Part One


On January 30th, 1995, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.,
cancelled an exhibit about the Enola Gay and World War II that was going to be
open-minded and, therefore, implicitly critical of the stances of both Japan and
the US during the war. American veterans protested vigorously and the exhibit
was cancelled in the planning stage.

This cancellation has cast a shadow on the war and the prewar. One of the trivial
consequences rippling from the American insistence on having its belligerence to
be interpreted as protective and beneficent is that in the US to date there has
never been a major exhibit of “Japanese Avant-garde Arts
before World War II.”

There was, however, with much fanfare and corporate sponsorship, a huge
exhibition in 1994-95 titled “Japanese Art
after 1945: Scream Against the Sky,”1
[emphasis added] which was first held at the Yokohama Museum of Art, and
later traveled to the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the San Francisco
Museum of Modern Art. In 2007 at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles
there was a smaller but similar exhibition titled: “Art/Anti-art/Non-art:
Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan:
1950-1970,”2 [emphasis
added] which included a two-day conference and audio-visual performances.
The highlight was neo-Dadaist Shinohara Ushio’s magnificent outdoor
reenactment of his 1961 performance of getting a Mohawk haircut on stage and
then boxing a huge canvas using gloves soaked in buckets filled with brightly-
colored paints.

The exposure from these two exhibitions has been welcome for diffusing
information about the postwar Japanese arts in the US, but they simultaneously
covered up what seemingly cannot be exhibited, namely the Japanese prewar
avant-garde movement. This is historically significant because prior to World War
II a flourishing of all the arts in a modernist mode occurred in Asia only in Japan
and to some extent in Shanghai (the Shanghai artists imported their movement
second-hand from Japan, not directly from the West). Had the Japanese artistic
production been enacted by only a few people, it perhaps could be dismissed as
slight and insignificant, but there were at least
several hundred people engaged in
creating modernist poems, paintings, prints, photographs, books, sculptures,
films, musical compositions, dances, architectural structures—in short, activity in
every cultural sphere. This artistic vitality within the nexus of commercial,
metropolitan life neither existed in a vacuum nor was it long ago, having taken
place in the vibrant cultural context of Taisho and early Showa Japan (1912-40). It’
s as if in the 21st century we were to ignore Weimer Republic art in Germany
from 1919-33 because it was followed by Hitler’s rise to power.

The Japanese story with a multitude of evidence is being neglected, downplayed,
or designated as guilty of irrelevance by imitation, because
the war is a taboo
, especially in the US but also in Japan. US sponsors (including Japanese
corporations in the US) at this time will not launch a major exhibit of, for
example, “Japanese Dadaism and Surrealism, 1920s-1930s.” Postwar research
and exhibiting, on the other hand, gets hefty funding and wide-scale publicity
from both sides of the Pacific.

For the book-length catalogue
Japanese Art after 1945, Alexandra Munroe aimed
to correct the inaccuracy naturally derived from passing over the crucial
connection of prewar and postwar artists and writers—many of whom were
active in both eras—by stapling on an essay on the prewar avant-garde. The
artworks, however, were shown exclusively in a post-1945 context. In the
catalogue in small type before the endnotes we are informed that John Clark’s

     …is a revised and shortened version of [his] paper, ‘Dilemmas of Selfhood:
    Public and Private Discourses of Japanese Surrealism in the 1930s,’
    presented at the Sydney Society for Literature and Aesthetics in June 1993,
    and at the Biennial Conference of the Japanese Studies Association of
    Australia, University of Newcastle, in July 1993. 3

Clark’s article was spliced on after the fact, a compromise to fill the lacuna of
what could not be done; it was clearly not an organic part of the exhibit project.

