A Case Study of Mitsukoshi Department Store: An Art Entrepreneur in the Early 20th Century

by YinYing

Research Question:  How does a commercial institution such as Mitsukoshi Department function as an art entreprenuer in a land that was new to the concept of “fine art” and thrived with emergent urban culture in the early 20th century?  

Western Thing: Japanese “Fine Art” in Context

  • bijutsu, the Japanese word for fine art, was first introduced by the Meiji government in 1872 to participate in Vienna World’s Fair (Oh 2012, 3). The import of the concept, “fine art”, as a pre-packaged notion, as well as the establishment of Tokyo School of Fine Art in 1889 and Imperial Museum in 1890 manifest the transplantation of the Western idea of arts to Japan (Oh 2012, 9).
  • bijutsu, as a Western thing, imported by the Meiji government to manipulate the discourse revolving “fine art” can be viewed as historically constructed structure to showcase the “civilization and enlightenment “, the mottos characterizing the Meiji Restoration (Beasley 1972, 1-2).

Japanese Department Stores in Context

  • Department stores as “missionaries of civilization”
    • In the 1883 novel Bonheue des Dames by Emile Zola, department stores was described as ” the cathedral of modern commerce”. However, in Japan, department stores are more like ” missionaries of civilization” or ” epitome of modern civilization”, rather than ” the cathedral of consumption”. ( Young 1999, 56;Sapin 2004, 317 ;Oh 2012, 343) According to Brian Moeran, the Japanese department store was “a dream world where western, and thus bourgeois, culture was on display.” (Moeran 1998, 142) As such, department stores in Japan can be viewed as the products of Meiji Restoration to demonstrate the “civilization and enlightenment” of Japan and to define modern life.
  • Department Stores as Cultural Institutions
    • Japanese department stores epitomize many aspects of modern art institutions. They plays a crucial role in the production, exhibition, circulation and consumption of art (Oh 2012, 1).
    • The Case of Mitsukoshi Department Store: In 1904, Mitsukoshi held the first art exhibition featuring with Ogata Kōrin’s paintings (Oh 2012, 19) . In 1907, in response to establishment of Monbushō Bijutsu Tenrankai (Ministry of Education Art Exhibition, abbreviated as Bunten), which further reinforced privileged status of “fine art” defined by the state (Oh 2012, 1&11), Mitsukoshi set up galleries to display and sell art works of contemporary leading artist. In a kimono advertising campaign in the late 1900s, Mitsukoshi incorporated Okada Saburōsuke’s work to create poster.In 1910, the company hired Sugiura Hisui as chief designer. In addition, the company also published house magazine which not only promoted the goods in the stores but also intended to popularize the knowledge of art and literature (Chiaki 1998, 43).


      Okada Saurousuke’s poster for Mitsukoshi Kimono advertisement in the late 1900s.

    • Cultural Capital: Through engaging with artistic practices, department stores accumulated cultural capitals, and consolidated their cultural and aesthetic authority (Oh 2012, 13).









Speak to the Mass: Artworks Produced in Mitsukoshi Department Store from the 1900s to 1920s

  • Art-directed commercial art design: In 1910, the company hired Sugiura Hisui to be the chief designer, which marks ” the beginning of art-directed poster design by artists who saw the potential of the medium in the sense pioneered by Jules Cheret, Edward Penfield, Alphonse Mucha, and others.”, as Fraser et al (1996) put it (49).
    Right: Mitsukoshi poster in 1925 designed by Sugiura Hisui. Left: Mitsubishi poster in 1914 designed by Sugiura Hisui

    Right: Mitsukoshi poster in 1925 designed by Sugiura Hisui. Left: Mitsubishi poster in 1914 designed by Sugiura Hisui

    Mitsukoshi Magazine cover in 1912 designed by Sugiura Hisui

    Mitsukoshi Magazine cover in 1912 designed by Sugiura Hisui

    Alternative Exhibition Venue for the avant-garde artists: Instead of embracing the idea of the autonomy of art and emphasizing that art should be separated from everyday life, the avant-garde artists of the 1920s in Japan challenged the ideas of “institutionalized discourse of art” and focused on ” art’s social utility” (Edwards & Wood 2012, 25 ;Oh 2012, 265). Thus, avant-garde artists such as Murayama Tomoyoshi, the leader of Mavo, embraced of the material reality of everyday experiences, scenarios, and lives (Oh 2012, 239). However, ironically, since avant-garde artists aligned with department stores in terms of the desire to speak to the mass society, department stores turned to be an alternative institution for avant-garde artists to disseminate their works (Oh 2012, 259-262).

Bibliography so far

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