The artistic zeitgeist of Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868)—a time characterized by several centuries of social and political stability maintained by the repressive, isolationist policies of the Tokugawa Shogunate—was influenced heavily by the visual culture of the merchant and military classes in metropolitan centers. Sharing a goal to pursue the ephemeral pleasures of life, often through excessive expenditure, their patronage of the arts and popular entertainment espoused an aesthetic renaissance in the metaphysical space they occupied known as ukiyo, or the “floating world”.

Katsushika Hokusai is undoubtedly one of the most widely celebrated artists in the history of Japanese visual culture. A Renaissance man active in the late 18th and early 19th centuries during the Edo period (1603-1868), his vivid prints and illustrations remain unparalleled in their dynamic portrayals of flora and fauna, historic events, mythologies, and contemporary urban life in the metropolitan demimonde known as the ukiyo. Even if someone reading is unfamiliar with his impact on the canon of art history, they will likely know his more famous compositions from their omnipresence in pop culture and museum gift shops, such as the “Great Wave off Kanagawa”. 

There exists a well known aphorism in Japan: “everything that has a shape, breaks.” Within the scope of traditional craftsmanship, it can be interpreted as an acknowledgement that all life, including that of objects, is rendered unique when exhibiting evidence of damage, wear, or rehabilitation. As a result, the concept of “repair” is often quite distinct from that of “restoration”. This approach is embodied in the art of kintsugi, literally translated to “gold joinery”, the technical and philosophical exercise of reassembling fractured ceramic vessels with burnished golden seams. These mends do not serve to obscure “scars” created by a break. Rather, they celebrate the object’s storied history, and encourage the holder to reflect on the transient nature of identity.

The repercussions of Western imperialism have impacted modern society in countless ways. From politics to language to art, is it clear that people are still grappling with how to address the conflicts stemming from increased globalization and colonialism (primarily that of Europeans and Americans) from the 16th century onwards. 

Few nations can boast eras of peace and prosperity as long as the Tokugawa period in Japan, which lasted almost 300 years from the 17th through 19th centuries. Pax Tokugawana: The Cultural Flowering of Japan, 1603-1853 by renowned Japanese studies professor Toru Haga offers a detailed and nuanced portrayal of life under the strict rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and how the peace established by the stringent policies of the ruling warrior class defined the zeitgeist of the era.

Unlike the ever-changing silhouettes of western dress, the iconic cut of the Japanese kimono, a straight-seamed T-shaped robe, was developed in the Heian period (794 -1185) and has remained relatively unchanged through modern times. Central to almost all ensembles in traditional Japanese dress, kimono designs were seen as intimate reflections of the wearer’s identity. Newly available in paperback, Kimono: The Art and Evolution of Japanese Fashion is a vibrant showcase of objects in the world-renowned Khalili Collections in London. Edited by Anna Jackson, Curator of Japanese Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum, it thoroughly explores how this wearable art changed over time technically and aesthetically, often as a response to the cultural context in which it was produced.

One of the most recognizable garments in Japanese fashion, kimonos were closet staples for people of all classes, ages, and genders. Literally translated as “a thing worn”, it is a term broadly used to describe a T-shaped costume with sleeves partially detached under the arm that can be wrapped around the body and secured with a belt. Over time, the simple yet iconic design in many ways became a canvas for imagery that communicated information about the wearer’s identity.