Alexandra Munroe’s approach seems to be the only one that US politics will
allow at the moment. If one were to have attempted to show both prewar and
postwar Japanese avant-garde arts together, I imagine that the postwar section
would also have been cancelled. Of course no mention was made of the blind

The Getty Research Institute exhibit, thirteen years after the Guggenheim, may
use a similar tactic of “after-packaging” the prewar avant-garde. At the Getty
conference it was suggested astutely by discussant J. Thomas Rimer that the
essays from the proceedings should be collected and published but only after

adding an essay about the prewar art
, which he pointed out had been neglected in
the two-day scholarly festival. The distortion can only be rectified in retrospect
because, I contend, no one would sponsor an exhibit that highlights the prewar
avant-garde. There is nothing implicitly dangerous in the material, but because it
would mean having to broach the subject of
the war and, silly as it may sound to
rational people, that still is unacceptable in the so-called enlightened world of US

Why is this relevant? Let us take the aforementioned 2007 Getty Research
Institute exhibit as a case in point. The four-page brochure introducing the
exhibit and given free-of-charge states in its first of three paragraphs:

At the end of World War II, Japan was left in ruins
[passive voice] and a
relative cultural void
[How did it occur?]. Over the next quarter century,
Japan not only endured the legacy of the atomic bomb
[Who dropped it?]
but also the experience of foreign occupation [Where did the troops come
and a rapid [re-]transformation into a metropolitan society.

While Japanese familiar with 20th century history might find nothing
objectionable with the above statement, it plays down and masks the American
involvement. By not dealing with the prewar situation of Japanese productivity in
the avant-garde arts (Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, etc.), the viewer
unacquainted with the history might assume that all prewar Japanese were
Shinto militarists.

The Getty Research Institute’s exhibit chronology of 1945-72 is highlighted on
one wall with the following quote:

    It was amidst this desert of ashes that the Japanese people made a new
    departure for new experiences. In compensation for everything that they had
    lost, they had the liberty of imagining a new, ideal and at times utopian
                                                                                            --Nishikawa Nagao 4

This statement connects with another statement on a side wall alleging that
photographer “Tomatsu Shomei declared, ‘the main characteristic of postwar
Japan can be summed up in the word…
Americanization.’”5  The Getty curators,
by conveniently erasing any mention of the Japanese prewar experimentation in
the arts, and by putting these ostensibly true statements together end up giving
the viewer a distorted impression that Japan only became modernized because of
the American Occupation, an incredibly self-congratulatory viewpoint, which is
never stated outright but can be interpreted from the frame provided. Although
the downplaying and lack of transparency of America’s role in the war and the
subsequent Occupation is evident, the only glaring error is using the word
“transformation” instead of retransformation into a metropolitan society, as if in
the Taisho and early Showa periods, at least Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kyoto and
Kobe and a host of other cities had
not formed viable metropolitan societies. If
they had not been metropolitan societies, what was all the fuss in bombing them

The Getty exhibit was held during the Second American War in Iraq, and there
were subtle reverberations echoing through the presentation space. Japan had
been “left in ruins” and “Americanization” had allowed for the great boom in
postwar experimentation in the arts, thus subtly inferring that Iraqi Jihadists and
resistors should loosen up and splash around in the mud like the Gutai group.
Such artistic experimentation must be preferable to an armed resistance against
the American Occupation. Would Iraqi people not understand Democracy and
the purpose of the invasion better if they followed the Japanese example of being
Americanized in this “fun” way? The demonstrations by Japanese against the
American War in Southeast Asia were mentioned peripherally, but Japanese
versus Japanese—the groups PROVOKE and BIKYOTO, who opposed the Gutai
group’s “sell out” to Expo ’70, were also highlighted. The experimenters were
usually angry at the American government, but they directed their rebelliousness
toward their own government for following what the artists considered to be
America’s imperialistic line. A subtext running through the exhibit, however, was
that the US gave Japanese the know-how to rebel and become individuals (the
assumption is that during the war they had had merely a herd mentality), and
now they had suitable tools to confront one another amicably.

Europe did not drop atomic bombs and firebomb Japan to smithereens but was
likewise the recipient of bad news from the sky, albeit in a somewhat less
dramatic form (not that it matters much to the dead which weapon is used).
Europe therefore has been less sensitive than the US about displaying prewar
Japanese avant-garde art. The Centre Pompidou in Paris had a major exhibition
in 1986 on Japanese avant-garde arts from 1910-70, thus making the necessary
and obvious connections between prewar and postwar.
6 Voila!

