Multifaceted Divinities Conference  |  Journal  |  conference proceedings  |  

European Visual Images of Japanese during the Edo Period:

On Radical Transformation, Inaccuracies, and the Japanese Influence

Rotem Kowner
University of Haifa

During the Edo period the visual image of Japanese known to Europeans underwent a radical transformation. Whereas during the initial phases of this period Europeans were unfamiliar with the physical features and facial appearance of Japanese and very rarely came across visual representations of them, during the final years of this period they were increasingly exposed to numerous and accurate visual images of these people, including photos. Still, the transformation was neither linear nor gradual since a great deal of it occurred during the final decade of the period (bakumatsu). The capacity to produce accurate visual images of the Japanese was marred by the fact that most of the European artists involved in the production of ethnographic visual images never seen a Japanese nor any Japanese visited Europe. Moreover, having scant racial consciousness until the late eighteenth century, the few Europeans that did visit Japan were often unable to note any special features that marked the Japanese, let alone to render their collective appearance. In this presentation, I shall survey the evolution of the European visual images of the Japanese, discuss the reasons these images were mostly inaccurate, and assess the contribution of Japanese-made artistic work to the changing images.

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