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Exhibition on Post-war Japan Curated by Faculty and Students

January 28, 2014

On January 7, the Palmer Museum of Art on Penn State’s University Park campus opened an exhibition, titled Forging Alliances. The exhibition explores the role of art and aesthetics in helping to restore and strengthen relations between the United States and Japan after World War II. Professor English and Visual Culture Christopher Reed conceived and planned the exhibition in collaboration with Jonathan Abel, Assistant Professor of Asian Studies and Comparative Literature. In a class they co-taught in the Fall 2013 semester, students wrote the labels for the works on display.

The Japanese-American alliance forged after World War II was a remarkable turnaround in attitudes between peoples who had been encouraged to see each other as implacable foes. Wartime propaganda on both sides pictured the Japanese as selfless, machinelike fighters fixated on a future in which their Emperor was supreme ruler. Post-war efforts to establish Japan as a nation allied with western powers required the re-imagination of the Japanese as individuals creatively negotiating a peaceful traditions from a rich past. Many institutions, both Japanese and American, encouraged this project by focusing on aesthetics, which allowed the Japanese to demonstrate both individualism and a peaceful heritage.

Woodblock prints and ceramics were among the most favored media for these efforts. Americans sponsored Japanese artists who used these traditional media in creative ways. Many Americans went to Japan to study with artists designated, in a new program established by the Japanese government, Living National Treasures. Japanese potters and print-makers came to America to exhibit their work and offer classes.

The collections of Penn State show that university was part of this history. A print in the exhibition by Junichiro Sekino is inscribed to Bruce Shobaken -- a printmaker who taught for many years at Penn State -- as thanks for hospitality offered the artist by the Shobaken family during Sekino’s visit here in the 1960s. A substantial number of the ceramics were collected by another Penn State professor, Ken Beittel during a sabbatical in 1967-68 when he worked with a Japanese potter in Japan and in years afterwards.

Prints, pots, magazines, and books by Americans, such as Oliver Statler, James Michener, and Beittel himself, are shown in the exhibition to evoke this history. The labels written by the students address a wide range of issues, including techniques of pottery and print makers, and the relationship of this work to Japanese and American literature from the period.