This was followed in Japan by a major exhibit with catalogue in 1990 titled
Surrealism in Japan, 1925-1945 by the Nagoya City Museum of Art, also
significant because it opened the vast field of prewar surrealist painting and the
arts as a viable object of study for the first time in

Despite the vivid display of activity in all the arts by Japanese before the war, the
postwar generation has eclipsed and replaced the prewar artistic production as a
worthier subject of research in the US. The issue of wartime responsibility of the
Japanese poets (
and the politicians and writers representing the winning side) is
problematic and murky; nevertheless, relegating Japanese prewar experiments to
the realm of the inconsequential negates the base that the postwar artists took as
their natural and effortless point of departure. Without the prewar
experimentation, the postwar activity would have started differently. For
example, leaders such as Takiguchi Shuzo, Nishiwaki Junzaburo and Kitasono
Katue were sought out by younger artists and poets precisely because they had a
track record in the avant-garde extending back two decades.

Japan is, of course, somewhat more open and accepting of its own prewar art
than is the US. Japanese know about the prewar avant-garde to some extent
because there is more scholarship around the subject, and locality reminders of
prewar artists can be found in everyday life, for example Magome, Yokohama,
and Ochiai in the Kanto plain. Japanese would agree that Japanese prewar avant-
garde artistic activity surely need not be hidden. But because they so far have put
little emphasis on the production from this fertile era of their collective
imagination, they have followed the US pattern by relegating it to the sidelines as
secondary and irrelevant, rather than highlighting it to the extent it deserves.
When America sneezes, Japan catches a cold.

Consequently, Kitasono and his VOU Club (poetry and arts coterie from 1935-78,
excluding the Pacific War years) have virtually been erased, even in Japan.
Because the VOU group also existed before the war, they are jumped over in
favor of groups that started only after the war. The popular imagination claims
the prewar artists are tainted and that the fresh, postwar generation is purer, not
because of whom they are or what they did, but simply because of when they

Part Two


One of the ways to understand the “black hole” into which Japanese prewar
modernism has fallen is to use the analytical framework devised by historian
Harry Harootunian in his article, “America’s Japan/ Japan’s Japan.”

Harootunian looks at the history of US-Japan relations and sees the first
encounter with Perry at Urago Bay in 1853 as already a paradigmatic metonymy
for the relationship between the two countries that has persisted until today. In
essence, Perry interpreted the encounter in his way, which was obviously
beneficial to the US side, and his point of view was pushed onto the Japanese,
even though it was inimical to how they saw the situation. Harootunian notes
that the US has always taken the role as superior, allowing Japan the role as
junior partner, “Sometimes the interaction has resembled the relationship
between ventriloquist and dummy.”

Harootunian’s theoretical exposition puts into context the historical power
relationship of dominant US and weak Japan. His argument is nuanced more
than I can recount briefly here, but the gist is the following:

    We are all, by now, familiar with the effort of the American Occupation
    after 1945 to install a narrative to represent Japanese aspirations that
    derived from an idealization of the American experience, as if it was their
    own…. If the Occupation is seen as a bourgeois wedding between the
    United States and Japan, the actual intent of the coupling was to
    transform the bride by bringing her into the groom’s household; through
    marriage the bride would be resocialized into the groom’s world of middle-
    class values and the standards of civilized life, now read as the “free world."12  

Harootunian then postulates the hierarchical, hegemonic relationship in terms of
America’s Japan/ Japan’s Japan. His astute observations, while not taking up
prewar Japanese avant-garde culture per se, hint that the lack of a “Japan’s
America” in the equation is one reason why the prewar avant-garde has fallen
into a black hole, both in the US and in Japan. Harootunian continues:

    I would like to propose that this Occupation narrative and its subsequent
    articulation in countless studies devoted to demonstrating the modernization
    of Japan combined to establish the terms for constituting America’s Japan
    and to mark the place of a new stage of imperialism and colonialism without
    territorialization…. By the same measure, this modernization narrative
    provided the means for not imagining a Japan’s America, as if both speakers
    were equal, but rather a Japan’s Japan which simply managed to
    supplement… the image already authorized by the representation
    constructed by both the Occupation and its later theoretical projection and
    empirical verification. 13

The way the Guggenheim and Getty exhibits framed their subject matter by using
a post-1945 chronology and erasing the prewar avant-garde past are both—
despite their noble aim to introduce spectacular art—also examples of “America’s

