By Masatsugu MINAMI


His (the Far Oriental’s) art, wherever fun is possible, fairly bubbles over with laughter. From the oldest masters down to Hokusaï, it is constantly welling up in the drollest conceits. It is of all descriptions, too. Now it lurks in merry ambush, like the faint suggestion of a smile on an otherwise serious face, so subtle that the observer is left wondering whether the artist could have meant what seems more like one’s own ingenious discovery,…....


Those Far Eastern paintings which have to do with man fall for the most part under one of two heads, the facetious and the historical. …... impersonality has prevented the Far Oriental from having much amour proper. He has no particular aversion to caricaturing himself.

Percival LOWELL, The Soul of the Far East

Japanese here


Percival LOWELL picks out the painter called MARUYAMA Okio (1733 – 1795) as a serious and sober side of the Japanese art, and as an opposite lighter droll part of the artists, chooses the name of KATSUSHIKA Hokusaï as above. We anyway don’t suppose LOWELL was particularly devoted to the Japanese arts, especially to the pictures; and furthermore it is known that he tended to regard any Art was inferior to the Western Science, and so it might be quite unnecessary to mind what he wrote unreasonably about Hokusaï, while since this point is rather concerned with his another assertion of the Japanese impersonality or their lack of imagination, we here to try to be involved. LOWELL’s logic says in short that the province of Humour is to ridicule personality generally.


 "The Soul of the Far East" first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, September - December 1887, and was published from Houghton, Mifflin & Co, Boston in 1888. It went through several editions, and later editions (Macmillan Co, Yew York) were rich with illustrations; partly with some photographs taken by LOWELL himself. David STRAUSS in "Percival Lowell" (Harvard, 2001) informs at footnote 2 of the Chap 6, p294 that according to "Things Japanese" (1891, 5th Ed in 1905) of Basil H CHAMBERLAIN (1850-1935), the most read book among general works on Japan at that time was "The Mikado’s Empire" (1874) by William E GRIFFIS (1843 - 1928), and next came "Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan" (1894) by Lafcadio HEARN (1850-1904). On the other hand, LOWELL’s The Soul of the Far East was ranked sixth:



However this book of LOWELL is made of an implementation quite different from GRIFFIS’s books, as CHAMBERLAIN wrote that LOWELL’s book showed "its brilliant array of metaphysical epigrams."  Its highly eloquent and deductive description sounds attractive with some taste of humour. It may be true this book must have been not so popular, but it can be supposed that it must have produced a deep influence on the mind of the Anglo-Saxon intelligentsia about the Japanese just (nearly 25 years) after the opening of Japan. Its influence must have never been comparable with such a fancy book "Noto, An Unexplored Corner of Japan" (Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1891).


The book is full of such axioms as the individual and progressive West vs the impersonal and impassive East, and one may be easily led to the proposition that the Japanese lacks the originality and holds a spirit of imitation. Even if the Japanese is endowed with “the power of observation and the kindred capability of perception” they are not “the cause of soul-evolution” and the soul-evolution is just provided by the imagination (à la SPENCER) which is however the very characteristics the Japanese lacks. Any savage, if confined in his familiar domain, shows a powerful observational and perceptive ability while once he deviates outside from his boundary, he becomes very powerless because he is none of imaginative being. “If imagination be the impulse of which increase the individuality is the resulting motion, that quality should be minimum” in the Far East. “If the individuality be the natural measure of the height of civilization which a nation has reached, impersonality should betoken a relatively laggard position in the race.” Eventually LOWELL concludes:

That impersonality is not man’s earthly goal they unwittingly bear witness; for they are not of those who will survive. Artistic attractive people that they, their civilization is like their own tree flowers, beautiful blossoms destined never to bear fruit; for whatever we may conceive the far future of another life to be, the immediate effect of impersonality cannot but be annihilating. If these people continue in their old course, their earthly career is closed. Just as surely as morning passes into afternoon, so surely are these races of the Far East, if unchanged, destined to disappear before the advancing nations of the West. Vanish they will off the face of the earth and leave our planet the eventual possession of the dwellers where the day declines.


