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Japanese Education Iconography - Overview

Education Imagery of Japan:

Investigation of Seventeenth Through Nineteenth Century Woodcuts

This study brings to the English speaking reader a rich visual history of education as one of the most important steps in becoming a contemporary nation, while providing an introductory method for pursuing further broader studies of educational iconography of Japan. The project links the perception and interpretation of the artist with a description of the society that created a demand for these images. Through the woodblock prints of the time it can be seen that education, and its imagery comprised a dynamic social component in the history of Japan.

The major findings of the study show that the woodblock artists of Japan did indeed produce a wealth of prints depicting scenes of education in everyday life. Images of private study, or master and pupil relationships, were found more often then those of formal education settings in the collections examined. Many features of these prints tend to be common to many Japanese woodblock printed images. Learning was a common visual experience and identifying with it in the popular art form of the day would be reasonable and provides a “small key” to new interpretive possibilities found in Japanese art forms. Suggesting that the educational imagery found in Japanese prints, whether representational or nonobjective, were created from structural social patterns indicates that such visual experiences were shared by all people.


Japanese woodblock prints provided the inspiration for this project. The recurrent thematic element of education, scholarship and teaching in the historic Japanese prints enticed the writer to discover how and why different artists used education and teaching motifs. Was this imagery superficial detail or symbolic of something deeper? These artists worked, often facetiously, according to their ideals, their idiosyncrasies, and the possibilities of their times, and are all representative of their epoch. As such we must accept them. The study of Japanese woodblocks reveals a treasury of hidden meanings which makes them more than just beautiful images to be collected and consecrated by prominent collectors'. The priority here was not to examine only those print qualities that are endlessly reiterated in many books but to offer and document a fresher and more interesting perspective on Japanese woodblock prints – educational imagery.

Throughout the modern era Japanese historians have situated themselves in relation to Tokugawa ideology, and have produced an extensive and interpretive body of literature. If one adds imagery to this literature it is too voluminous and complex to be categorized simply. This paper attempts to fashion a useful and flexible methodology with which to probe the education imagery found within the woodblocks produced in Tokugawa and Meiji Japan, and to assemble, display, classify, and describe the conceptual intensities in an otherwise diffuse body of artists works. This work is not meant to be a complete history that has been done sufficiently by qualified historians – but rather an attempt to illuminate and identify some of the education iconography that is found in the woodblocks of Tokugawa and early Meiji Japan.

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