America has also been reluctant to come to terms with the equality implied by the
artistic practice of Kitasono Katue and others like him
14.  This is not only true of
the erasure of prewar avant-garde activity, but also of the postwar and
contemporary scene, with a few exceptions, who have been accepted in the US
as globalized Japanese, marketed as “contemporary” and “international,” and
therefore have been able to transcend the usual markings of secondary and

The broad brush that discredits all Japanese creativity in a modernist mode first
developed by the West is the nine-letter word that functions as a four-letter
word: “imitation.” That almost all artistic activity by Japanese could be seen as
imitative is rather proof of how skewed the US has become in order to fit an
unreal Japan into its myopic scope. Could it be that Onchi Koshiro, Koga Harue,
Ishii Baku, Kitasono Katue and Yamamoto Kansuke, to name a few artists, were
all simply “imitative,” prefiguring the Japanese robots at the end of the 20th
century? This is not to say that every artist is not influenced by surroundings and
the work of other artists. But is it conceivable that only Europeans and Americans
could have creative juices, and that Japanese can merely copy? Can an artistic
method, say surrealism, be copyrighted or trademarked by its cultural originators?
Shouldn’t the method be acknowledged as originating in a certain country while
the artistic application remains open to practitioners anywhere?

Japanese critics have occasionally chimed in to blame their compatriots for being
merely imitative, compounding the misconception and reinforcing the
Orientalism on all sides. We can see through Harootunian’s lens that such critics
are merely parroting America’s Japan, which equals Japan’s Japan.

Part Three


2004: Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A major exhibit “Beyond Geometry,”
was held in which a variety of usually overlooked avant-garde arts, such as sound
poems, artists’ books, and concrete and visual poetry were presented from
around the world.
16  It was a ground-breaking exhibit in bringing to the surface
many artistic trends that had been considered secondary and peripheral, and in
reaching out to Eastern Europe for many of the artworks, shown in the US for
the first time. Japan had two artists represented—Kawara On and Kusama
Yayoi—both of whom were listed in the biographies as born in Japan and active
in New York. Despite Japanese having had a key role in the international
concrete poetry movement fifty years ago, and since then having been active
participants in all subsequent major trends exhibited in “Beyond Geometry,” they
were curiously absent, even in the chronology. Such an oversight can only be
comprehended by nullifying all Japanese work with a broad brush as simply
“imitative.” After all, Japanese were integral to the concrete and visual
movements for 50 years, because the theorists wanted to transcend the 26 letters
of the alphabet with the 1,000s of characters used in Japanese, and they had no
contact with Chinese poets. Facing west was Japan across the ocean, but the link
was cut in favor of locating two Japanese ex-patriots in New York. Imagine that
Japanese curators for an exhibit including recent American art chose only from
the pool of ex-patriots residing in Tokyo.

2004: Getty Art Museum, Los Angeles. An exhibition about the 125 year history
of photography was held with a catalogue titled
Masterpieces of Genius at the
. Not one image was from Japan, despite an exhibition titled The History of
Japanese Photography
having toured Houston and Cleveland in 2003 with a 400+
page catalogue (demonstrating that there are also significant contrary trends
breaking through the status quo, but notice that it is packaged in the context of a
broad history and not highlighting the prewar achievements). The Getty should
have titled their exhibit “125 Years of
Western Photography,” because they give
the inaccurate impression that only white people carried cameras. The Houston-
Cleveland exhibit included the very same 125 years of Japanese photography. Do
other curators regularly drop Japan out of their mix because of ignorance or
willful neglect? They are reinforced by Japanese occasionally dressing down one
another as “imitative,” which allows for curators to exclude them.

When Japanese photographic exhibitions are based on a topic—modernism,
objects, faces, landscapes—they usually show both Western acknowledged
masterpieces and Japanese acknowledged masterpieces together. By excluding,
such as in the Getty’s signature exhibit of masterpieces by Caucasian
photographers, the selected history becomes a distorted statement, fraught with
political implications.