Such theorems as the inferior impersonal languages or impassive vanishing savages are nowadays those disgusting ideas that have been abandoned by the post-modern cultural anthropology: Any of pensées sauvages bears fruit in addition to its showy blossoms. However we should keep in mind the possibility that such a detestable point of view must have been spread and engraved by this book in the minds of Westerners and kept even now implicitly.


Here we don’t delve into discussion about LOWELL’s anthropological assertions, but we just try to imply an inadequacy of his alluding to Hokusaï in the sense that even another light about Hokusaï which LOWELL missed to find might have been suggesting a future different positive possibility of the Japanese impersonality, if any.



Hokusaï is referred to by LOWELL as the author of the caricatures. It may be true Hokusaï’s “humor flits easily there at the sea-level of the multitude”, but Hokusaï himself is an enormous giant who cannot be degraded as the mere author of the Hokusaï Manga. It will be difficult to find any artist in the Western world who can be “twins” with Hokusaï. The total number of works including pictures, sketches, hangas etc is said to amount to about forty thousands, and books with which Hokusaï was concerned with illustrations are over two hundreds. As an objective fact, his activity, energy, fecundity as well as his humour and his inquiry about the compositions and all that are not easily compared even in the West. He changed his habitat (that is he made his removal) ninety-three times. (We just ironically used the word habitat here because LOWELL excellently stated "the very essence of the force of imagination lies in its ability to change a man’s habitat for him.") At the age of 63, Hokusaï started to produce the Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji and spent nine years to work out including additional ten views of Ura-Fuji. He used a lot of names to put in his life. He finally called himself an old mad of pictures. He lived a longevity of 93 years, and it is said he said on his death-bed "if Heaven had endowed me with five years more, I should have become a great true painter". (Cuts here from Hokusaï Manga.)


At the time of LOWELL (around 1888), KATSUSHIKA Hokusaï (1760-1849) was already well known. Soon after his death in 1849, it is said that in 1856 at Paris, Félix BRACQUEMOND (1833-1914) was aware of some of Hokusaï work, and readily recognised their excellence and adopted their motifs into his designs. He also communicated Hokusaï or Hokousaï to his comrades Edouard MANET, Edgar DEGAS, Camille PISSARRO and others. It is known MANET noticed the brush of Hokusaï, and DEGAS was whetted by the motion Mangas of Hokusaï. Around the time of the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1867, Hokousaï was already highly valued in France: An art critique called Philippe BURTY(1830-1890) especially gave a great admiration to Hokusaï. BURTY is known also as a collector who coined the word Japonisme in his "La Renaissance litteraire et artistique" in 1872. The first essay about Hokusaï was known to be made in 1882 by Théodore DURET (1838-1927), who dropped in at Japan around 1871/72 in an art magazine "Gazette des Beaux-Arts." DURET is also known to have posed to MANET and James WHISTLER ( American). More decisive assertion then appeared in the following year in 1883 in the first pioneering book on the Japanese art history "L'Art japonais" written by Louis GONSE (1846-1921) in which, following DURET, GONSE declared that the vieillard fou du dessin was one of the most prominent artists who was unprecedented, and might belong to the estate of whole human beings (Akiko MABUCHI; Hokusaï and Japonisme, 1996; and Shigemi INAGA, L’Orient de la peinture, Nagoya Univ Press, 1999). GONSE was a critique who was also a collector, being good at art and paleography, and showed a profound influence for the reading public as an editor of the "Gazette des Beaux-Arts."

As to Hokusaï, slightly later Edmond de GONCOURT (1822-1896) played a role, but his Hokousaï was published in 1896 (which was liked by CÉZANNE), and at present it was after the time of LOWELL. (Note however that GONCOURT was known to have felt already from around 1884 that the newly found Japanese art might bring a revolutionary new blood to the world of the French art.)


It cannot however be conceived that LOWELL was blind to the trend vastly accepted in France during the period 1860 – 1880. From the side of Anglo-Saxons also, the Japanese art was already noticed. At the beginning of the 1860s, it is known Raphael PUMPELLY (1837 – 1923) who was a geologist on hire and made official surveys in Japan of Hokkaido exploring for minerals brought back some of Hokusaï to the US. PUMPERLLY is famous for the Pumpellyite which he found first in Michigan.

