Date of Submission

Spring 2011

Academic Program

Art History


Patricia Karetzky

Abstract/Artist's Statement

The establishment of Japan’s Tokugawa Era (1600-1868) set the gears in motion for a modern nation. The development of urban spaces, combined with a shift in economic power towards the merchant and farmer classes led to a unique consumer culture which celebrated progress. Yet Japan’s folkloric tradition was deeply ingrained in the peoples’ cultural imagination and creatures from folklore (Yokai) were still treated as part of the natural landscape. When Japan closed its doors to the outside world, there was a renewed focus on native mythology, including Shinto and folkloric traditions. This trend carried over into popular culture, influencing books, theatre and, most importantly, art.
My thesis argues that yokai were refashioned in art in an effort to rationalize a locally-based belief system with the commercial, religious and social agendas of a nation-minded Japan. This phenomenon occurred on three levels of Japanese art: scholarly, urban and folk. On the scholarly level, folkloric encyclopedias revolutionized the way the people perceived yokai, using neo-Confucian methods of organization and classification to de-mystify their image. On the urban level, popular artists such as Kuniyoshi catered to a powerful middle-class audience who wished to see yokai made into commodities for secular enjoyment. Part of this process was through parody, putting yokai in comedic, absurd situations. Lastly, on the folk level, the development of Otsu-e (Pictures from Otsu) reflected the growing agency of the countryside, and images of yokai were made didactic in order to communicate the growing ideology of social change.
My goal is to determine that artists were using familiar, simple folkloric imagery as a lens address complex issues, such as the role of native tradition and belief within a nation geared towards modernity.

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