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Japanese Woodblock Triptychs

On July 8, 1853, U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry sailed four ships into what is now Tokyo Bay, demanding Japan's ruling Tokugawa Shogunate open up the nation for trade. While the incident was dramatic and led to the desired result, it was but one of many contributing factors to what would become a half-century of rapid change in Japan. In just about fifty years, the island nation transitioned from being largely removed from world affairs to becoming a major power on the world stage.

Presiding over most of this era was the Emperor Meiji (1852-1912, reigned from 1867-1912). Meiji's accession signaled a shift in political power within Japan, away from the aforementioned Shogunate. Historians don't agree on how much authority Meiji held within this new system, though the enhanced visibility of the Imperial House is indisputable.

This exhibit features 25 Japanese woodblock prints from this era of change, most of which date from the Meiji Era and all of which can be found in the St. Catherine University Archives. Known in Japanese as mokuhanga, woodblock printing is an artistic technique achieved through applying an image onto a wooden block and using that block to create prints. The practice is believed to have begun in Japan in the Eighth Century CE. All are triptych prints, meaning that while each individual print is self-contained in its own right, it was created alongside two companion pieces to complete a larger work.

The prints exhibited here capture a mix of historical events, cultural traditions, and slices of daily life. They demonstrate a determination to hold onto elements of Japan's character and culture even as the nation hurtled towards industrialization. They are presented as complete triptychs where possible, and are arranged chronologically, so that they may serve as windows into this fascinating period in Japanese history.

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