In 1873 an English surgeon and dermatologist called William ANDERSON (1842 - 1900) was invited by the Japanese Government as a professor of anatomy of the newly built Imperial Naval Medical College in Tokyo, and also worked as a medical officer of the British envoys from 1874 to 1879. He at the same time was interested in the Japanese art, and, later back home, published a book entitled “Pictorial Arts of Japan” in 1886. This book is known to have appreciated some of important characteristics of the Japanese art to the point while on the other hand it is notorious because this book underestimated Hokusaï. He also gave lower values to Hiroshige and Utamaro, and disregarded Sharaku. He was apparently opposed to the French view that the French Japonisans regarded Hokusaï as being far superior to Sesshu (master of ink painting and Zen Buddhist priest; 1420 - 1506).


Before that already LOWELL’s acquaintance Ernest FENOLLOSA (1853 - 1908) came to Japan first in 1878 (at the invitation of Edward S MORSE), created a great influence upon the Japanese-art world and evaluated the various sides of the Japanese art. He, teaching political economy and philosophy at the Imperial University of Tokyo, also studied the ancient temples, shrines and art treasures. As for Hokusaï, he argued in 1884 against the argument about Hokusaï made in 1883 by Louis GONSE ("Review of the Chapter on Paintings in L’Art japanais by Louis GONSE", The Japan Weekly Mail 12 July 1884). Apparently FENOLLOSA’s criticism must have influenced the mind about Hokusaï of LOWELL.

FENOLLOSA stated an opposition to GONSE in that GONSE more heavily valued the Ukiyo-e of the Edo period than other kinds of pictures in the foregoing eras, and FENOLLOSA accused or ridiculed GONSE because the latter made lots of mistakes about the historical facts as well as the pronunciations of Japanese names and places (this must have been caused by perhaps his learning by the ear). Perhaps to FENOLLOSA, the Ukiyo-e must have not appeared as a grand-art, and he especially regarded Hokusaï as a mere artisan, and considered that Hokusaï’s themes, descriptions, compositions and so on are all “vulgar”. Just at that time FENOLLOSA was involved with a survey of ancient temples, and it is known that it was FENOLLOSA that was permitted to unwrap the bundle of cloth and revealed the gilded wooded statue of Kuze Kannnon showing an archaic enigmatic smile at the octagonal Yume-dono (Hall of dreams, maybe built in the 8th century) near the Horyuji Temple (the oldest wooden temple) in Nara (together with Kakuzo (Tenshin) OKAKURA). We should say that the person who discovered the long hidden magnificent image brilliantly at the area of famous temples could easily ignore the cheap prints that were liked by the Edo vulgar people on the street.

Later even (after LOWELL) in 1898 when he wrote "An Outline of Japanese Art" in The Century Magazine, he still used the phrase "prevailing vulgarity of Ukiyoe" as follows:

By 1785 Kiyonaga had reached the height of the art by substituting for evolution in variety of tints true atmospheric detachment, and an enhancement of the breadth of his simple flat masses. This, and his nobility of design, left him momentarily above the prevailing vulgarity of Ukiyoe.


The gradual decay from Kiyonaga is due to the intolerance of even esthetic ideas by a people who, now quite certain that they are to be allowed to care for nothing but novelty and pleasure, have taken the bit in their teeth, and have declared frankly for a carnival of riotous excess. …. Hokusai wonderfully mirrors for us the average thought and bad taste of the populace. ….

E FENOLLOSA, An Outline of Japanese Art, The Century, 1898


In 1890, however, FENOLLOSA made a detailed catalogue for The Exhibition of Paintings of Hokusaï held at the Japan Fine Art Association, Ueno, Tokio from 13 to 30 January 1900. There were shown a hundred of real paintings (no prints), and each was associated by a detailed and devoted account by him. (In 1890 FENOLLOSA returned to Boston to be curator of the Department of Oriental Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In 1896, he came back to Japan. He died in London in 1908, but buried in Otsu, Japan.)

The following statement is said to belong to FENOLLOSA in a work published in 1912 (after his death), but its implication is not clear to us: "Hokusaï is a great designer, as Kipling and Whitman are great poets. He has been called the Dickens of Japan."


