Nissan Seminar: Art and Engagement in Early Postwar Japan

Convener(s): Professor Sho Konishi and Dr Mateja Kovacic

Speaker(s): Justin Jesty, Associate Professor of Japanese, University of Washington


This talk will present an overview of a larger project: a cultural history of the relationship between art and politics in Japan, 1945-1960, with two goals. One is to reframe the history of that moment and its relevance to the present day, something that has specific relevance to Japan but also addresses understandings of the Cold War more broadly by revisiting possibilities obscured by subsequent consolidations of political and cultural life. The other is to demonstrate a method of examining the relationship between art and politics that approaches art as a mode of intervention, but insists artistic intervention move beyond the idea that the artwork or artist unilaterally authors political significance, to trace how creations and expressive acts may (or may not) actually engage the terms of shared meaning and value. During the talk I will refer to the work of three principle groups: the avant-garde realists of the reportage movement, the Society for Creative Aesthetic Education and filmmaker Hani Susumu as advocates of progressive modernism, and Kyushu-ha, a regional group of iconoclastic Anti-Art practitioners.


Justin Jesty researches the relationship between art and social movements in postwar Japan. He recently published the book Art and Engagement in Early Postwar Japan (Cornell University Press 2018), which was awarded the prize for best book of the year by the Association for the Study of Arts of the Present Book (ASAP). He is currently researching contemporary socially engaged art. In 2017 he edited a two-part special issue on the topic in the journal FIELD: A Journal of Socially-Engaged Art Criticism. He has also published articles on postwar social documentary, the realism debate of the late 1940s, and Hamaya Hiroshi’s photographs of the 1960 Anpo protests.