Arts and Culture
The Tenpō Era (1830-44) was disastrous throughout Japan but especially in Kyoto, the capital of the imperial court. While Kyoto was inundated with famine refugees, nearby Osaka was in turmoil following the rebellion of a former city bureaucrat. In Meiji Japan (1868-1912), the memory of this famine was construed as a warning to the present generation from the recent past, which had been feudal and unmodern. The present generation wished to be modern but people were not quite sure how to drop old patterns when memories of the old were still fresh while the urge to renew was strong. Using the case of the painter Reizei Tamechika (1823-64), this paper discusses how documentary painting functioned in Meiji Japan as a means to fulfill the wish to be modern while curbing anxieties about falling back into old patterns. Tamechika was a court painter who had mastered a historicizing style derived from his study of old court paintings. Although he used this style to depict court ceremonies, one painting exists in which he documents the distribution of famine relief to the starving population of Kyoto. This painting fitted the discourse of the backwardness of the feudal past in Meiji Japan. Famine was emblematic of feudal backwardness, and Tamechika’s historicising style firmly placed it into the past. Yet, his painting was heralded in Meiji Japan as an important documentary representation, highlighting an emerging discourse about the usefulness of painting for documenting important historical events in the service of the nation.