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  • Writer's pictureYiming Sun

Japan Art 日本艺术

Due to the influence of the isolation policy and other political and social factors, communication between Japanese intellectuals and foreign countries was restricted during the Edo period. Shiba Kokan's works represent a unique integration of Eastern and Western aesthetics. His famous work, "Discussion on Western Painting," explores Western art through a comparative analysis with Japanese art. Kokan expressed admiration for Western painting techniques, such as perspective, chiaroscuro, and oil painting. He believed that incorporating these techniques into Japanese art could lead to a more complex form ofartistic expression. Analyzing the historical background of his work reflects the level of art and technology in Japan and the West at not only that time but also the political and cultural context of Japan and the complexity, opacity, and narrowness of international art exchange during that era. While I acknowledge the advanced nature of Western art mentioned in Shiba Kokan's works, I disagree with his views on the absolute superiority of Western art and the perceived ignorance and backwardness of Eastern art. Both artistic traditions have their unique characteristics, reflecting the cultural factors behind them. However, it is undeniable that Kokan introduced a new trend of thought to Japanese society at that time, prompting more artists to reflect on their work.

Firstly, I will discuss the specific content of "Discussion on Western Painting" and, secondly, people's varying opinions on his views. In his work, Shiba Kokan argues that Western painting is more realistic and faithful to reality than Eastern painting, describing Eastern painting as "children's play.1" His appreciation of Western painting stems from factors such as the use of linear perspective, chiaroscuro, and oil paints, all of which contribute to the creation of more realistic and visually striking images. While he expresses admiration for Western painting techniques, he also critiques the limitations of traditional Japanese art. He advocates for integrating Western and Japanese art to create a more complex and innovative form of artistic expression, emphasizing the importance of challenging traditional artistic norms and embracing foreign artistic ideas to change aesthetic standards.

However, opinions on Shiba Kokan's views are diverse. Some critics argue that his admiration for Western painting is unduly influenced by the political and social changes in Japan at the time and that he focuses too much on technical skills and innovation while ignoring the cultural and historical context of Japanese art. They point out that his understanding of Western painting is superficial, preventing him from truly comprehending its cultural significance and historical background. Conversely, others see Kokan's views as a necessary step in the evolution of Japanese art, helping to propel it into a wider space.

To better understand Kokan's ideas, it is essential to analyze his work within its historical, social, and cultural context. Born during Japan's Edo period in 1799, Kokan was influenced by the nation's isolation policy, Sakoku, which restricted foreign contact and exchange. Despite these limitations, Kokan managed to learn about Western art and culture through a trading post established by the Dutch East India Company in Nagasaki. His intellectual curiosity and pursuit of artistic innovation led him to study under renowned Eastern and Western art masters, ultimately inspiring him to create "Discussion on Western Painting" based on his unique experiences and insights.

Hence, Shiba Kokan's "Discussion on Western Painting" reflects his attempt to create a unique artistic identity by integrating Eastern and Western artistic techniques. With his curiosity and experimental spirit, Kokan's works are characterized by a combination of Chinese ink painting and Japanese Ukiyo-e painting, infused with naturalistic sketching techniques2. His artistic vision incorporates elements of Oriental landscape painting and Western linear perspective, showcasing the potential for innovation and artistic development when embracing diverse influences.

Moreover, through Kokan's learning journey, we can trace the development of Japanese painting art from the Kano school (for instance, Kano Motonobu's "White Plum Screen" (circa 1513)), literati paintings (such as Kobayashi Kiyochika's "World Flower and Bird Painting Collection" around 1610), Rinpa School (Ogata Korin, circa 1700-1716), Edo School (Hokusai, circa 1834-1835), Ukiyo-e (Hokusai Manga (Hokusai), circa1814-1878), to the incorporation of Western painting techniques (Kuroda Seiki's "Wisdom, Impression, Sentiment" circa 1899)3.

The artwork of Shiba Kokan, traditional Japanese art, and Western art from the same period exhibit distinct visual and technical differences. Influenced by Western art, Kokan incorporated elements such as focal perspective and shadow processing in his later works. "Scenery of Matsufutai" (1787-1791) represents landscape painting from the late Edo period, showcasing the fusion of Eastern and Western artistic elements. The perspective, light and shadow processing, and detailed depiction in the picture all draw from Western art. Moreover, his 1792 work "Two Women Conversing under a Lantern4" demonstrates his use of Western techniques, such as perspective and chiaroscuro, while also reflecting a fusion of traditional Japanese aesthetics.

In contrast, traditional Japanese art, exemplified by Kitagawa Utamaro's "Three Beauties of the Contemporary Age" (circa 1793), emphasizes flat and two-dimensional composition with a focus on subtle layers of colour and shading. It accentuates planar expression, decoration, and blank space, without illustrating depth or convexity. Traditional Japanese art is more concerned with internal expression and decoration. Western art from the same period, on the other hand, pays greater attention to perspective, light and shadow, and detailed description. Works like Jean-Honore Fragonard's "The Swing" (1767) and Jacques-Louis David's "Death of Socrates" (1787) exhibit 18th-century Western art's use of color, light, and subject matter, and its emphasis on linear perspective and clarity. Western art strives for lifelike realism. Comparatively, Shiba Kokan's artworks merge Eastern and Western art characteristics to create a unique style. His "Nagasaki Port Opening Picture," for example, incorporates Western techniques while maintaining a traditional Oriental composition, resulting in a skillful fusion. His works, produced under the unique historical background of the Edo period, embody not only rare cross-cultural communication in art techniques but also reflect the history of woodblock prints depicting natural scenery and social aspects of the Edo era.

Considering the historical and cultural context when analyzing the text is crucial to understanding Shiba Kokan's appreciation of Western painting. By doing so, we can observe, analyze, and address the underlying issues and perspectives in Kokan's works and their time.

1 Shiba Kokan, “Sources of Japanese Tradition,” Columbia University Press, February 22, 2017,, 311.

2 Plutschow, Herbert. “A Reader in Edo Period Travel.” Brill. Brill, March 7, 2022.

3 Department of Asian Art, “Art of the Edo Period (1615–1868): Essay: The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History,” The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, January 1, 1AD,

4 “Shiba Kôkan (司馬江漢) 1747-1818,” Viewing Japanese Prints: Shiba Kôkan (司馬江漢), accessed March 17, 2023,

A timeline and relevant images can help us better organize the visual background and development of the art genre in Japan's "Discussion on Western Painting" in 1799.


Shiba Kokan. “Sources of Japanese Tradition.” Columbia University Press, February 22, 2017.

“Shiba Kôkan (司馬江漢) 1747-1818.” Viewing Japanese Prints: Shiba Kôkan (司馬江漢). Accessed March 17, 2023.

Plutschow, Herbert. “A Reader in Edo Period Travel.” Brill. Brill, March 7, 2022.

“Commons:Upload.” Wikimedia Commons. Accessed March 18, 2023.

Cohen, Alina. “Why Fragonard's ‘The Swing’ Is a Masterpiece of Rococo Art.” Artsy, September 9, 2019. gonards-decadent-masterpiece.

Art, Department of Asian. “Art of the Edo Period (1615–1868): Essay: The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.” The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, January 1, 1AD.

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