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“Fascinated By Meiji Art”
Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum
The Road to Establishing the Museum
I myself first discovered Meiji art about twenty years ago in New York City. I was then working at a company and was on my way home from a business trip when I happened on an antique mall and found my eyes riveted to the window display of a store. Arranged in the window were beautiful inro pillboxes made in the late Edo to Meiji period. As I entered the shop, my eye was caught by the many beautiful and elaborate Meiji art objects, the like of which I had never seen before. Taken by their beauty, I forgot myself for a moment and gazed in rapt attention before realizing that I had already bought two of the inro pillboxes. I will never forget the excitement I felt that day. Back at the hotel, I repeatedly took out the inro pillboxes to admiringly gaze at. I had never known art objects could be as beautiful and elaborate as these. Since then, I have regularly bought art objects from the late Edo to Meiji period whenever I visit New York or London. I also began gathering catalogues from auction companies such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and started to bid successfully through brochures. Meanwhile, my collection grew so much that I was running out of storage space. The company job kept me busy, and I barely had any time to take a leisurely look at my various purchases. Then the thought came to me that if I ware to quit my job I would be able to look at the art works everyday, So in 1999, I resigned from my company and began preparing to establish this museum.
Art Works That Were Allowed to Go Abroad
As I collected these late Edo-Meiji period art objects, I noticed that almost all had gone abroad, and not only were none left in Japan, but not one domestic museum regularly displayed objects from this era. I then came to realize how greatly deteriorated the condition of these art objects was, especially that of the cloisonne ware, the inro pillboxes, and netsuke. These valuable art pieces had, when they came on the Japanese market, been bought by foreign buyers, and then taken abroad to Europe and America. Such occurrences were common in the Meiji period and had resulted in the complete disappearance of many of these objects. Most Japanese people today, therefore, have no chance to see the important works of the Meiji period.
Ever since Meiji, Japan has rapidly incorporated Western cultural values into its own, and even westernized its life style. In formal education as well, the West is at the center of art and music. With regards to Japanese artistic tastes, interest in late Edo and Meiji art waned as Impressionist paintings and Western antiques grew more popular. Even those interested in Meiji art did not value it as highly as did Westerners; therefore, expensive items made their way abroad. Only bric-a-brac remained in Japan as a result, and the value of Meiji art objects continued to decrease.
As of late Edo and Meiji, however, is the most popular form of Japanese art overseas. It makes up the bulk of Japanese art exhibits at European and American museums, and pottery, porcelain, ukiyoe, and Meiji art are essential in New York and London auctions for Japanese art. The art’s popularity abroad makes a stark contrast with its reception in Japan.
Why Meiji Art Is So Wonderful
Technically and aesthetically, there is no period that matches the high standard of the Meiji period. The Edo period marked an age in which few wars were fought and peace prevailed for long stretches of time. The houses of the shogunate and daimyo employed makie artisans and metalsmiths who made furniture and weapons. Inro pillboxes and sword fittings were not only practical necessities, but also tools to show off one’s style and wealth, which is why decorative techniques became highly developed. Merchants consolidated power in the meantime, and there were some whose financial prowess outstripped that of the daimyo. Competing amongst each other, the merchants had makie artisans and metalsmiths produce extravagant inro pillboxes and sword fitting that were as or more stylish than those owned by the houses of the shogunate and daimyo.
As Japan’s isolationist and feudal society collapsed, the Meiji government assigned artists to make work for export as part of the industrial promotion policy and the initiative to manage unemployment amongst makie artisans and metalsmiths. Among these works, the majority of which were created largely to acquire foreign currency, most catered to Western tastes, and it is a fact that they were judged to have low artistic value. There were, however, sophisticated and artistically superior works made by first-rate artists, such as imperial artisans, with an eye to domestic demand. Many of these works evidenced a European and American influence with the result that many possessed a freshness that differed from works of the Edo period. Later Japanese tastes continued to tilt towards Western culture, while domestic demand for makie and metal works declined, and this situation has continued to the present.
Display Methods And The Collection

We currently house works from the Imperial Household Agency, top quality works intended for the domestic market, as well those with much artistic value intended for the foreign market.
If we were to classify the collection by artistic technique, it would include makie, metal works, cloisonne ware, pottery and earthenware, sculpture, and engravings. We hold items with various functions such as inkstone boxes, wooden desks, incense burners, incense boxes, caskets, vases, inro pillboxes, netsuke, cigarette holders, tobacco pipes, pipe cases, portable brush-and-ink cases, tea bowls, sword fittings, sash bands, combs, and ornamental hairpins.
Most works are from the Meiji period, though we also display works from the Late Edo and Taisho period. Whatever the genre, we house works that are meticulously detailed, subtle, and technically refined- qualities that would be hard to replicate in the present day.
Our first floor permanent exhibit regularly displays makie lacquerware, metalwork, cloisonne, and Kyoto Satsuma ware, with explanations of the artistic techniques utilized, samples of the tools and materials used to produce the work, as well as an explanatory DVD video. Located on the second floor is our special exhibition room, where the exhibits are changed every three months. The entire first floor exhibit of our permanent collection also gradually changes throughout the year. My dream is one day to see makie lacqureware, cloisonne ware, and metalwork, made in our own period. I hope those who aspire to produce such works will one day visit my museum.

The Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum is the first museum in Japan to take as its permanent collection metalwork, cloisonne, makie lacquerware and Kyoto Satsuma Ware artworks of the late Edo and Meiji period.

Metalworking, cloisonne enameling, and lacquering are technologies that were born in the various countries along the Silk Road, but makie lacquerware and the so-called “wireless” cloisonne especially developed so significantly in Japan as to become entirely new, uniquely Japanese techniques. These technologies were frequently used for decorative purposes in sword fittings, incense utensils, and the like, and were brought from the end of the Edo period through the early years of Meiji to a very high level of development.
Afterwards, however, for a number of reasons that included the official abolishment of the wearing of swords and the westernization of Japanese daily life, they suffered a rapid decline.
If the artworks exhibited here represent work produced by officially appointed Imperial Household Artists, they have come as well from the hands of unknowns. Each of the works, however, is the creation of a subtle and thoroughly refined artistic sensibility. Our greatest hope is that this exhibition will result not only in the proper artistic reevaluation of Japanese metalworking, cloisonne enameling, and makie lacquerware, but also that in the future works artistically and technically superior to these magnificent late Edo and Meiji specimens might be produced.




清水三年坂美術館 337-1 kiyomizu-sanchome sanneizaka kita-iru kiyomizudera-monzen higashiyama-ku kyoto, 605-0862
Ph:075-532-4270 Fax:075-532-4271 E-mail:info@sannenzaka-museum.co.jp
Copyright (C) 2007 by kiyomizu sannenzaka museum.All rights reserved.Unauthorized use or reproduction of screen images and texts prohibited. photo:K.yoichi