2006 Student-Faculty Fellows: Elon University

The Institutionalization of Japanese Art

Mentor: Kirstin Ringelberg, Art History
Students: Katherine Little, ’08; Leslie Mumme, ’06; Thomas Spradling, ’07


Project Abstract

We took a research trip to Japan to study in more depth what we call the “internationalization” of Japanese art. Since the Meiji period, Japan has become increasingly connected to, infiltrated by, and in some cases, dominated by the Western view of what constitutes art and art history at the same time its own art has become more widely known in the United States and Europe. We have studied this expanding relationship on campus at Elon primarily from our Western perspective, and desired to ask the questions we developed from this study of Japanese sources: how has the increasing internationalization of the Japanese art world affected its institutions, artists, and the popular culture that has developed from it? Leslie Mumme studied and interviewed contemporary Japanese artists, curators, educators, and students; Alexa Little studied a wide variety of museums in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, and interviewed some curators and visitors; and Thomas Spradling explored the gaming and anime culture. All three students strove to differentiate between their Westernized notions of these people and institutions and “actual” experiences in Japan.

Kirstin Ringelberg

This was an intense, challenging, and rewarding experience for me (and it isn’t over yet!). Having led study abroad courses before, I left for Japan with a lot of confidence in my ability to guide the students in unfamiliar environments. However, there is a big difference between teaching a class abroad and mentoring students in individual projects… I learned a LOT about mentoring because of this fellowship, and it was worth the headaches for me to learn these things. I’m most excited and proud of the two students who now are even more active students of all things Japanese… Clearly whatever else we accomplished or didn’t, these two students have been forever transformed by the experience… The fellowship has already given me other professional development benefits as well… I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to learn to be a better research mentor, a more patient study abroad teacher, a better art historian, and a more knowledgeable citizen of the world.

Katherine Little
The Internationalization of Japanese Art: Art Institutions

While conducting my research in Japan, I visited over twenty art institutions, interviewed Japanese citizens in Tokyo, and had the opportunity to interview Mitcho Kasahara, the chief curator of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. This interview was the most amazing and thought provoking I have ever conducted. Being able to speak with such a powerful and respected woman in Tokyo’s art world about everything from how she chooses exhibitions to the role of women as artists and as subjects was an experience I will never forget… I was also able to conduct my field research in incredibly diverse institutions by spending time in three important cultural centers, Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo.

There is no doubt in my mind that I might never have visited Asia were it not for the Student-Faculty Fellows Program and the generous grant from Mr. and Mrs. Freeman… The incredible opportunity to study in Japan dramatically impacted my career plans, my academic development, and my worldview. As a result of my research, I have shifted my career plans to focus on another aspect of my field. I am now considering teaching art history rather than pursuing a position as a (museum) curator. By conducting research on Japanese art institutions…, I have also been able to gather more accurate and conclusive data than is available to me in the United States. Perhaps the most valuable of all was a lesson I learned concerning my view of the world and my perception of myself. My time in Japan gave me the opportunity to feel like a stranger, and by so doing, taught me to appreciate my experiences on a much deeper level than I ever imagined possible.

Leslie Mumme
The Internationalization of Japanese Art: Contemporary Fine Arts

As a digital artist and animator, it is crucial for me to observe the themes, ideas and techniques that contemporary artists are exploring in all mediums, especially animation, in order to generate my own ideas and individuality. This allows my own style and themes to grow because I can begin to explore why certain aspects excite and/or intrigue me. Art is everywhere and can be studied anywhere; however, Japan, one of the most technologically advanced countries, is truly unique in what it offers for contemporary art.

I have acquired a new attitude of professionalism as a result of my various encounters with the Japanese art community. During my research in Japan, I conducted interviews and developed relationships with Zeit-Foto Salon art dealer Etsuro Ishihara, Punctum gallery director Issei Teramoto, photographer Hayato Wakabayashi, several Kyoto University Art and Design staff, and Nishioka Yoshima, a Kyoto University Art and Design student… Japan has affected my worldview by showing me the beauty in diversity amongst cultures and the importance of respecting and encouraging this diversity. It has revealed the absurdity of stereotypes and assumptions… I have acquired a new sense of confidence and independence by traveling to a foreign country. It has taught me to have an open mind and to be daring. To try something new, even if it entails an initial feeling of discomfort because the discomfort is replaced by pride, adventure and accomplishment.

Thomas Spradling
The Internationalization of Japanese Art: From Ukiyo-e to Video Games

Before leaving for Japan my original plan for my research was to compare Japanese video games to earlier Japanese art, such as ukiyo-e, manga and anime. After studying in Japan for three weeks this comparison became painfully obvious… The Ukiyo-e museum in Tokyo showed a clear comparison with the newer Japanese video games. Each woodblock had colorful, almost cartoon-like drawings of Japanese people interacting with each other and the environments. The woodblocks all seemed to have a story behind them and it usually related to a particular place in Japan. The images of people, although highly stylized, helped to create an art style that remains in Japan even today. As this comparison become obvious I noticed a different direction my research was taking: the Japanese preference for generally highly stylized video games compared to America’s constant attempt at realism in video games… There was a sizable section in every retail store with American games translated into Japanese. In every store I encountered, this section was devoid of people. These sections took up about 20% of the floor space for computer games… Upon noting this…, I decided to interview local college students from the Kansai Gaidai University about their video game preferences… all stated that they preferred Japanese video games to American games. They also preferred the highly stylized approach to the art (rather) than America’s attempt at realism (and stated that) Japanese games had better characters and better stories.

My hope after graduation is to get a job in the video game industry, which was my goal before I went to Japan… I would very much like to teach English in Japan for a year or more while also hunting for a video game job… after I become more capable in the language. Overall, this trip has changed my life.