Beate Löffler (Duisburg-Essen): Search, Discovery, Canonization and Loss. The Idea of ›Old Japan‹ and Japan’s Architectural Heritage (1860-1920)

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Japan was forced by the western hegemonies to end its isolationist policy and to take part in the trial of strength in East Asia. Driven by the Chinese example, the government tried to avoid colonization by initiating a complex process of modernization. Aiming to create a competitive Japanese nation state, it introduced the western administrative machinery, as well as technological and cultural knowledge from the West, dispatched students to renowned educational institutions abroad, and hired experts from Europe and North America as advisers and teachers. Thus, Western engineers and scientists among many others visited or took up residence, explored Japan and reported home. Within years, dozens of travelogues and ethnographical reports were published in European languages as well as monographs and essays on specific topics such as language, religion, art or architecture. These texts provided factual information on Japan. At the same time, they reproduced the western debate on cultural tradition, identity and change against the backdrop of Europe’s dynamic modernization: Japan mirrored western experience of loss. The study of Japanese customs, buildings and cities and the collection of its art was driven by the expectation of an imminent decline and loss of these phenomena, competences and arts due to modernization in Japan as well. In consequence, the study of Japanese arts and architecture became deeply interwoven with western concepts of progress and tradition, at the same time providing Japanese actors with categories and concepts to construct a national cultural heritage for the emerging nation state. The paper deconstructs the argumentations on loss and preservation and shows the role of affirmative practices on both sides for the study, protection and preservation of architectural heritage. At the same time, it shows the mechanisms of archiving as a means to perpetuate worldviews and hierarchies and to simplify complex phenomena of culture into manageable normative categories.