Prewar Japanese surrealist artists were doubtlessly influenced by Dali, Man Ray,
Magritte or whomever, and occasionally the debts to the originals are more
homage than originality. I am not suggesting that every Japanese artist was an
East-Asian Picasso. I wonder how any headstrong, old-fashioned curator could
still dismiss Japanese production over all those years as entirely imitative. It
would be as absurd that all Japanese art was imitative and therefore not worthy
of consideration as it would be to declare all Japanese as artistic geniuses. Surely
there must have been some excellent pioneers amongst the majority of mediocre
practitioners, as in every human endeavor in all countries.

The Center (the West) can appropriate anything from the periphery (the non-
West, in this case Japan) and there is no hesitation in applauding the taking in of
the Other. This is because the West is the center of power; accumulating wild
animals or odd objects was a sign of power. For example, for Vincent van Gogh to
take in Hokusai as an influence, and for the Japonisme boom to exist from the
late 19th-early 20th centuries meant no threat to Western hegemony, only an
appropriation of the exotic, “colonized” landscape.

Describing Japanese as merely imitative—an old, tired argument, but not yet out
of vogue—is a way of keeping Japan subservient. If the US recognizes many of
the Japanese artists of the prewar period as exceptionally talented, then does it
not contradict the narrative that Americans built during the war, namely that
“GOOD JAPS are dead Japs.”
17?  If Japanese can be original artists and if
hundreds of them were doing fascinating, innovative and high quality artwork
before the war, then there is a contradiction in the US having firebombed their
cities at low altitude and dropped atomic bombs on them, in other words, in
having treated them all as subhuman. If the US bombed civilized people—as
some of the Japanese undoubtedly were—then the justification for killing them
becomes more difficult to rationalize.

The generally unsophisticated attitude of the US toward Japan is exemplified in
that to date the most popular Japanese song in the US has been the sad, postwar
blues song, “Ue wo muite arukou” (Let’s Walk Looking Up), sung by Sakamoto
Ryu, whose title was daringly mistranslated into English as “Sukiyaki.” It was as if
Japanese had translated, without joking, Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” into
Japanese as “Hamburger.” The younger generation of Americans has a
completely different, much more positive attitude toward Japan, because of toys,
video games, anime and manga, but many Americans have not yet overcome the
general bias accumulated over the decades before, during and following the war.
The future for the equality implied in Japan’s America not only is promising, it
seems inevitable.

I have been interested in probing the blind spots of Westerners and Japanese
which converge to exclude the possibility of many artists’ achievements being
comprehended fully and fairly. My point is simple: If the category “
pre-World War
II avant-garde Japanese arts
” does not exist but the art works themselves do and in
abundance, should not the category be created rather than the art works kept in
a state of neglect and denial?


1 Emphasis added.

2 Emphasis added.

3 John Clark, “Artistic Subjectivity in the Taisho and Early Showa Avant-garde,”
Chapter 3 of
Japanese Art after 1945: Scream Against the Sky, ed. Alexandra
Munroe (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994), pp. 41-53.

4 Nishikawa Nagao,
Le roman japonais depuis 1945 (Paris: Presses Universitaires
de France, 1988), 17; quoted in English by Charles Merewether, “Disjunctive
Modernity: The Practice of Artistic Expression in Postwar Japan,” in
art/Non-art: Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan, 1950-1970
Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007), p. 1.

5 I do not know if the context of Tomatsu’s utterance was to contrast the postwar
he was discussing with the prewar Japanese art scene in which the main
influence had been European and not American.

In a separate article from the one I quote at greater length later, Harry
Harootunian takes Tomatsu to task: “It would be hard, in any case, to find a
national experience that has dwelled so long and longingly on the postwar. It is a
post that refuses postponement—so much so that contemporary photographer
Tomatsu Shomei misrecognized what he called ‘Americanization’ as dominating
the scene of the 1960s to conclude that it ‘had originated from the American
military bases’ and thus from the time of the Occupation. ‘I have the impression,’
he wrote as late as 1981, ‘that America gradually seeped out of the meshes of the
wire fences that surrounded the bases and before long penetrated the whole of
Japan.’ Yet this misrecognition, driven by cultural amnesia, revealed only the
excess of expenditure caused by the overdetermined importation of American-
style commodity culture and prompted a willful forgetfulness that the process
had originated well before World War II and the hated army of occupation from a
country he had never seen. This sense of forgetfulness articulated by Tomatsu
was already a negative image that aimed to replace quality with quantity, value
with desire, and the enduring old with the ever new in the ever same. Above all
else Americanism, as it was called, destroyed memory and encouraged social
forgetfulness, as Kato Norihiro would point out, to make possible Japan’s long
and interminable postwar. It was for this reason that Tomatsu asserted that the
Occupation had obliterated Japan’s prewar ‘traditional’ past to establish a
‘postwar without end.’” Harry Harootunian, “Japan's Log Postwar: The Trick of
Memory and the Ruse of History” in
Japan After Japan: Social and Cultural Life
from the Recessionary 1990s to the Present
, Durham, NC: Duke University, 2006.

