historical instant when the painting was produced was densely charged with political and social upheavals, notably the 1868 Meiji restoration and the gradual decline of the pleasure quarters in nineteenth-century Edo, the work of art carries and signifies multiple and ambiguous identity markers, intentions, and moods. Oiranis characterized by a political strategy on the part of the painter, who was mediating maladroitly but productively a new media; a power display from a commissioner conciliating nostalgia for the ‘pleasure quarters’ and excitement about the new, more liberated social order as well as the perplexing attitude of a devitalized model over an unknown world, potentially unwelcoming and more obscure than her own.
II. Globalized History
Part of the new government’s modernization program was an intensive ‘Westernization’ of the Japanese state, its culture, and its people, that was believed to be “the only path by which Japan could regain its [Classical] glory” . Meiji rulers, indeed, were eager to equal Western powers economically, militarily, and technologically  so as to “meet Western expectation and to satisfy national dignity” . Oil painting, which had been discreetly introduced to Japan by Portuguese traders and Catholic missionaries since the early decades of the seventeenth century , was thus not discovered in the mid-nineteenth century.The choice to promote it in that later period through governmental institutes  was directly related to international politics. Abura-e [‘oil paintings’]  were part of a ‘protective mimicry’ program  that set to import and master Western technologies and skills in order to secure Japan’s position as a ‘modern’ and industrious country , and to secure its dominant position in the Asian seas, which were increasingly attractive to Western colonial powers . In the first decade following the Meiji restoration, the governmentally-sanctioned abura-e generated great enthusiasm as a technical instrument of modernization, but was not immediately conceived as having an intrinsic aesthetic value . Takahashi, who painted Oiran in 1872, is lauded today not only for elevating Meiji Realism in technique, but also for pioneering artistic expression in oil painting . Indeed, through the intense lighting illuminating the woman’s face and the representation of her inner character, he grasped the theoretical foundation of modern Western art, that is, subjectivity. The artist thus initiated an appreciation of Western art as not only a representational skill to acquire, as he adopted a definition of art, a set of aesthetic criteria, and a value system to emulate . Oiran embodied a new philosophy of art and forced, by importing the Western concept of ‘beauty’ to Japan , a reconfiguration of knowledge. Marra discusses such incorporation of ‘Western’ concepts into other cultures as an ‘hermeneutical colonization,’ however, I would argue that Oiran is the materialization of a colonization of consciousness . Furthermore, Rimer observed that:
“even though Japan […] was not colonized, her artistic responses to the rapid shifts imposed by the West on her larger cultural and political spheres were mirrored in a series of sometimes contradictory responses that often resembled those of Asian countries directly colonized by Europeans.”
Hence, although ‘Westernization’ was sanctioned by the Japanese government, I believe that the country’s ambiguous post-restoration artistic production reveals its (partial) cultural assimilation.
Additionally, as Bryson has pointed out, the formally Westernized representations of Japanese women in yōga paintings, such as Kuroda’s Maiko [Fig. 6], which draws heavily on European impressionism, might allude to the exploitation of the female subject as an obligatory step in the journey to modernity, yet another ideological precept induced by the artistically ‘superior’ West. Japanese women had certainly been figuratively subjected to the male gaze in previous local artistic traditions, most notably in Tokugawa ukiyo prints [Fig. 4], but, by being painted in the yōgamode, they were now subjected to a foreign gaze and to (male) Westerners’ taste.