It was not accidental that any of LOWELL, FENOLLOSSA, and ANDERSON who were all underestimated Hokusaï was among those who lived long in the early modernised Japan. It must have been quite probable that their view was based on their firsthand experience when they led their lives in Japan. The Japanese must have never used any gorgeous gilt frames hanging on the wall to appreciate any of Sharaku’s Kabuki actor portraits, Utamaro’s women, Hiroshige’s Tokaido as well as any of Hokusaï. Perhaps just they appreciated them on the flats of their hands, implying that the pictures were just dealt with in a daily, or really vulgarly way. It is a well-known myth that the French first found the pieces of Ukiyo-e prints as the wrapping papers of the Japanese porcelains exported to France. We should admit that Mt Fuji which the Japanese persons believe as the most outstanding geographical (or worshipful) feature in Japan has been a most popular subject for paintings or prints. Contrarily stating, it implied Mt Fuji as the subject had remained quite vulgar: In fact, we are sure we old Japanese can easily recollect the big painted Mt Fuji’s landscape that we could see on the wall through the steam fog over our heads in the big bathtub of any public bathhouse in Japan (until several decades ago, nowadays very few). 


It was quite probable that the proposition of vulgarity stated by FENOLLOSA must have been easily sublimated to the theorem of impersonality of LOWELL through such kinds of caricaturing pictures by Hokusaï. It must be possible for anyone to find vulgar images in the Hokusaï work, but it should not necessarily imply that the vieillard fou du dessin himself was vulgar: He should be said to have been very original as well as personal in a different way from LOWELL’s sense.



As to the present estimation of Hokusaï that is held generally domestically or abroad, we should say we don’t need to touch upon here. However in order to show that there was a possibility of approach to Hokusaï different from LOWELL’s, we here exemplify by citing the view of MICHEL BUTOR (1926-): BUTOR is well known here in Japan next to Alain ROBBE-GRILLET as a novelist belonging to the Nouveaux Romanciers of the 20th Century. BUTOR alluded to Hokusaï as follows replying to the interview by Anna OTTEN in 1985:

ANNA OTTEN: What makes you write a new book?

MICHEL BUTOR: I like to explore, everything interests me. Within each book I explore something new, see various perspectives, consider certain themes. Often I am reminded of something I have read or written elsewhere. But within the framework of a certain book, the ensemble acquires specific significance. Even when I quote another writer, the quotation takes on a different meaning in the new context. In the final analysis, what thought is really new? When I look back, I find in ancient books answers to questions I have asked myself a hundred times.

ANNA OTTEN: But you give different answers.

MICHEL BUTOR: I cannot help transforming or at least modifying them. Each generation has to find new answers. Cultures change and men change with them. Nothing stands still. I am not the same from one moment to the next. When Hokusai sketches his thirty-six and his ten additional views of Mount Fuji, they all turn out to be different. Each time his point of view changes.



He asserts he looks for something new, and uses any theme or perspective in a different context from those used by some before, and in that case he says he uses the concept of the transformation or deformation. Any generation finds new answers to the effect that cultures and beings change. He himself is not the same as himself a moment ago. This is quite the same when Hokusaï drew the thirty-six views plus ten additional views of Mt Fuji. Mt Fuji was differently sketched each time, and his angle was always moving.

It is well known that the idea of transformation, as was the case of Claude LEVI-STRAUSS (1908-), famous French structuralist, stemmed from the group or set theory of mathematics.


In fact, BUTOR made already an essay explicitly about Hokusaï under the title “Trente-six et dix vues du Fuji” in “Répertoire III” (Les Editions de Minuit, 1968), and showed clearly Hokousaï fitted for the modern approach by the idea of transformation.

For instance, BUTOR first remarks that the transformation already worked positively in the case of Claude MONET. It may not be appropriate to interpret the series of La Cathédrale de Rouen (1894) by the method to evaluate one picture separating from another because MONET drew a lot of the same cathedral from the same window from the morning to evening. If the Sun shines, the cathedral shines attractively in pluricolours, and if one follows it as time goes by, it deforms or transforms to be drawn rather continuously. In the case of MONET, BUTOR states however that the cathedral is no more than a pretext;

C’est que, pour Monet, la cathédrale de Rouen est un prétexte. Ce n’est même pas sa matière qui l’occupe, mais cette matière illusoire, cette brume provoquée par la réverbération; comme les variables sont relativement faciles à identifier, au bout d’un certain temps il lui est facile de multiplier les étapes dans le chemin des heures et du climat, d’ajourter entre les études faites vraiment d’après nature, de multiples passages, entre une harmonie blanche et une bleue, deux ou trios harmonies d’un bleu de plue en plus clair, ce qu’il n’a pas manqué de faire à Giverny pendant les deux ans il a travaillé sur ses Cathédrales après avoir quitté Rouen. 

