The children of the Meiji Period - at the school of modernity (1868-1912)

Updated: May 15

A superb exhibition of Ukiyo-e at the Japanese cultural center in Paris




The Japanese cultural center in Paris presents until the 21st May 2022, a wonderful Ukiyo-e exhibition about the Children of the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912). This blogpost has a view on just giving an idea of it as there is so much more to enjoy and learn from it!.


We are familiar with Japanese Ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints of the Edo period (from about 1600 to 1868): if someone mentions The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai, we instantly know which work of art it is, where a huge wave threatens 3 frail boats and where we can see Mount Fuji in the background. This delicate art is now part of our culture and the recent Western history of the arts is influenced by “Japonisme”... and to make a link with an other recent blogpost (here), we admire the interpretations of some Ukiyo-e Vincent Van Gogh oil painted on canvas…


The prints displayed in this exhibition are from a later period but they are woodblock prints also: the technique is the same but they are different in many instances.


In this period, the borders, which had been closed during the previous period, started to open up. International trade developed and the country started an important transformation.

The Ukiyo-e artists could import Aniline at a reasonable price. This synthetic pigment was in the 19th century at the heart of the development of the synthetic dye industry (blues, purples, mauves and reds, a few blacks, browns and greens). In the exhibition, we are startled by the vibrancy of the colours (the excellent catalog does not manage to convey their radiant sheen). Deep red is dominant. Il is associated with pink and orange for our outmost enjoyment and maybe our future inspiration!


The exhibition is about “modernity” of the Meiji period, which is brought to light in different ways, for example:

  • the prints depict strangers

  • the Japanese characters ware Western costumes

  • the newest technology (trains) are represented, etc.


Woodblock prints document the changing way of life of the Japanse people and of the life of the children

As its title explains it, the exhibition chooses to evoke the transformation of the society by focusing on the life of the children which changes too...


There are three main sections:

  • A section about school and education: schools start to welcome children of all ages, gender and class. Some prints describe these new schools inspired by the Western educational culture. The curricula are standardised (even though they are different for girls and boys). We can admire beautiful thematic educational posters, depicting animals or plants, posters about geography, posters aiming at teaching the English language… as well as textbooks…


Japanse woodblock print of the Miji period. Educational poster to teach English.

  • A section about play, where we are moved to see that there were prints designed for the children to play, for example a board-game, games with dress-up paper dolls... Those games did exist in the earlier periods. What is new here is the iconography which embrasses modernity (Western uniform for the paper doll for example)... and we can also admire story books…


Japanese woodblock print of the Meiji period. Dress up  paper dolls.

  • A section about the life of children and young people. The carving of the Ukiyo-e of this section is very delicate, and the colours and hues of the imprint are admirable.

Japanese woodblock print of the Meiji period, children playing a paper sumo game.
Children playing a paper sumo game.

Paper sumo game

The colourful museography is enchanting. You can have an idea of the display by following this link to the dedicated Internet page of the exhibition (in French and in Japanese) https://www.mcjp.fr/fr/agenda/les-enfants-de-lere-meiji.


There is a lot more to relate about this exhibition and if you cannot visit in person, I suggest you read its wonderful and exhaustive catalog.