However, some debates soon rose within Japan about the legitimacy of yōga paintings . By the 1880s, several voices were countering the radical Westernization program  and argued that an “indiscriminate importing of things Western would erase Japan’s ‘national culture’” . Such dissidents of Meiji modernism called for an ‘authentic native expression’ in the arts that found its definition in nihonga (‘Japanese painting’), a visual arts movement drawing on ‘indigenous’ historical genres, such as yamato-e and ukiyo-e [see Fig. 7, a twentieth century ukiyo print]. Although yōga and nihonga were fervently opposed in nationalistic debates , they both exhibited a continuity in Japanese material culture, which had not yet been truly disrupted by Westernization. As illustrated by the continued wearing of kimonos well into the twentieth century , consumers often preferred ‘traditional’ goods both aesthetically and for their convenience, even though the imperial couple started appearing in Western clothes as early as the 1870s [Fig. 3]. Oiran, which was, as we have seen, following the government’s cultural policy of emulating Western art, still reveals a certain flatness in rendition typical of Japanese art up to that period, and, most importantly, a traditional local subject: a distinguished courtesan from Edo’s ‘floating world’ wearing a layered kimono and the slightly outdated hairstyle reminiscent of the ‘pleasure quarters’ heyday. Were these local identity markers relics of Japanese ‘pre-modernity,’ or were they resolutely modern, partaking in a new romanticizing of local culture provoked by an increased globalism? Conant argues that an emerging nationalism generated an “appreciation and expression of qualities that, though contemporary, were intrinsically Japanese,” for Japan had to articulate the value of its own arts in an increasingly international era . This ‘rediscovery’ of Japanese culture, that would emerge in the 1880s , was foreshadowed by Takahashi’s somewhat nostalgic image: the oiran, solidly standing, crowned by her golden hair pins, is dignified, and becomes an emblem of traditional conservatism and pride. Takahashi’s image refers to a burgeoning ultra-nationalism that resulted, according to Choi, from “a fusion of the unrestrained libido of capitalism and the traditional militancy formulated under the long predominance of the samurai class” .
In fact, it is important to consider Japan’s own imperial project, that officially started in 1879 with the annexation of the Ryukyu kingdom and that included the conquest of Taiwan (1895), the Russo-Japanese War over Northern islands (1904-5), the colonization of Korea (1910), and, at its pinnacle, the annexation of some regions of China (1937), and of a few Micronesian and South Sea islands . This imperial project resulted from the “growing contempt for [Japan’s] East Asian neighbours, who had failed to adapt as well to the modern industrial world,” contempt that thrived from the 1870s on to the end of the Second World War . Takahashi’s Japan presented itself as the ‘defender against Western imperialism’  and implemented its ‘Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ project first through culture, notably with an increasingly Japanese mediation of modern arts in East Asia . This colonial enterprise, as well as the rise of nihonga painting, represent the refusal of a ‘West v. Rest’ binary opposition: Japan was strong, ambitious, and definitively a colonizer on its own, yet did not fit into the category of the ‘West’ as it proudly exhibited its unique East-Asian nationalism through a promoted ‘localness’ in its arts. In short, Takahashi’s Oiranreveals both a governmentally-sanctioned Western colonization of the Japanese consciousness by its use of ‘Western’ media (oil painting) and artistic philosophy (subjectivity and the exploitation of the female figure) and an incipient Japanese imperialism due to Takahashi’s representation of a dignified local subject, thus suggesting that early Meiji Japan stands in an ambiguous position in terms of post-colonial theory.
This essay, a tentative application of a pluralistic art history , demonstrates that Takahashi Yuichi’s Oiran reflects the equivocality of a specific moment in Japanese history. The work is heterogeneous and polysemous in its articulation of shifting politics and social identities, changing tastes and ideologies, the empowerment and fall of social groups, the rise of individuality in the arts , through which it reveals Japan’s colonial ambivalence. This last aspect of my analysis reveals that imperialism is plural, that it is not essentially ‘Western,’ and that it must be re-contextualized . As I suggest in this essay, the current post-colonial framework is reductive and inadequate to the study a multifaceted world due to foundational binary oppositions such as West/Rest, colonizer/colonized, and perpetrator/victim. As Choi has argued, “post-colonialism criticism generates its discursive Other” by silencing Latin American, East Asian, Eastern European, and other histories.
I therefore suggest a ‘globalized’ art history that includes, but is not limited to post-colonial theory. An art history that is not ‘global’, as claims of universality are hardly defendable, but ‘globalized,’ taking into account international flows of goods and ideas, yet being firmly grounded in local – or localized – histories. An art history that is inclusive, multi-faceted, an un- (rather than de-) centralized, because the study of artworks such as Oiran, and indeed of all human production, should resist theoretical homogenization.
