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New Left Review 10, July-August 2001

Murray Sayle on Timon Screech, The Shogun’s Painted Culture: Fear and Creativity in the Japanese States 1760–1829. How painting, architecture, dress, topography were once mobilized to construct an official Japanese identity, and some analogies today.



This is an original, fascinating, hard-to-classify book, full of hints and portents about present-day troubles—Japan’s, and therefore the rest of the world’s. Screech states his aim clearly enough in the opening pages: ‘This book is about building a boundary to construct a centre’. It is a study of ‘the invention, formalization and fixing of a “Japan” supported by its nodal city and canopied by a presence that was to be defined as tangible “Japanese culture”.’ A symbiosis, then, of art and politics, subjects not always considered together. Yet artworks, rightly read, may bear witness to the times in which they were created as much, and sometimes more honestly, than written testimony; particularly in cultures—Japan’s is a good contemporary example—in which the interpretation of the past is a weapon in the hands of the present, and the ideal of objective history, dubious everywhere, has yet to establish itself.

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Murray Sayle, ‘Refabricating Japan’, NLR 10: £3

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