Visual Culture of Early-Modern Japan

Key information

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Module code
FHEQ Level

Module overview

The course is equally open to those with and without previous knowledge of Japanese art and history. Knowledge of the Japanese language is not required. The course is structured as follows:

Orthodoxy : The orthodox traditions in art and culture will be examined. This will include examination of the official Kano School (hereditary Painters-in-Attendance on the Shôgun), their organisational structure, styles and systems of patronage. The structure of the City of Edo (the Shogunal seat of power), its layout, urban planning and architecture will also be looked at. The Shogunal mausoleum at Nikkô will be studied as will other government-run temples. The iconography of Confucianism will be reviewed. The first term will conclude with a look at non-governmental orthodoxies, such as popular religion (its iconography and architecture) and at the Obaku School (an officially sponsored but highly popularist Buddhist sect), and at townspeople's discipline in the form of the tea ceremony, and of widely followed illustrated manners.

Forces of Opposition : The second term will examine anti-orthodoxies in the visual sphere. Both deliberate antagonism in the form of satires and lampoons, and more escapist forms of opposition will be covered. Individual weeks will be devoted to such areas as: the nanga artists (literati), who believed in losing themselves in culture; the Kyoto eccentrics, who opted for madness. The liminal world of popular entertainment, and the kabuki theatre will be inspected. The second half of the term will assess the popular tradition of the towns, particularly that part of it that came to be known as the 'Floating World'; the tradition of prints; a look at 'floating-world' fashions will bring the term to a close.

The Larger World : Japan became forcefully aware of the larger world outside its borders during the 18th Century. We will also cover the intrusion of the West (principally Holland), and the diplomatic missions to Japan of Korea (both had profound effects on artistic style and practice). We will conclude the year with a look at the New Orthodoxy of Maruyama Okyo and Tani Buncho and their schools, and finally at the Kansei Reforms instigated in the late 1780s by Matsudaira Sadanobu in an attempt to break the back of heterodoxy in popular culture.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of the course, a student should be able to demonstrate …

  • that he/she has acquired a solid knowledge of the major artistic movements, schools and personalities in the arts of Eighteenth-century Japan, and to situate these within a broader context of power and authority;
  • that via the case study of Eighteenth-century Japan he/she has become able to consider definitions of art, and how they are not constant over time, nor across space;
  • that he/she has acquired the skills needed to formulate a art-historical argument, to assemble the material necessary to support it, and to organise it in a coherent and persuasive way.

Method of assessment


  • One 750 word discussion paper (worth 10%)
  • One 1,500 word essay (worth 20%)
  • One 1,700-1,900 word essay (worth 20%)
  • One three hour exam (worth 50%)


  • One 1,000 word discussion paper (worth 10%)
  • One 1,800 word essay (worth 20%)
  • One 2,000-2,200 word essay (worth 20%)
  • One three hour exam (worth 50%)

Suggested reading

  • Screech, T., The Shogun's Painted Culture: Fear and Creativity in the Japanese States, 1760-1829 Seen and Unseen (London, 2000)
  • Ooms H, Tokugawa Ideology (Princeton, 1985)
  • Smith H, Hokusai: One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (New York, 1980)
  • Najita, T. (ed.), Japanese Thought in the Tokugawa Period (Chicago, 1978)


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules