A Brief History of Thai-Japanese Art Exchanges

Given our recent focus on Thai-Japanese relations, I thought I would share some excerpts from a translation I did about a year ago on the topic. The essay was written by a Japanese scholar as part of the catalog for the Show Me Thai museum exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo.

Art Exchanges Between Thailand and Japan in the Modern Era

by Masahiro Ushiroshoji

Thailand and Japan in the Early Modern Era

Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation to have escaped Western colonization. Squeezed between the balance of power between the British Empire, which merged Burma into British India and brought the Malay Peninsula under its control, and France, which controlled the Indochina peninsula, King Mongkut (made famous in the movie “The King and I”) and King Chulalonkorn succeeded in their modernization policies and in keeping the country independent. The turning point in modern Thai history came in 1932 with a coup d’etat, whereupon the nation of Thailand started on the road modernity as it became a constitutional monarchy similar to Japan under the Meiji emperor.

Thailand’s modern art, distinct from its neighbors in Southeast Asia that became colonies of the Western powers, developed under the art policies of the government, which aimed to create a nation state. In this sense Thailand’s experience mirrors Japan’s modern art. More specifically, Thailand invited a foreign expert from Italy named Corrado Feroci, among others, to build a national school of fine arts (Rongrien Praneetsilpakam) in 1933 (which in 1943 became Silpakorn University). As a modern nation, there was a need to quickly train Thai artists, especially sculptors, to build the Democracy Monument to commemorate the democratic coup, and the “Victory Monument” intended to celebrate Thailand’s victory in a war with France, as well as monuments to the king. Since then, many Thai artists have emerged from this art school.

What is crucial to note when considering Japan’s role in Thai art history is the presence of Japanese artists in Thailand before and during the Pacific War. The Thai government invited not only Western advisors but also Japanese advisors in various fields. Accordingly, records remain of gakou (artisans specialized in painting) and choukokushi (artisans specialized in sculpting) dispatched by the Ministry of Education to Thailand.

There were three Japanese artisans/ artists who taught at Rongrian Poh-Chang — lacquerware artisan Sakae Miki, Western-style painter Niro Yokota, who joined Rongrian Poh-Chang as a teacher in 1930 and opened the school’s bamboo craftwork course.

Thai Students in Wartime Japan

It was rare for Thai students to study in Japan before the war, but Jitr Buabusaya stands out as an early pioneer.
In November 1941, Jitr, who had hoped to study in Europe, ended up in Japan since Europe was in the middle of the World War II. Ironically, Japan entered the Pacific War a mere two or three weeks after Jitr arrived in the country, and his five years in Japan coincided with the war he tried to avoid.

jitr-pic03.jpgJitr was born in Bangkok in 1911. He studied at the teacher training course at Rongrian Poh-Chang, and after more than a decade of teaching experience went to Japan on a Thai education ministry a scholarship. In Japan, he studied oil painting and sculpture at Tokyo Fine Arts School. It is often noted as historical fact that he studied oil painting under Kunzo Minami and sculpture under Fumio Asakura, but Jitr himself professes that he did not study under any one specific master.

As one of the few foreign students to come to Japan from Southeast Asia, Jitr was invited to events held throughout the country, such as the opening ceremony of the Kanmon undersea locomotive tunnel. He painted gorgeous scenes of Japan, rich with seasonal beauty, using his travels as inspiration. In 1942, Jitr held a solo exhibition at the Nichido Gallery and planned an exhibition in his home country as well. But tragically, most of his works, which would have served as important artifacts in the history of Thai-Japanese relations, were burned in bombing raids, and Jitr was only able to bring a few small pieces back to Thailand. Still, it is possible to glean from his remaining body of work that he had mastered portrayal of external light in the impressionist style as seen in his brilliant paintings of Japan’s vistas. Impressionism was not yet known in Thailand at the time, and Jitr is credited as the painter that brought the impressionist style to his homeland.

Jitr’s Artistic Contributions and Japan

Jitr returned to Thailand in 1946 to find the Poh-Chang school building destroyed in a bomb attack. He worked to rebuild the school and served as its headmaster. Jitr modeled the school after the Tokyo Fine Arts School where he himself had studied. He was impressed by Japan’s teaching methods, which struck a balance between Western influence and Japanese tradition, and used them to structure the school’s curriculum. He added new courses, including anatomy, composition, color theory, and art history.