6 Centre Georges Pompidou:
Japon des avant-gardes 1910/1970 (Paris, 1986).

Nihon no shurrurearisumu: Surrealism in Japan, 1925-1945 (Nagoya: Nagoya
shiritsu bijutsukan), 1990, 246 pages.

8 Scholars such as Tsuruoka Yoshihisa, Omuka Toshiharu, Fujitomi Yasuo,
Niikura Shunichi, among several others, are notable exceptions, having made
invaluable contributions to this sub-field over long careers, but their overall
impact both in Japan and abroad has been minimal.

9 There is a similar tendency for critics to start fresh in the US with the
generation of Beat poets and Abstract Expressionist painters, but the US prewar
activity, unlike the Japanese, is rarely construed as “shameful” and then
dismissed. For example, Theodore Geissel, the deceased author of the children
book series Dr. Seuss, had his wartime propaganda cartoons exhibited at the
University of California at San Diego library, named after him, as recently as a
few years ago. This is considered acceptable in the US, because it won the war.
Considered shameful is Ezra Pound, American poet, who sided with the fascists,
was tried for treason after the war, and then confined to a mental hospital for 13

Japan in the World, ed. by Masao Miyoshi and H.D. Harootunian, (Durham
and London: Duke University, 1993), pp. 196-221.

11 Ibid., p. 198.

12 Ibid., pp. 199-200.

13 Ibid., p. 200. Emphasis added.

14 An exception is Karl Young’s introduction to Kitasono Katue in
Oceans Beyond
Monotonous Space
(Hollywood, CA: highmoonoon, 2007).

15 Among them are photographers Hosoe Eikoh, Sugimoto Hiroshi and Araki
Nobuyoshi, novelist Murakami Haruki, painters Morimura Yasumasa and
Murakami Takashi, architect Arata Isozaki, fashion designers Mori Hanae,
Yamamoto Kansai and Issey Miyake, and a handful of others. Ono Yoko is the
most famous living Japanese. The simultaneity contemporaneous in New York
and Tokyo (global time) has dissolved the lag of the previous generation, in effect
conjuring an eternal present with an absolute past.

16 Los Angeles County Museum of Art,
Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form:
, ed. by (curator) Lynn Zelevansky, (Los Angeles, CA and Cambridge,
MA: LACMA and MIT), 2004, 240 pages. The LACMA exhibit ran June 13-
October 3, 2004 and then traveled to the Miami Art Museum, November 18, 2004-
May 1, 2005.

17 Quoted in John Dower, "Apes and Others,”
War Without Mercy (New York:
Pantheon, 1986), p. 79. The all caps in the original are to emphasize the contrast
and also reference the “GOOD GERMAN and bad Nazi.” The problem is that all
Japanese of the prewar period are painted with a broad brush as evil. Why hasn’t
the corresponding vocabulary been developed for the Japanese as in the German

back to home page
The following talk, titled “99 Years of Japanese Avant-garde
Art on the Wall” was delivered for the East Asian Art Council
of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the Brown
Auditorium on September 23, 2007. It was held in
conjunction with the exhibition
Japanese Prints:
on view through February 19, 2008.

The Category “Pre-World War Two
Japanese Avant-garde Art” and Its
Mysterious Disappearance in the
United States

John Solt

“What the American public doesn’t know
is what makes it the American public.”

--Winslow Holman, former corrections officer
Collage by Kitasono Katue, c. 1923.