Frog in the Well

Frog in the Well: Portraits of Japan by Watanabe Kazan, 1793-1841

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 304
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    Frog in the Well
    Book Description:

    Frog in the Well is a vivid and revealing account of Watanabe Kazan, one of the most important intellectuals of the late Tokugawa period. From his impoverished upbringing to his tragic suicide in exile, Kazan's life and work reflected a turbulent period in Japan's history. He was a famous artist, a Confucian scholar, a student of Western culture, a samurai, and a critic of the shogunate who, nevertheless, felt compelled to kill himself for fear that he had caused his lord anxiety.

    During this period, a typical Japanese scholar or artist refused to acknowledge the outside world, much like a "frog in the well that knows nothing of the ocean," but Kazan actively sought out Western learning. He appreciated European civilization and bought every scrap of European art that was available in Japan. He became a painter to help his family out of poverty and, by employing the artistic techniques of the West, achieved great success with his realistic and stylistically advanced portraits.

    Although he remained a nationalist committed to the old ways, Kazan called on the shogunate to learn from the West or risk disaster. He strove to improve the agricultural and economic conditions of his province and reinforce its defenses, but his criticisms and warnings about possible coastal invasions ultimately led to his arrest and exile.

    Frog in the Well is the first full-length biography of Kazan in English, and, in telling his life's story, renowned scholar Donald Keene paints a fascinating portrait of the social and intellectual milieus of the late Tokugawa period. Richly illustrated with Kazan's paintings, Frog in the Well illuminates a life that is emblematic of the cultural crises affecting Japan in the years before revolution.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51103-2
    Subjects: History, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    When I first informed Japanese friends that I was planning to write a book about Watanabe Kazan, nobody expressed surprise. Most Japanese, especially those over forty-five, are familiar with his name and remember, at least vaguely, his claims to the attention of modern readers. For many years he figured prominently in school textbooks, less as a painter than as a model of virtuous conduct, an exemplar of filial piety whom the young were enjoined to emulate. Novels have been based on Kazan’s life, and his fame continues to grow, even though most other painters of his day are known only...

  6. 1 Dutch Studies in Japan Before 1793
    (pp. 17-32)

    Watanabe Kazan was born in Edo in 1793. Although Edo ranked as one of the great cities of the world in both population and cultural amenities, it was hardly a familiar name to most Europeans. There were not even tales of the exotic pleasures of Edo to beguile armchair travelers. Europeans’ almost total ignorance of Edo and even of Japan was mainly the result of the policy of seclusion enforced by the bakufu (government of the shogun) since the seventeenth century. A series of edicts issued between 1633 and 1637 forbade Japanese to leave and foreigners to enter the country,...

  7. 2 Japan in 1793: Kazan’s Early Years
    (pp. 33-49)

    Watanabe Kazan’s life falls within the period of Japanese history known as bakumatsu (end of the bakufu). Like fin-de-siècle, this term suggests not only the waning of an age but also its decay and, possibly, corruption. There is certainly much evidence that the years between 1772 and 1786, when the rōjū¹ Tanuma Okitsugu (1719–1788) was the chief power in the government, were marked by bribery, sale of offices, and other forms of vice in high places. Making money became more important to the samurai class than Confucian ideals or martial skill. Samurai who failed in their attempts to become...

  8. 3 Genre Paintings and Early Portraits
    (pp. 50-71)

    Issō hyakutai (A Clean Sweep: A Hundred Aspects)¹ consists of thirty-one double pages filled with sketches of life in Edo. Kazan wrote that he completed the little book in a day and two nights, but it does not seem to have been completed so much as abandoned. Brief notations on the sketches indicate changes that Kazan planned to make, and the last pages of the booklet lack the coloring applied to earlier ones. In addition to the paintings, the work contains three short essays, each a page or two long, placed at the beginning, middle, and end of the whole....

  9. 4 Travels and Career
    (pp. 72-89)

    Kazan’s accounts of his travels are among the most enjoyable parts of his work, thanks to the enchanting illustrations. Travel accounts, often written in a poetic manner, had a long history in Japan, going back to The Tosa Diary, written by Ki no Tsurayuki in the tenth century. Although travel in Tsurayuki’s day and even much later was slow and sometimes dangerous, this did not daunt the Japanese, who loved nothing more than making journeys to sacred places and to the sites that had inspired the poets of the past.

    These accounts circulated in manuscript and, over the centuries, induced...

