Beyond Nationalism, Examining Beauty Between and Across Cultures — Japan-Korea Relations Through Art”

graphic recording by Chan Wai

As a part of “Conversation of Tangible Memories” series, “A Bird’s Eye View of Japan-Korea Relations Through Art” closed on a high note on January 29, 2021.

Following on from the “When Urban Communication Meets Transnational Asia” and “Passing on History and Challenges in the 21st Century“, this third event welcomed Professor Hans Bjarne Thomsen, a chair of East Asian Art History at the Institute of Art History University of Zurich in Switzerland, as a guest speaker.

Guest speaker Professor Thomsen(upper right)/ Photo by THE LEADS ASIA

Participants from South Korea and Japan joined the lecture and workshop to examine East Asian art as a set of an individual “National Art” was introduced. A lively discussion ensued to jointly discover the way we could rethink about the bilateral relations beyond nationalism.

About Prof. Dr. Hans Bjarne Thomsen

Prof. Dr. Thomsen is a Professor at the University of Zurich and has held the Chair for East Asian Art History since 2007. He was born in Kyoto, Japan and grew up there and in Denmark. Dr. Hans Bjarne Thomsen received his PhD from Princeton University on a dissertation on the painter Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800). Prior to Zurich, he taught at the University of Chicago. He has worked in numerous international museum-related projects on visual arts in East Asia, including “Heidi in Japan” exhibition at the Swiss National Museum in 2019 in which he served as the main organizer.

A Bird’s Eye View of Japan-Korea Relations Through Art


The lecture started off with the introduction to historical connection between the “East” and “West” in terms of cultural exchange, mentioning some of the East Asian artworks that exist in Europe today. Despite its landlocked location, Switzerland had a special significance as a “cultural stopover” in Europe during the Middle Ages.

In order to compensate for their limited resources and cultural contacts, the Swiss were also active traders. Travelling to foreign lands was part of their early tradition. When Professor Thomsen first visited Switzerland in 2007, there were only two museums in the country that exhibit artworks from East Asia.

However, through elaborate researches in more than 50 museums across the region, it was found out that there exist a number of works that could be classified as “East Asian art”.


Professor Thomsen describes the chaos: “There was no discussion on whether they belonged to Japan, China or Korea. They were stored and classified in such a jumbled way that it was nearly impossible to tell what was what.”

Museum storage all mixed together / Photo by THE LEADS ASIA

Behind this chaotic situation existed a lack of specialists. By the time these works were brought from East Asia by a Swiss, they were donated to local museums and only shared the information that they came from the “Exotic East”.

Professor Thomsen draws attention to this “Swiss migration to East Asia”.

The Swiss in Japan and Korea


The Silk Trade in Yokohama, Japan

Swiss delegates came to Japan to trade in a variety of goods, such as silk and watches. They usually stayed for a long time, learning the language and culture first hand, and then collecting artifacts to take back to their native Switzerland.

At that time, the sericultural industry in Europe was failing due to repeated epidemics and other misfortunes, leaving the country in search of alternative methods of sericulture and a supplier of high quality silk.

The Swiss delegates brought back the “Secret Records of Sericulture (養蚕秘録)” by Morikuni Uegaki (1802), which was published in French in 1848 and spread all over Europe. Japanese silk was highly appreciated, and in this way, a strong link was established between the two through product exchange.


Despite their relatively limited land mass and limited resources, the Swiss were keen to make a fortune through trade. However, there must have been many hurdles to overcome, including language and cultural differences. What was life really like for them in Japan?

Professor explains using the case of Charles Ziegler, who lived in Japan for about 36 years from 1864.

Ziegler brought two Swiss colleagues to Japan. The management of his company, however, consisted entirely of East Asians. Several people from Guangzhou, China, which had a long history of sericulture before Yokohama, as well as English speaking Chinese with extensive knowledge of trade, were of great value as they could communicate with the Japanese in writing.

Ziegler(in front row right)and his Swiss, Chinese and Japanese colleagues / Photo by THE LEADS ASIA

His team, consisting of people from various nationalities, maintained a frank relationship, occasionally having dinner at the table and travelling together.

As such, Yokohama’s cosmopolitan and multicultural environment was taken for granted.


The Swiss in Korea

Professor Thomsen gave the example of the trajectory of the Swiss in Korea as Paul Ritter, who at the time was a distinguished diplomat in Japan, Korea and China.


It was during this period that the influx of Korean artworks into Switzerland began: a survey carried out since 2007 has uncovered a large number of new works of Korean art that are ubiquitous in Swiss museums.


“Our treasures” –when art is linked to nationalism

A number of works of art with an East Asian origin previously scattered throughout Switzerland, have been “rediscovered” in various parts of the world through a survey entitled “Overseas Treasures Project (在外秘宝プロジェクト)”, named after the book “Overseas Treasures: Japanese Paintings in Western Collections” edited by Shimada Shujiro (1969).

In addition to Japan, there is a growing trend in recent years in South Korea and China to uncover the full extent of “national treasures” stored abroad, he explains. The characteristics and objectives of the “National Art” survey are as follows:

  1. The search for masterpieces
  2. Discovering lost works of Japanese art
  3. Linking foreign art to Japanese art history
  4. Research from a perspective that ignores foreign contexts
  5. Linking works of art in foreign countries to their “home” in Japan

However, Professor Thomsen points out that such efforts to establish a “national art” within the contemporary framework of art history are fraught with danger, too.

“10,000 years of French art”?


In East Asian countries, not only in English, but also in the local languages, expressions such as “4,000 years of music history in Korea”, “4,000 years of pottery history in Japan” and “4,000 years of calligraphy history in China” are nothing but common.

But what does it mean to have a cultural form and identity that has remained essentially unchanged for 6,000 years? All of the above concepts are based on the illusion of “national borders”, set after the establishment of nation-state. Professor Thomsen therefore speaks of the dangers of this notion of “National Art”.

“The idea of national art itself is highly problematic, an a-historical view that closes one’s eyes to history. Nevertheless, in East Asia, the concept of national art has become a commonplace part of national education and a tool to unite and control national identity.”

“Also in the field of international academia, works of art are often analysed within a narrowly defined national framework, as ‘the creations of a country’s local cultural genius’. But the reality of modern history is that the best works of art are often the result of ethnic migrations, tribal invasions and the artist’s own traveling experience.

The expression “5,000 years of Chinese history” does not only refer to a political ambition. The professor explains that it refers to the complexity of Chinese history, that is, to the discussion of the fragmented memories of different periods of history, such as the Zhou dynasty or the Western Han dynasty, within the geographical space. The boundaries used to define this geographical space are not fixed even to this day, as can be seen in the dispute over the South China Sea.

Thinking about Japan, what can we say about the people who migrated to Japan during the Yayoi period? Who are these Yayoi, the people who gave the native Jomon something they didn’t have before and enriched their culture and way of life? Who were the people started the pottery culture 4,000 years ago, and who are the ones looking back on it 4,000 years later?

What if we consider this in the context of Europe, which also shares many aspects of its cultural and artistic history with one another, from antiquity to the present day? So pervasive are the links and cultural fluidity that the phrase “10,000 years of French history” becomes a joke.


Then why is it that East Asian countries, with their complex histories, can continue to claim their origins separately? According to the professor, the reasons include the following:

  1. For the expediency of speaking in simplistic terms
  2. For political reasons: it is an important tool in the superficial differentiation of the self as a nation
  3. Given the characteristics of it being more likely to function in areas where there are historical conflicts, hatreds, unresolved conflicts, etc.
  4. Financial reasons: funding from the central government is mainly for research and lectures in “national art”.
  5. Religious reasons: in the case of Japanese art, if Izanami and Izanagi in ancient Shinto myth turned out to be people from the continent–now classified as Chinese and Koreans, this would create a great deal of historical inconveniences to them.

How to deal with transnational art?

In these conditions, Professor Thomsen argues, it is necessary to take a new approach to art history from a global perspective. However, without a deep knowledge of ‘non-European’ contexts and attention to local phenomena, this can only lead to a new Eurocentrism, or a world view from a European perspective.

This is why East Asian art history should remove nationalism from its own context and look beyond the conventional framework of “national art”, says the professor.

Facing art without nationalism

Facing art without nationalism — this means confronting aspects of artworks that have been ignored or misunderstood in the past, overturning what is considered to be the orthodox view. Though this process may therefore lead to disagreements and conflicts among scholars, a positive attitude is essential in thinking about the cross-border mobility of people, creative activity and the fluidity of artistic production.


Focusing on fluidity of cultures

First of all, says the professor, we must move away from the essentialist assumption that culture is fixed, attached to the concept of “national art”. This is because the works of art that exist between cultures are, from the outset, quite fluid and ever-changing in nature.

We also need to distance ourselves from the flowchart-like conventional wisdom that “culture evolves in a certain way”, he says. For example, ideas such as “advanced culture” and “lagging culture” are born from this assumption, which can hinder the acceptance of a work.

It is therefore necessary to take into account cultural fluidity, by looking at the existence of “multiple” cultures in one region, the relationship between minorities and majorities, the engagement of cultures in regions that are centralised and peripheralised, international trade, conquest and subjugation, less visible groups (non-elites, women, professionals, etc.), diaspora, ethnic cleansing, and many other aspects.

Beauty between and across cultures –Japan and Korea

1. Japan and Korea through ceramics: the limits of ‘national art’?

Firstly, he notes that Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s two invasions of Korea (1592-98) resulted in the introduction of ceramic culture to Japan. As a result of the rise of the tea ceremony culture, the daimyo (feudal lords) of the time took a keen interest in Korean ceramics and pottery. As a result, rather than bringing tea utensils to Japan, they began to bring potters back from Korea and have them manufacture pottery in Japan.


Korean potters set up kilns in various parts of Japan, including Karatsu, Arita, Hagi and Takatori, producing wonderful works of art. They were also actively collaborating with tea masters in Sakai and Edo to produce a variety of masterpieces.

Again, the question arises as to who is the subject of “4000 years of Japanese pottery history”.

Hagi Yuki pottery with Korean letters scripted / Photo by National Museum of Korea

Returning to homeland: but where is the home?

In July 2008, the Asahi Shimbun reported that the Hagi ware with the Hangeul inscription had returned to its “homeland”, Korea, for “the first time in 400 years”. This made huge headlines in Japan.

It has since been safely ‘returned’ to the National Central Museum of Korea, where it will be displayed as a symbol of the links between Japan and Korea. But is it a Korean piece of art? Or is it Japanese?

This 17th century Hagi ware was made by Korean potters using Korean-born expertise. At the same time, however, it was made in a kiln under the direct control of a Japanese feudal lord, using Japanese clay. Of course, it never left Japan after its production. How should this “object” be categorised in the framework of “national art”?


In the 18th century, the Japanese daimyo also had kilns in Pusan, Korea, which they ordered for export to Japan. These tea sets were used throughout Japan, and are listed as ‘Korean pottery’ in the Smithsonian Institution’s Sacker collection. These were the pottery produced in Korea by Koreans using the local clay, but a tea bowl from Pusan named ‘Naruto’ in the Swiss collection also has been put “Kintsugi” or gilding technique in Japan.


In the context of the development of pottery culture in Japan and Korea, there was such an active traffic in the 16th-18th centuries. This makes it clear that there are limitations in applying the concept of “national art” to analyse the works from a contemporary perspective.

2. Not a Chinese, not a Korean, not a Japanese… then what is it?

This is a portrait stored in the collection of the Burgdorf Castle Museum in Switzerland. However, it was neither signed by the artist nor given any further information, except for the English words “Portrait of Korean noble man”.


But looking at the other side of the scroll, there was a completely different notation in German: “A portrait of a Chinese man, wishing the manager a Happy New Year”.


Which argument is “correct” and which should be categorised as belonging to China or Korea? Professor Thomsen asked experts from South Korea, China, Japan and the USA for their insights.

Professor Hong Son-pyo of Ewha Womans University (South Korea): “It is definitely not a work by a Korean artist.” “The face, clothes and medals appear to be Korean.” “It may have been made by a Korean official during a trip to China.” “It may be a portrait made in China and only the face and clothes were remade by a Korean artist.” “It may have been made in China, but only the face and clothes were remade by a Korean artist.”

Professor Wu Hung, University of Chicago (USA): “It must be Chinese, probably painted to commemorate the 60th birthday of the seated figure, but the style is eccentric and may be a local style that has not been well studied.”

Professor Masaaki Itakura of the University of Tokyo (Japan): “It must be a Korean portrait” “This is a very common example of 18th century Korean work.”

Professor Nancy Lin, Lawrence University (USA) / former British Museum employee Eleanor Hyun: “I don’t think it’s a Korean portrait, the clothes and the objects around it are very unusual.” “It’s probably a local Chinese work.”

Professor Thomsen says that there is no wrong or right to all of these opinions, but only that they represent the limits of categorisation by national art. This is because the portrait exists “in between” cultures, crossing borders between multiple cultures.

Rethinking about the connections — without illusory borders

Professor Thomsen concluded by posing the following open questions to the audience:

  1. How can we see the “wall” as something that separates and differentiates between cultures?
  2. By whom and how are borders defined?
  3. How can nationalism sometimes hinder cultural understanding?

What is required, Thomsen suggests, is a rethinking of nationalism, which remains particularly entrenched in the context of East Asia. This hinders the understanding of art that crosses cultures within the region. Therefore, only when we are aware of the existence of “national borders” in art, he says, can we understand the relationship between Japan and Korea in a deeper and more complex way.

graphic recording by Mr. Chan Wai

Cultures evolve by drifting between borders, and it is through interaction that they flourish and advance. Few cultures are born and transformed by nationalistic agendas. Whatever the political circumstances, it is vital to remember that this process creates strong links between people.

Art and culture are frequently exploited for political purposes through nationalism, which often becomes a reason for division. The key to a sustainable coexistence between Japan and Korea, two neighbouring countries with strong ties, is not to think in terms of illusory borders.

Rather than sticking with this narrow “National Art” notion, we must be reminded to look at the history from the perspective of connection, which has been evolving in the course of perpetual human interaction.

The whole lecture by Professor Thomsen

We would like to express our sincere thanks to Professor Thomsen, the graphic recording artist Mr. Chan Wai, and all the participants for their generous support and cooperation in organising this workshop.


Edited by Kaori Kohyama

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