by Scott Johnson

Between 1905 and 1920 the 'sketch-tour' books began, flourished and waned as an art-book phenomenon. There are four primary reasons why these books are of importance.

First and foremost, they contain numerous illustrations of considerable aesthetic appeal produced with great technical facility.

Second, these books helped to popularize the Western-style art movement in Japan; many of the great names in oil painting and watercolors of the 1920s and 1930s gained their first widespread notice here.

Third, the printing media available to publishers in the late Meiji and early Taishô periods expanded greatly; hand-printed woodcuts retained their appeal, but many 'sketch-tour' books also contain lithographs, photolithographs, zincographs, machine-printed woodcuts, collotypes, various photographic processes and the little-understood zerachin-ban (gelatin prints).

Fourth, the sketch-tour books led directly to the more widely known genre of shin-hanga landscape prints. Although the landscape print movement attracted new artists and publishers, many of the figures active in the 'sketch-tour' book genre became pioneers in shin-hanga landscape prints. The popularity of these single-sheet prints ironically prompted the demise of the 'sketch-tour' books themselves.

Western style painting

By the early years of the 20th century, the transition from the Tokugawa Shogunate to a parliamentary system under Emperor Meiji had become firmly established. Japan had a Constitution, elections, electricity and motor cars. Military victories in China and later in Russia proved the strength and efficiency of the Japanese army and navy and the industries which supported them. Money was moving, at least among the upper echelons of Japanese society. Travel restrictions within Japan had long been lifted; hot-spring spas, scenic coastal villages and ski resorts were being serviced bya growing network of steam trains, electric trams and coastal ferries. For those with money and free time, the lure of travel was potent. Conversely, those who traveled widely were seen to be wealthy, and those who could travel at leisure and in style assumed the status of the privileged.

These social considerations were of importance in establishing the careers of the growing younger generation of Japanese artists trained in the Western tradition of oil paintings, watercolors and pencil sketches. The Nihonga movement, growing out of older Japanese traditions continued to receive patronage from established families, temples and other sources. The Western style artists, however, needed to establish a solid base of patronage, a base which had been unnecessary for earlier Japanese artists trained in Western techniques.

The first wave of official enthusiasm for Western style art had been in the 1870s culminating in the establishment of the Technical Art School (Kôbu Bijutsu Gakkô) in 1876 where the Italian painter Antonio Fontanesi taught. The training was thorough, but the purpose for which the government had built the school was to foster engineering and industrial design through accurate draftsmanship. The fact that this school produced artists of the status of Asai Chû (1856- 1907) and Koyama Shôtarô (1857-1916) was incidental to this purpose.

There followed a sharp reaction against Western style art in the 1880s with the strengthening of the Nihonga movement and widespread enthusiasm for Nanga painting.

A resurgence of interest in Western style painting was sparked by the first exhibition in 1889 of the Meiji Fine Arts Society, a group of oil-painters and watercolorists associated with Asai and Koyama. A further impetus came in 1893 with the return to Japan of two artists who had studied oil-painting in Paris.

Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924) and Kume Keiichirô (1866-1934) had been active in the Parisian art world at a momentous time. They had absorbed the influence of the Impressionists, most directly through their studies of the plein air techniques of Raphael Collin(1850-1916). The two men had also learned much about how art was promoted and nurtured in France. Confident of their artistic skills, they were also acutely aware of the need for stable public support for yôga, the Japanese catch-all term for art in the Western manner. They brought back with them a keen sense of how polemics, exhibitions, journalism, book illustration and even scandal were important in generating public interest and in attracting talented students. In the meantime Ernest Fenollosa and Okakura Tenshin had spurred the creation of the Tôkyô School of Fine Arts (Tôkyô Bijutsu Gakkô) in 1887. The original purpose of this school had been to combat the influence of Western art by encouraging and developing traditional Japanese approaches to art. By 1896, however, the times had changed, and the school opened a completely new department devoted to Western style art. Kuroda Seiki and Kume Keiichirô, were given charge of the painting classes.

Their choice was somewhat controversial. There were, after all, many Japanese oil painters at this time. Older artists, notably Asai Chû and Koyama Shotaro, had long been established as painters and teachers of great skill. The choice of the younger artists inevitably generated a sense of rivalry, especially among students. For at least two decades the Western style artists of Japan were divided loosely into two groups: those associated with Asai and Koyama who had studied in the 1870s at the Technical Art School and those associated with Kuroda and Kume who had studied in Europe in the Impressionist-influenced plein air style.

This rivalry was to a certain extent journalistic puff, perhaps even engineered by the canny Kume Keiichirô to sustain public interest in yôga at a time when museum and gallery exhibitions were limited.

The turn of the century marked the completion of training of the first class in Western painting at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. Some of the students had come from the same area of Kyûshû where Kuroda Seiki's antecedents had been the feudal lords. The Kuroda name still suggested wealth, power and prestige, and these were clearly connections which would be useful to the success of graduates from the same area. But there were several graduates who lacked such family or geographical connections. They too needed to establish patrons and to attract devoted apprentices and serious, paying, amateur students. They also needed to develop and extend their skills in sketching and painting. The convivial sketch-tour phenomenon of the time provided a means to serve both ends.

Sometimes singly but more often in groups, artists began to take to the countryside, sketching, painting and sharing their breakthroughs and frustrations with one another. Such travels served to spread awareness of their new approaches to painting, as the artist suddenly appeared in remote villages with pencils, watercolors, sketch pads, and sometimes oils and easels.

In Japan the irresistible appeal of armchair travel, a love of shoptalk of any kind and the potential for attracting clients and amateurs interested in watercolors and oils made it desirable to get the experiences of these sketch-tours recorded in books. The resulting publications became a genre of illustrated book, featuring sketches and paintings made on sketch-tours. The sometimes lengthy texts of these sketch-tour books were often written by the artists themselves. They included travel tips, comments on scenes depicted, technical notes on art works done in the field and sometimes specifications of the various media and artisans employed in the book illustrations. In short, a wealth of information about art and artists described by the artists themselves. This was a major new development in Japanese art book publishing.