Michel BUTOR


However, according to BUTOR, Hokusaï is more different: Mt Fuji was no pretext, and it was not only veritable but also a sacred mountain. Hokusaï wanted to study its aspects from the whole angles. Different from MONET, Hokusaï moved flexibly and looked for another different point of view in accordance with each of the transformations brought by the time passage, variations of weather like wind, rain, clear or foggy atmosphere.

…... Hokousaï, pour chacune des transformations apportées par le passage de heures et le changement du temps, vent, pluie, ciel clair ou blume, cherche un autre point de vue.

……fest que le Fuji n’est pas seulement le prétexte, mais le véritable sujet, montagne sacrée, immensément importante pour lui et, ceux qui l’entourent, qu’il désir étudier sous tour ses aspects.

Michel BUTOR


So, Hokusaï was not satisfied only with the depictions of the temporal colour changes of Fuji or the variations of the mountain form, but rather he wanted to map in the most attractive way all of different roles played by the sacred mountain as well as all of its multiple virtues and beauties:

Hokusaï ne peut se contenter de multiplier les effets de couleur, chaque nouvelle nuance est une autre façon de voir, une autre liaison du Fuji à une petite pays. Le Fuji voyage en qulque sorte tout au long du jour et de l’année; ……..

 Et il ne suffit pas seulement de noter que la montagne change de couleur selon les moments, de forme selon les lieux, il faut aussi faire comprendre, sentir de la façon la plus saisissante tous les différents rôles qu’elle joue, toutes ses multiples vertus et beautés.

Michel BUTOR


BUTOR noted thus then the delicate nuance of colour and the variety of geometrical elements in Hokusaï; as to the latter we will deal with in a later section.

As to the colour, BUTOR writes about how Hokusaï saw the colour of Mt Fuji changing from the Sumida River: At certain moments, it is red like the bark of a pine tree, like the skin of the bay horse, and like the garment dyed purple. And viewed from the Ryogoku bridge at crepuscular time, it is blue like the deep water. ……

 …...le Fuji à certains moments, vu de la rivière Sumida, est rouge comme l’écorce d’un pin, comme un cheval rouge, comme des vêtements teints de pourpre.  Vu du pont Ryogoku au crépuscule, il est bleu comme l’eau profound,  lorsqu’on le regarde le matin de Koïshikawa après la neige, il est blanc comme celle-ci, à Umesawa, il a le gris bleuté de certaines grues.

Michel BUTOR


We here cease to cite BUTOR, while his discussion is still much wider, and interestingly he analyses that the remarkable dissertation of Marcel PROUST (1871 – 1922) about the metaphor in the impressionism based on MONET’s work is more appropriate to the work of Hokusaï, and finally he closes by discussing that Hokusaï’s 36 + 10 views of Mt Fuji were the litanies offered to Mt Fuji. If you go to Mishima, you will understand how Fuji resembles the sky, and so on. We finally pick out BUTOR’s note that the most humble and most familiar objects help together to sing songs in the praise of Mt Fuji, in that no one needs to be rich, nor highly educated.


The statement by BUTOR which we just noted suggests that Hokusaï’s pictures seriously show the pursuit of a certain prayer through several daily vulgar objects. We should say this way of displaying transformed cards in a row must have been so novel and unconventional that it must have been unfamiliar or rather threatening to the classicists like FENOLLOSA.


The method of Hokusaï when he produced the Thirty-six and Ten Views of Mt Fuji was thus quite a refined and novel one. But it should be note that he was conversant with such a method of depicting an object from various angles from his earlier period when several sketchbooks of Mangas were published. That is, the method of displaying cards in a row or transformations were always familiar to him as well as the perspective representation and some other geometrical method. Rather we might be able to say that he used several vulgar objects to guide the method of transformations or deformations. As said, he even varied his names. Nothing stood still in Hokusaï in the sense of BUTOR.