 Emiko Yamanashi, “Western-Style Painting: Four Stages of Acceptance” In Since Meiji: Perspectives on the Japanese Visual Arts, 2016, 19.
 Penelope Mason, History of Japanese Art. Upper-Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall. 2005, 370.
 Yamanashi, “Western-Style Painting: Four Stages of Acceptance,” 19.
 Ellen P. Conant, “Japanese Painting from Edo to Meiji: Rhetoric and Reality,” In Since Meiji: Perspectives on the Japanese Visual Arts,2016, 45.
 Minoru Harada, Meiji Western Painting, 1974, 21.
 Harada, Meiji Western Painting, 24.
 The artwork’s ‘locality’ being first Japan as a nation, and second Edo (present-day Tokyo)’s licensed ‘pleasure quarters’, a space frequented by the work’s commissioner and probably home to the portrayed courtesan.
 I propose a ‘globalized’ history, that includes but is not limited to post-colonial theory, and that is not ‘global’ as it does not make any claim of universality, but rather includes global aspects and phenomena in local histories. For more on this discussion, see the conclusion of this essay.
 I prefer the term ‘peripherized’ over ‘periphery’, as I believe that ‘periphery’ is a misleading adjective, whereas ‘peripherized’ legitimately implies that centralization is a process of subjective construction.
ShigemiInaga“Is Art History Globalizable? A Critical Commentary from a Far Eastern Point of View,” In Is Art History Global?, 2007, 5.
 Elise K. Tipton,“Tokugawa Background: The Ideal and the Real,” In Modern Japan: A Social and Political History, New-York: Routledge. 2008, 2-3.
 Conant, “Japanese Painting from Edo to Meiji: Rhetoric and Reality,” 36.
 H.D. Harootunian, “Cultural Politics in Tokugawa Japan,” In Undercurrents in the Floating World: Censorship and Japanese Prints.New-York: Asia Society Galleries. 1991, 202.
 Michal Daliot-Bul, “Play as a Formative Element of Culture,” In License to Play. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 2014, 27.
 Tipton, “Tokugawa Background: The Ideal and the Real,” 5.
 Gennifer Weisenfeld, “Western-Style Painting in Japan: Mimesis, Individualism, and Japanese Nationhood,” In Modern Art in Africa, Asia, and Latin America: An Introduction to Global Modernisms, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.2013, 19.
Michael F.Marra “The Creation of the Vocabulary of Aesthetics in Meiji Japan,” In Since Meiji: Perspectives on the Japanese Visual Arts.Honolulu: Hawai’i University Press Scholarship Online. 2016, 200.
 Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan. Honolulu: Hawai’i University Press. 1993, 222.
 Susan B. Hanley, “The Material Culture: Stability in Transition,” In Japan in Transition: From Tokugawa to Meiji, edited by Jansen and Rozman. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2014, 465-6.
 Conant and Weisenfield.
Such as Tokugawa woodblock prints and traditional water-soluble pigments applied on scrolls and panels.
 Bert Winther-Takami,“Yōga/The Western Painting, National Painting, and GlobalPainting of Japan,” In Review of Japanese Culture and Society, vol. 25. Honolulu: Hawai’i University Press, 2013, 128.
 Harootunian, “Cultural Politics in Tokugawa Japan,” 198.
 Harootunian, “Cultural Politics in Tokugawa Japan,”201.
According to Seigle glossary, ‘oiran’ stands for the highest-ranking courtesans of Yoshiwara, Edo’s famous pleasure district. The term includes yobidashi chusan, chusan, and zashikimochi. Courtesans, as opposed to regular prostitutes, were educated, required higher prices, and had more choice over patronage. (Seigle, 5).
‘Ukiyo-e’ can be translated in many different ways (see Kita 2001, 27 and 31), but is generally understood and commonly used as ‘woodblock prints of the Tokugawa period’ or ‘pictures of the floating world.’
 James T. Ulak. Japanese Prints: The Art Institute of Chicago. New-York: Abbeville Press.1995, 59.