Outdoor nature sketching also came into practice under his leadership. Moreover, Jitr designed the school building by himself — it was erected in Japanese-style mix of Japanese and Western convention known as the “Imperial Crown style,” only with a twist: he added a Thai-style roof to a Western structure.

Jitr’s art studies in Japan were in line with the Thai government’s goal of establishing an art system, and took place within the framework of public art administration and the training of art teachers. But Jitr the painter brought the impressionist style that took root in Japan after the establishment of the Hakubakai in 1895 which was the first Western style painters’ group in Tokyo, and from the mid-1940s to the early 1950s, Jitr provided the opportunity for French impressionism, imported via Japan, to take the Thai art scene by storm. In the late 1950s, Fua Hariphitak’s cubism made an impact among Thai painters, quickly pushing impressionism into the annals of history, but Jitr’s role in the history of Thai-Japanese art exchange will not be forgotten.

Postwar Exchanges: From Prints to Modern Art

On Jitr’s heels came many postwar artists who went to Japan to study, mainly printmakers. This group returned home after learning Japan’s advanced woodblock techniques and played a key role in the development of printmaking in Thailand. The pioneer artist who studied abroad was woodblock printmaker Praphan Srisouta. Srisouta was more interested in Japanese traditions, not in the latest printmaking techniques. Born in Lamphun in the Northern region of Thailand, he went to Japan in 1964 after studying at Silpakorn University. He reportedly spent most of his time studying Ukiyo-e woodblock prints by famed masters such as Hiroshige.

He journeyed from Japan to Germany before returning home in 1967 and went on to gain notoriety for his first solo show,
which showcased 90 of his original woodblock prints. These prints, which were dually influenced by Thai temple mural paintings and Ukiyo-e, portray the daily lives of children and feature vibrant depictions of people and beautiful black and white contrasts, and are considered some of the most precious masterpieces in all of Southeast Asia.

In recent years, Thailand’s modern art has received increased exposure in Japan, ushering in a new era of art exchanges between the two countries. Notable among these artists is Montien Boonma, who is often exhibited in Japan. His installations, which reflect an almost meditative Buddhist mindset, have remained popular even after his sudden death.

One artist of the younger generation has set in motion yet another new turning point in Thai-Japanese art exchange. That artist is Navin Rawanchaikul, who is married to a Japanese woman and works out of Fukuoka, Japan and Chiang Mai. Navin is not content to simply work out of this regional Japanese city. He closely examines the Fukuoka community where he lives and creates pieces that deal with issues within it.

These works have in turn allowed him to become involved in the Fukuoka community. He will continue to be watched as a new harbinger of Thai-Japanese interchange whether from the perspective of a teacher, learning as a foreign student, or showcasing his art.

Falun Gong theatre in New York

The NYT has a rather funny article about New Yorkers who attended what they thought would be a traditional Chinese New Year theatrical spectacle at the Radio City Music Hall, but ended up seeing a very different kind of show.

Then the lyrics to some of the songs, sung in Chinese but translated into English in the program, began referring to “persecution” and “oppression.” Each time, almost at the moment a vocalist hit these words, a few audience members collected their belongings and trudged up an aisle toward the exit.

Before long came a ballet piece in which three women were imprisoned by a group of officers, and one was killed. At the end of the number, more members of the audience, in twos and fours and larger groups, began to walk out. At intermission, dozens of people, perhaps a few hundred, were leaving.

They had realized that the show was not simply a celebration of the Chinese New Year, but an outreach of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice of calisthenics and meditation that is banned in China. More than three years after flooding city corners and subway stations to spread the word about the Chinese government’s repression, Falun Gong practitioners are again trying to publicize their cause. Only this time, it involves costumed dancers and paying audiences in that most storied of New York concert halls, Radio City.

The article then goes on to mention that Faul Gong is well known for their elaborate street theatre protests around the city, in which they use props and stage makeup to dramatize the torture their compatriots are undergoing in China, as they hand out literature on the subject. Here are some photos I took of one such protest back in May of 2005.







Has anyone ever seen something like this anywhere besides New York? I saw Falun Gong protesters in Hong Kong, by Victoria Bay, and handing out flyers and DVDs outside of Taipei’s National Palace Museum (prime location to find tourists from the mainland) but never anything like this sort of dramatic reenactment.

