Buddhist Influence on Japan

The two-day symposium “Buddhist Japonism: Negotiating the Triangle of Religion, Art and Nation” (September 18–19, 2015) was held at the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève (MEG), accompanying the opening of the exhibition “Madame Butterfly’s Buddhism: Buddhist Japonism.” Specialists from the fields of Japanese art, history and religions were invited from as far as Japan and the United States to confer and reflect upon the complex interrelations of state(s), religion and art at the end of the 19th century.

Carina Roth

The first morning was devoted to a discussion centering on the reception of Japanese Buddhism in Europe. After a few introductory remarks by the organizers, Jerôme Ducor (MEG), and Raji C. Steineck (University of Zurich), James Ketelaar (University of Chicago) opened the symposium with a reflexion on the categorization of words ending in -ism. In the 19th century, they often marked “religions of the world,” which were seen as restricted to one cultural sphere (e.g. Buddhism, Mohammedanism), as opposed to “Christianity,” which was perceived as the only transnational, transcultural religion. The same logic is at work in the term “Japonism,” which was used in the late 19th and early 20th century in a cultural sense. All these terms involve a Western look on distant cultures. However, Ketelaar showed how Japanese art was eventually reappropriated by Japan for the construction of its history, to the extent that a “Japanese Japonism” came into being. The decades between 1850 and 1930 shaped both Japan and the West’s ideas about Japanese art and Japanese Buddhist history.

Perplexed by the fearsome portrayal of Buddhism as a totalitarian regime in the Secret of the Swordfish, one episode of a well-known Belgian comic series by Edgar P. Jacobs, Jean-Noël Robert (Collège de France, Paris) deconstructed the notion of “yellow peril,” showing that it was based on the fear of Japanese economic, not military power. Although the West usually equates Buddhism with peace and quiet, the association of it with the concept of yellow peril comes out as a highly reactive cocktail, which Robert analyzed with precision, showing how it intermingled with popular European culture in the 1950s.

Sell-out of Buddhist art

In the second part of the day, attention turned to what Raji C. Steineck called the “mitty-gritty part of the how and when” Japanese Buddhism was introduced to Europe. Through an analysis of the first auctions of Japanese art in Paris, Joseph Kyburz (CNRS, Paris) vividly illustrated the fierce competition among art dealers, both Japanese and European, combined with the ideological stance of explaining a culture through its artifacts and especially through Japanese Buddhist art. The concentration on Buddhist art was helped by the political situation in Japan, where the haibutsu kishaku campain (“Expel Buddhism, Eradicate Buddha”) in the wake of the Meiji Restoration allowed Western collectors to acquire ancient and valuable pieces of art for low amounts of money. Sekiko Matsuzaki-Petitmengin (emeritus director of the Institut des hautes études japonaises at Collège de France, IHEJ) presented this time through the eyes of a young Alsacian officer, Louis Kreitmann, who travelled through Japan between 1876 and 1878, noting the poor state of Buddhist temples and bringing back 500 photographs of his journey1.

After four talks concentrated on crosscultural viewpoints, Yamamoto Satomi (Kyōritsu Women’s University, Tōkyō) turned the attention on the evolution of a 14th century Buddhist painting of the six destinies (Rokudō-e). By retracing the history of its reception over more than six centuries in Japan, Yamamoto suggested that its changes over time might be considered as a form of “Inner Japonism.” Challenging the general acceptance that Japonism is based on transcultural exchange between East and West, her proposition led to an animated debate that will certainly trigger further reflection.

A humanistic French collector

The second day’s presentations centered on Emile Guimet, the erudite French industrialist who founded the Museum of Religions in Paris (now Museum of Asian Art). Omoto Keiko (emeritus librarian at Guimet Museum) opened the session with a reflection on Emile Guimet’s interest in Japanese religions, showing how this humanistic industrialist combined his interest in ancient civilisations and religions with moral and social considerations. Omoto strongly underlined that Guimet was an avant-guardist on social questions, at a time of transition between patronage and social reforms. He stayed true to his lifelong belief that, through their moral foundations, religions empowered people and led them to happiness. The following presentation by Frédéric
Girard (Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Paris) stressed how deeply Guimet was imbued with the idea that religions and their founders were destined to solve the social problems of their times. Girard also demonstrated the importance of comparison in Guimet’s thought, beyond his prevalent interest in Buddhism, which he saw as synthesizing all oriental religions.

Finally, Michel Mohr (University of Hawai’i at Manoa) provided an enlightening reflection on the question of universalism as a catalyst for understanding Japanese (and other) religions in the 19th and 20th centuries. With a concrete example to demonstrate the necessity of global rethinking on the fundamental meaning of universality, Mohr focused on the case of Hori Shitoku (1876–1903), a young Shingon priest who travelled to India in 1901, where he hoped to answer his queries on the universality of Buddhist precepts.

An ongoing reflection process

The symposium was concluded by a lively roundtable taking up the extensive topics covered over both days, and included a presentation of the current state of the project “Japanese Buddhist Art in European Collections” (JBAE project). The sole regret expressed was that the triangulation of state, power and religion had not been dealt with in depth. However, the crucial importance of reception, as determined on the side of the receiver (be it in one’s own country or abroad), appeared very clearly in all contributions. In that sense, Japonism must be understood as an ongoing process of mutual mirror or prism-like reflections, not devoid of the danger of creating stereotypes.

1 Some 200 photographs, as well as Kreitmann’s diary, have been published last autumn: Deux ans au Japon (1876–1878): Journal et correspondance de Louis Kreitmann, officier du génie. Éditions de Boccard, Paris, 2015, coll. “Bibliothèque de l’institut des hautes études japonaises.”

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 5/2016, pp. 19–20)