Hokusaï used compasses and rulers. This was real, as suggested in his sketchbooks. In accordance, BUTOR also points out that “Hokusaï étudie la forme du Fuji en la rapprochant de verticales qui se concrétiseront dans les poteaux d’un atelier de charpentier à Tatekawa, à des horizontals, les barres de brumes qui envahissent les marais à Ono Shinden, à un cercle, le tonneau que travaille son tonnelier à Fujimihara, à un demi-cercle vertical, le moulin de rivière qu’il imagine à Onden, près de Tokyo, un demi-cercle horizontal, le pont de Mannenbashi, à un rectangle, la fenêtre de la maison de thé à Yoshida, etc.” (italic by the present writer).


The fact that the structures of Hokusaï’s pictures were not geometrically simple was otherwise well known as pointed out by Ryo YANAGUI (“Golden Section, second series” 1977). We leave the details to the book, while here we shall borrow an example in which YANAGUI shows analytically how Hokusaï depended on the compass and rulers in composing the famous “The Waves off the Coast of Kanagawa


The concept of the Golden Section, known as the most proportional and beautiful section, was originated in the culture of the ancient Egypt, but a very new one at Hokusaï’s time in Japan just imported from the Dejima, Nagasaki.

Let two sides of a rectangle satisfy the Golden ratio, and then let the square with sides made of the shorter side be cut off. Then, the two sides of the remaining rectangular should satisfy the golden ratio again. That is, if 1 makes the golden ratio, then φ should satisfy 1:φ=φ―1:1 or φ2―φ―1=0. So we obtain φ=(1+5½)/2=1.618….. which is quite irrational. That implies, we cannot depict correctly the ratio without compass. Just φ should satisfy the modification φ =1+(1/φ) =1+(1/(1+(1/φ))….., and so it is possible to give several rational approximations. The Fibonacci numbers (after Leonardo PISSANO (1170 - 1250) whose nickname is FIBONACCI): 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, … then appear. For instance, φ is between approximate rational numbers 8/5 and 13/8. It is very apparent that Hokusaï used this marvellous ratio in his compositions: In the case of “The Waves off the Coast of Kanagawa”, if we discard the upper “ita-bokashi” (a shading-off part), there appear a lot of φ on the membrane. YANAGUI also discussed about the geometries of “A Fine Breezy Day” and “Kajikawa in Kai Province


We should say the above case proves that Hokusaï was prudent and careful in composing the pictures; in addition to the fact that he was not simply traditional including the case of the caricatures. In some sense he must have been threatening to the traditions if we are just concerned with the compositions.


The fact that at Hokusaï was eager to absorb the new techniques implies an antithesis to LOWELL’s observation of the savage: Hokusaï was not simply available in a confined small domain, but he was well competent.

Otherwise, LOWELL accidentally pointed out that the Japanese persons were colour-blind to the warm, blood-red, while had good perception of the colder beauty of the great blues and greens of nature. It may be interesting to note that the painters after the 1830s, like Hokusaï, Hiroshige and others made use of the Prussian blues to produce the blue graduations from light blue to navy blue, already advanced before the opening of the country (the Prussian blue was invented at the beginning of the 18th Century; it being imported into Japan never before 1820). Does LOWELL mean that the Japanese might have been blind to the cold, nature-blue if the Prussian blues had not been propagated to the Dejima?


One more additional comment on Hokusaï’s universality: Shigemi INAGA (op.cit.) cited the illustrations which compared one of CÉZANNE’s pictures entitled “Mont Saint-Victoire” with the foregoing Hokusaï’s “Mishima Pass in the Kai Province” (originally the comparison was due to Pierre FRANCASTEL (1905-1970)). Similarly a relationship of Hokusaï’s “Hodogaya on the Tokaidoh Highway” with CÉZANNE’s “Marronniers au Jas de Bouffan” was also pointed out by H TANAKA and S INAGA. The technique of Hodogaya was also followed by Akira KUROSAWA on several occasions in his movies; and it also is often employed in recent Takeshi KITANO’s movies.



