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Portrait of a Painter as a Patriot
Portrait of calligrapher Ichikawa Beian
by Watanabe Kazan

Portrait of a Painter as a Patriot

Columbia Japanologist Donald Keene examines the life of painter Watanabe Kazan.

Vincent Lim Email VincentLim

It is hard to think of a more loyal and filial man than Kazan.

A year before he committed suicide in 1841, the painter and scholar Watanabe (Noboru) Kazan composed an inscription for his tombstone: "Disloyal and unfilial Watanabe Noboru."

In 1832, Kazan had been given full command of coastal defense for the Tahara domain, in present-day Aichi prefecture. He judged himself disloyal over an essay he wrote in criticism of the Edo Shogunate government regarding a naval mishap known as the Morrison Incident; and unfilial over his decision to commit seppuku, a Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment, leaving his mother without his support.

"If these are faults, they seem minor in a man who has exerted a powerful attraction on anyone who knows his story—including myself," said Columbia University Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature Donald Keene. At an April 13, 2007 lecture sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies at UCLA, Keene told the story of the painter and scholar's life.

In the Morrison Incident, the unarmed American merchant ship the Morrison arrived in Japan in 1837 to request a trade, only to be met by cannon fire. The shogunate ran them off in accordance with the "Gaikokusen Uchiharairei" (Edict to Repel Foreign Vessels). Japan at the time engaged in a policy of excluding all Westerners from the country except for the Dutch.

In "Shinkiron" (translated into English as "Arguments for Restraint in Critical Times"), Kazan criticized the government for a policy that limited Japan's knowledge about Western nations and for its inadequate coastal defense against superior Western naval forces. He also feared the Morrison attack would encourage the British, Russians, or Dutch to take action against or invade Japan. Kazan discarded his paper criticizing the shogunate's decision to fire on the Morrison, but it was later found. In many of his writings about the West, he suggested that the Japanese military could learn from Western nations' military advances. That notion did not sit well with government officials who felt the West had nothing valuable to teach Japan.

Born into a poor samurai family that served the daimyo, or a feudal landholder, of Tahara, Kazan developed his artistic talent at an early age. He began painting works in the impressionistic bunjin (literati) style that commonly features landscapes and people admiring or enjoying the scenery, but he is most famous for his portraits, particularly two of famed writer and calligrapher Ichikawa Beian. Influenced by Dutch paintings, Kazan mastered techniques of realism to develop a style exemplified in the wrinkles in Benian's face in one of the portraits. Yet he was also a man stepped in Eastern traditions who learned to paint by imitating Chinese painters, and a traditional Confucian who believed in filial piety and loyalty to his daimyo.

For his criticism of the attack on the Morrison and his interest in Western culture, the government found Kazan guilty of treason in 1839. The government exiled Kazan to his home province of Tahara and put him under house arrest in 1840. A year later, Kazan killed himself at the age of 49 to amend for his disloyalty that he felt brought shame to the daimyo.

Keene chronicles Kazan's life in Frog in the Well: Portraits of Japan by Watanabe Kazan, 1793-1841—one of his 25 books in English about Japanese literature and culture.

"It is hard to think of a more loyal and filial man than Kazan," Keene said.