 Ulak, Japanese Prints: The Art Institute of Chicago,60.
 Seigle, Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan,x-xii.
 As I do not want to impose a foreigner’s qualitative judgment on the courtesan’s mood, I have interrogated my Japanese friend about the impressions this portrait left in her. She instantly answered that the oiranlooks “weary,” thus confirming my own intuition. However, I do not want to exclude the fact that the painting’s contemporary viewers might have had a different perspective on that matter.
 Seigle, Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan,9; Ulak,Japanese Prints: The Art Institute of Chicago,59; Daliot-Bul, “Play as a Formative Element of Culture,” 31.
 Yoshiwara was Edo’s most famous ‘pleasure district,’ and house to multiple licensed prostitution houses.
 Seigle, Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan,10.
 Seigle, Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan,12 and 211.
 Seigle, Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan,212.
 Seigle, Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan,206 and 218.
 Mason, History of Japanese Art, 343.
 Ulak, Japanese Prints: The Art Institute of Chicago,8.
 Inaga,“Is Art History Globalizable? A Critical Commentary from a Far Eastern Point of View,” 3.
 Thomas J. Rimer, “Introduction,” In Since Meiji: Perspectives on the Japanese Visual Arts. Honolulu: Hawai’i University Press Scholarship Online. 2016, 5.
 Such as the Institute for Western Studies (Yōgakusho, later renamed Bansho Shirabesho), established in 1856 by the Tokugawa bafuku(shogunate), and the Technical Art School (Kōbu Bijutsu Gakkō), established in 1876 (Conant 2016, 37).
 Oil pantings were labeled abura-ebefore being categorized as yōga[‘Western paintings’] in the 1880s (Winther-Tamaki 2013, 128).
 Norman Bryson.“Westernizing Bodies: Women, Art, and Power in Meiji Yōga,” In Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field, edited by Mostow et al. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 2003, 100.
 Conant, “Japanese Painting from Edo to Meiji: Rhetoric and Reality,” 37.
 Ulak, Japanese Prints: The Art Institute of Chicago,8.
 Winther-Tamaki, “Yōga/The Western Painting, National Painting, and GlobalPainting of Japan,” 132; Conant, 37.
 Harada, Meiji Western Painting,23-24.
 Yamanashi, “Western-Style Painting: Four Stages of Acceptance,” 23.
 Marra, “The Creation of the Vocabulary of Aesthetics in Meiji Japan,” 195.
I borrow this expression, which refers to ideological colonization through forced ‘translation’, from Comaroff’s discussion (2008) of colonization processes in South Africa.
 Winther-Tamaki, “Yōga/The Western Painting, National Painting, and GlobalPainting of Japan,” 130.
 Mason, History of Japanese Art,345
 Weisenfeld, “Western-Style Painting in Japan: Mimesis, Individualism, and Japanese Nationhood,” 13.
 Winther-Tamaki, “Yōga/The Western Painting, National Painting, and GlobalPainting of Japan,” 129.
 Susan B. Hanley, “The Material Culture: Stability in Transition,” In Japan in Transition: From Tokugawa to Meiji, edited by Jansen and Rozman. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2014, 462.
 Winther-Tamaki, “Yōga/The Western Painting, National Painting, and Global Painting of Japan,” 133.
 Mason, History of Japanese Art, 344.
 Jung-Bong Choi, “Mapping Japanese Imperialism onto Postcolonial Criticism,” In Social Identities, vol. 9 no. 3. Abingdon: Carfax Publishing, 330.
 Mason, History of Japanese Art,346; Choi, 326 and 335.
 Mason, History of Japanese Art, 346.
 Choi, “Mapping Japanese Imperialism onto Postcolonial Criticism,” 333.
 Winther-Tamaki, “Yōga/The Western Painting, National Painting, and GlobalPainting of Japan,” 133.
 Chino Kaori “Gender in Japanese Art,” In Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 2003, 19.
 Rimer, 6.
 Choi, “Mapping Japanese Imperialism onto Postcolonial Criticism,” 336.