A Bathing Shoko

A few days ago I spotted the following sticker just outside Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills:

It’s an ironic tribute to former Aum Supreme Truth Cult leader* Shoko Asahara that combines his ugly mug with the iconic BAPE clothing logo (see below). I absolutely loved the image for my own reasons (I am a BAPE fan and an avid consumer of Aum-related developments), but it has taken on new relevance now that the BBC informs me that this year marks the 40th anniversary of Che Guevara’s death. The article discusses the enduring popularity of that one image of him glancing out somewhere with the utmost intensity:

Combined with the mystique and allure of Che and the spirit of revolution, another key to the spread of the image was the complete and intentional lack of intellectual property management on the part of the original photographer and designer, and it has certainly been effective for better or worse. Anyone with a pair of eyes who has visited US college campuses will know how pervasive this image is. And more importantly, the BBC article notes that in Latin America he remains an inspiration for his life and what he stood for, rather than just being a part of the trustafarian poster collection.

However, in Japan the story is a little different. A far more recognizable but similar image is the logo for hip clothing brand A Bathing Ape (aka BAPE) which derives its flagship logo from a combination of the Che image with the Planet of the Apes movies (stunning in their own right). While Che’s logo may stand for the combination of “capitalism and commerce, religion and revolution,” notwithstanding some recent dilution of the brand BAPE’s message is more along the lines of “wear this if you are young and listen to Cornelius”:

I should point out, however, that BAPE has none of the revolutionary hype nor is it even close to the level of pervasiveness of the Che image. It is just a hip clothing brand with a slightly creepy but somehow irresistible logo.

(*Asahara is apparently still revered in one sect of former Aum followers according to recent reports. He will be headed for the gallows for orchestrating the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subways whenever the Justice Minister gets around to it.)

Wartime propaganda in pop culture

Asahi has a neat article with an unfortunately small, if tantalizing, photograph of an exhibit currently being held at the Marunouchi branch of Maruzen (I’m still bitter over you guys closing the Kyoto store!) in Tokyo until Monday, on the way that kimono designs of the pre-WW2 and wartime period reflected the political consciousness of the time. For example, in this photograph you can see a design reflected the tripartite alliance between Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. Unfortunately, I’m nowhere near Tokyo so I’ve asked Adam if he could drop by and get some photos, or perhaps pick up whatever pamphlet or art book they have available because I would love to see more of these, and in some detail.

War-theme designs often mirrored current events. Inui found a kimono that depicted Adm. Heihachiro Togo, who was credited with Japan’s 1905 victory over the Russian fleet in the Sea of Japan.

She also found a design that spelled out the name of Yosuke Matsuoka–in romaji alphabet–then ambassador, when he pulled the Japanese delegation out of the League of Nations in Geneva in 1933.

Heartwarming stories and tear-jerkers also made it into kimono.

The story of the heroic Nikudan Sanyushi (Three human bullets), or Bakudan Sanyushi (Three human bombs)–three engineering corps soldiers who reportedly perished in a suicide bombing during the Shanghai incident in 1932–were given sweeping coverage by the media. Headlines and parts of the articles from The Asahi Shimbun and The Mainichi Shimbun became part of kimono designs.

This article  immediately made me think of one I had seen on BBC news a couple of weeks ago, on a similarly unexpected yet unsurprising penetration of wartime propaganda into popular culture: British boardgames of the World War II era.

Take the early wartime game Battle of the River Plate, for example. Based on the first major confrontation between German and British naval forces, it is one of the earliest known games to reflect the international conflict. Players tried to score points by firing wooden sticks at the ship with a spring action. A direct hit caused the gun turrets on the ship to “explode”.

Another, Bomber Command, depicts bombing squadrons and invites players to bomb Berlin, at the centre of the playing board. Players take turns to throw dice to move toward the target. When materials were in short supply, the dice were replaced by a numbered spinning card.

“It was a game you can easily imagine people playing sitting in the air raid shelter while being bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz,” says historian and author, Robert Opie.

The article then goes on to mention the way in which WW2 comic books incorporated anti-Nazi and anti-Japan motifs, a number of examples of which I posted some time ago. And of course, one can’t forget what you must agree is the best comic book cover of the war, if not all time. That is, unless you like Hitler-and you don’t like Hitler, do you?

