Representations of Original Sin in Modern Japan: Ryūsei Kishida’s Acceptance and Recreation of William Blake (summary)

Mika Iwama (PDF)

Since Japan opened its borders to the rest of the world in the mid-19th century, the country has actively ingested Western culture, not only literature and art styles, but also religion, and has undergone rapid modernisation. Due to a lack of foundation in Christianity and Western classicism, Japanese art in the Taishō period (1912–1926) shows a deviated expression from Western norms. In particular, Ryūsei Kishida’s religious paintings from the year 1914 are interesting in that they suggest a peculiar Japanese reception of Christianity and European art at that time. In his ink on paper Study for Striving of Humanity, Kishida referred to William Blake’s pictures and represented Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel in a unique manner. In this work, he attributed a celebration of productivity to Eve’s female body, related to the natural image of the earth. The lower corpse, linked to Adam’s birth and Abel’s murder, represents the materiality of nature that results in the extinction of the body. Kishida believed there to be a direct connection between the qualities of nature and original sin in terms of both bringing about new life while also leading to inevitable death. The cyclical image of the earth in this work expresses the value of nature and original sin. Furthermore, Kishida considered original sin to have a positive aspect, in that the spiritual conflict it entails promotes inner growth, and nature as positive in that it provides material for art. Projecting his self-image as an artist, Kishida portrayed Cain, who labours in the earth and struggles with his cursed fate.

Kishida shared with the Shirakaba school the belief that sin and nature had ambivalent value. This perception was one of the typical characteristics of Romanticism in Japanese literature during the 1910s. The school praised Blake as a representative of their humanism. Kishida adopted Blake’s art as a model for the religious expression he conceptualised in the school, and Kishida’s religious paintings, which illustrate the literary thought of the early Taishō period, are notable examples of the Japanese acceptance of Christianity in the 1910s, which was tied to modern concepts of romantic love and individualism.

Keywords: Modern Japanese Christian art, Taishō period, Shirakaba School, Ryūsei Kishida, William Blake