It is interesting to note that LOWELL picked out the French and Japanese as the two most impersonal peoples of Europe and Asia respectively (Chap 5, op cit). He says both are at the same time the most artistic. LOWELL was to the point in a sense since just the French Japonisans could correspond to Hokusaï in a positive way. It may however be contradictory to exclude the French from the westerners whom LOWELL defined to be individual and progressive, as well imaginative. Of course he can coax us in any way since LOWELL already gave such a ridiculous subdivision or a linear ranking as in the following way in Chap 1: “…the sense of self grows more intense as we follow in the wake of the setting sun, and fades steadily as we advance into the dawn. American, Europe, the Levant, India, Japan, each is less personal than the one before. We stand at the nearer end of the scale, the Far Orientals at the other.”


The imagination LOWELL referred to was not merely the one supposed in the art. Originally it stemmed from a context of Herbert SPENCER (1820 - 1903), and it meant an ability to construct a newer concept than the facial reality based on the integration of experiences. According to LOWELL, mathematicians may most need imagination, since their procedures or propositions must be built in an unthought-of way. LOWELL feels that the principle of individuality plays a magnificent role every day before our eyes, and only this process wins recognition of progress or evolution. This belief of the linear evolution or development is thus supported by the belief that the driving force of evolution is nothing but what he calls imagination. The saint trinity of individuality, evolution and imagination gives a standard to the view that the impersonal East is lower than the individual West, as is exactly the case that the art is ranked lower than science in LOWELL. This is because, in LOWELL, imagination and imitation make a pair, and the art is just imitation (for instance, imitation of nature), and finally imitation is no more than “the natural substitute for originality”.


If we could admit this idea, could we say the French was lower than the Americans? Even if we tentatively discard the problem of art or literature, the mathematics in France is and has been second to none in the world, and its natural science has also been of the first class and most leading throughout the centuries. Even as the 20th century began, did the US produce such an esprit as Louis de BLOGLIE (1892 -1987) who established an imaginative idea of wave mechanics in no more than one page? The rise and revolution of quantum physics which began from just 1900 was contributed by a lot of ideas mostly born in Europe. A lot of physicists like PLANCK, BOHR, BORN, HEISENBERG, SCHRÖDINGER, DIRAC, etc. If any Americans?  Otherwise we should say that in the dual formation of quantum mechanics, such an idea of the linear evolution as LOWELL imagined was utterly inapplicable. In the case of the duality mechanics, the more flexible concept of “cooperative” of SPENCER rather should have been said more available.


It was very true that the Japanese in the Meiji era had no natural science mainly because the country spent a few hundred years having closed the door to the western countries. Even now our natural science ability is regarded lower (than the actual state) from the foreign countries. However, if we admit the Japanese are impersonal, it was not because of that reason that the Japanese was weak at science. By the same token, we cannot say the Japanese art was established because of their impersonality. It is an attractive idea of LOWELL that the common sense detains the evolution, while the imagination urges evolution. As we have seen, it is impossible to say at least that there was no conflict between the common sense and imagination in Hokusaï.

According to LOWELL, “a high degree of art is quite compatible with a very small amount of imagination” and “pictures are often happy adaptations rather than creations proper.” We don’t quite agree with these statements, but we close for now by stating that it is nowadays out of date to separate science from art, and as we feel it attractive to find geometry in pictures, any great scientific work conveys an artistic atmosphere in its structure; that’s l’esprit.


If LOWELL’s view on Japan has had an implicit influence on the westerners ever since, we should say we need to continue to give further arguments or objections more clearly. Here we should however be content with just confining ourselves to his lack of understanding the Hokusaï art.

The grounds of LOWELL’s belief that the Japanese are fond of imitation came from his observations: The Japanese personality is so impersonal that they can easily accept other ideas. The Japanese space is so void that they can easily accept anything. If that’s so, why could not we consider it to be positive?

We should rather consider that LOWELL lacked a bit of imagination when he could not find so much imagination in Hokusaï on the occasion he pondered on the Soul of Japan, even if he made several impressive and eloquent statements that showed an intense personality. How about then his assertions as well as observations concerning Mars?

(March 2004)

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