What would be some good examples of popular culture reflecting enemies and conflicts in the world around us today? Off the top of my head, there’s naturally “24,” which I’ve never seen but I understand is about how Arab terrorists want to kill us. And then of course there’s the video game Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, in which a disaffected North Korean general stages a military coup on the eve of reunification with the South in some near future year, or on a similar but slightly more afield topic, take the third season episode of the fairly recent Justice League Unlimited cartoon show, in which a number of DC superheroes travel to a fictitious militaristic Northeast Asian nation, clearly modeled after North Korea, to stop a rampaging nuclear powered robotic monster which they claim they had built “to protect us from the foreigners,” clearly modeled after North Korea’s metaphorically rampaging nuclear (non-robotic) monster.

All of these are in fact less examples of government sponsored propaganda than grass roots, genuinely popular culture expressing such things as a society’s popularly held fears and hatreds regarding their enemies at that time. I recall during the first Gulf War, when I was 10 or 11 years old, I saw someone at a flea-market selling “Desert Shield” branded condoms, which exclaimed on the package something along the lines of “Don’t you wish Saddam Hussein’s father had worn one of these?” Perhaps it is due to the fact that I was out of the country during the early stages of the recent Iraq invasion, but I can think of no examples of similarly popular expressions of support for the current war. Is it wrong of me to think that the initial support for the invasion was, however high the level, generally a grudging and ambivalent sort of support, lacking the level of enthusiasm needed to generate items along the lines of the pro-Axis kimono, the Hitler-face dartboard, or the “Desert Shield” condom?

More on fake Harry Potter

Today’s New York Times has published a moderate sized article on the Chinese phenomenon.

No one can say with any certainty what the full tally is, but there are easily a dozen unauthorized Harry Potter titles on the market here already, and that is counting only bound versions that are sold on street corners and can even be found in school libraries. Still more versions exist online.

These include “Harry Potter and the Half-Blooded Relative Prince,” a creation whose name in Chinese closely resembles the title of the genuine sixth book by Ms. Rowling, as well as pure inventions that include “Harry Potter and the Hiking Dragon,” “Harry Potter and the Chinese Empire,” “Harry Potter and the Young Heroes,” “Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-Up-to-Dragon,” and “Harry Potter and the Big Funnel.”

Some borrow little more than the names of Ms. Rowling’s characters, lifting plots from other well-known authors, like J. R. R. Tolkien, or placing the famously British protagonist in plots lifted from well-known kung-fu epics and introducing new characters from Chinese literary classics like “Journey to the West.”

Harry Potter and the Big Funnel? I’ve heard of that one somewhere before… 

In related news, of the 100 or so blogs and other websites that linked to my fake Harry Potter post, this post at the blog of the comic book fansite Newsarama may be the only one to offer a substantial contribution. Now, I had posted a couple of pages from a nice, wholesome Harry Potter Japanese fan comic (dojinshi), but someone at Newsarama had apparently dug into their personal bookmarks collection and dug out links to online archives of-ahem-less than wholesome product. The sort of thing that chronicles the sort of activity that English boarding school was famous for before Hogwarts. Am I going to paste the links here? No, but anyone curious enough to click can take that extra step.

The ultimate sequels aka Asia loves you,哈利波特

To tie in with the world-wide media extravaganza that is the release of the final volume of the megaselling Harry Potter series, today I would like present scans from three lesser known sequels in my collection.

First is the China exclusive 2002 release, Harry Potter and the Filler of Big, a title made only slightly less mysterious when one realizes that the Chinese title translates rather more accurately into Harry Potter and the Big Funnel, although you’ll need someone with better Chinese than mine to describe the plot of this gloriously audacious illegally published novel-length fanfiction.

Continue reading The ultimate sequels aka Asia loves you,哈利波特

Why horizontal strokes are thinner than vertical strokes

Beer communicationIf you look at Sino-Japanese text printed in the Chinese Song or Japanese Mincho typeface (similar to serif typefaces in European languages), you’ll notice that the horizontal strokes in characters are much thinner than the vertical strokes. Here’s why:

The printing press appeared in China during the Song Dynasty. At the time, each print block contained two portrait-oriented pages placed side by side. The print blocks were all cut from rectangular planks such that the wood grain ran horizontally. Because the grain ran horizontally, it was fairly easy to carve patterns with the grain, like horizontal strokes. However, carving vertical or slanted patterns was difficult because those patterns intersect with the grain and very easily break. This resulted in a typeface that has thin horizontal strokes and thick vertical strokes. To prevent wear and tear, the ending of horizontal strokes are also thickened. These design forces resulted in the current Song typeface.