  10. 5 The Early 1830s
    (pp. 90-105)

    In 1832 Kazan made a new and extremely valuable acquaintance, Takano Chōei (1804–1850). Chōei, who came from the north of Japan, made up his mind at the age of seventeen to become a physician. He went to Edo, where he entered the school of Western medicine run by Sugita Hakugen, the adopted son of the famous Genpaku. Hakugen, not recognizing Chōei’s unusual talents, did nothing to lighten his financial burden, and Chōei was obliged to support himself by working nights as a masseur. In the following year, he shifted to the school run by Yoshida Chōshuku (1779–1824), who...

  11. 6 Foreign Influence and Major Portraits
    (pp. 106-126)

    It is not clear when Kazan first became actively interested in the West. As a firm believer in Confucianism, he was predisposed to have a low opinion of any country that did not follow the teachings of the great sage, and it probably did not occur to him to investigate the nature of Western civilization, assuming it existed. He disliked Christianity, not because of its theology, about which he knew extremely little, but because in the minds of Japanese intellectuals it was associated with the European powers’ expansion into Asia. Even after he had come to recognize the value of...

  12. 7 The Meeting of East and West
    (pp. 127-144)

    In the third month of Tenpō 9 (1838), a Dutch delegation traveled from Nagasaki to Edo. In the past, the bakufu had insisted that the Dutch pay tribute to the shogun by taking this long journey once every year, but beginning in 1790 the requirement was modified to one visit every five years. The change was no doubt a relief to the Dutch, for they no longer had to offer expensive gifts each year to express their gratitude for the privilege of being allowed to trade in Japan. The Deshima opperhoofd (head of the trading station) in 1838 was Johannes...

  13. 8 Danger from Overseas
    (pp. 145-160)

    Kazan seems to have become seriously interested in rangaku only after he had been appointed a toshiyori (elder) of Tahara Domain in 1832 with responsibility for sea defenses. Although Tahara boasted few natural resources, it was strategically situated and was considered to be a key point in the coastal defenses of the entire region. In 1739 a Russian fleet under Captain Martin Spanberg, sent to survey Japanese waters, had been spotted nearby. The bakufu warned the domain of the danger of an invasion, and the domain accordingly augmented its defenses. Strongpoints were erected at eight places along the coast, and...

  14. 9 The Road to Prison
    (pp. 161-178)

    Kazan’s troubles may have begun with a quite trivial incident that took place in the spring of 1838 at the housewarming of the Confucian scholar Asaka Gonsai (1790–1861). At some point in the party, Kazan spread open a map of the world and, pointing at various countries, described the conditions in each. The gathering was dazzled by his knowledge of foreign countries and by his eloquence, but Hayashi Shikibu, the third son of Hayashi Jussai, the head of the Shōheikō, a Confucian academy, listening by Kazan’s side, merely smiled coldly.¹ The Hayashi family, the pillars of orthodox Confucianism, had...

  15. 10 The Trial
    (pp. 179-197)

    The most severe examination to which Kazan was subjected took place on July 2, 1839, before Magistrate Ōkusa Takayoshi. Kazan’s responses to the magistrate’s questions were, on the whole, unsatisfactory. With respect to the key charge, that he had criticized the government, he claimed that he never discussed politics in his writings, only the need for improving defenses against foreign intruders. However, when Magistrate Ōkusa read the passage from “Exercising Restraint over Auguries” in which Kazan accused officials of having obtained their positions with bribes and demanded what he meant by this slander, Kazan replied rather lamely:

    I never expected...

  16. 11 Kazan the Painter
    (pp. 198-217)

    In histories of Japan written by foreign scholars, Kazan often makes a brief appearance, usually as an intellectual of the late Tokugawa period who was dissatisfied with contemporary conditions. He is mentioned more prominently abroad in surveys of Japanese art, although he has never attracted the attention accorded for more than a century to Hokusai and the great ukiyoe artists. The following concise evaluation by an American scholar is probably representative:

    His sketches of landscapes and his kachōga, not too far from the nanga style, are deft and amusing. Also adopted Western laws of chiaroscuro and perspective but used only...

  17. 12 The Last Year
    (pp. 218-234)

    On New Year’s Day 1841,¹ Kazan composed the following poem:

    For forty-nine years a useless tree in government service,

    I did not correct what was wrong; I am ashamed before Qu of Wei²

    A man’s most precious joys are heaven’s redress:

    A mother of seventy and some shelves of books.³

    The poem suggests that Kazan had become resigned to his exile, unjust though it was. He regretted mistakes that he had made as administrator of Tahara Domain but was comforted by heaven’s gifts of long life to his mother and his books. The words “I did not correct what was...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 235-268)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 269-276)
  20. Index
    (pp. 277-290)