Mead Art Museum at Amherst College Supplements Asian Studies with Current Exhibit

Visit the Mead Art Museum and Rethink Your Assumptions About Japan.

Older children, teens, and adults have the opportunity to cross the globe, right here in Western Massachusetts. Reinventing Tokyo: Japan’s Largest City in the Artistic Imagination, on view through December 30 at the Mead Art Museum in Amherst, is the first exhibition in the US to approach Tokyo through the lens of the city’s history of continual change and reinvention.  With over 100 prints, photographs, paintings, and textiles, Reinventing Tokyo gives a visual timeline of the Japanese capital’s modernization from Edo to the cutting edge modern Tokyo of today.

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Timed to open 100 years after Japan’s gift of cherry blossoms to Washington DC, this exhibition follows major events in recent Japanese history, including the 19th-century “opening” of Japan to Western trade, natural disasters such as fires and earthquakes, and the rapid urbanization after the destruction of World War Two.

One major theme is the contrast between eastern and western cultural influences, evident in the woodblock prints depicting street scenes of people walking side by side, some in kimonos, some in 19th-century Western suits and bonnets.  A traditionally dressed woman walks across a state of the art steel suspension bridge; a baseball player adorns a 1930s kimono; a high fashion gown by famed designer Miyake Issey hints at traditional Japanese clothing yet is unquestioningly modern and futuristic.

As a former classroom geography teacher I recommend Reinventing Tokyo as a resource for students of Japanese culture and globalization.  However, it is the theme of urbanization that is most visually striking.  Tokyo, once the small fishing village of Edo, is now the political, cultural, and economic center of Japan.  The largest urban center in the world with 35 million people, Tokyo illustrates what happens when natural disaster, war, and cultural change alter an urban landscape and the people living within it.

Many large cities have a history as a crossroads, a place where cultures meet for commerce and accidentally share more than goods and services; ideas and values end up mingling as well.  Tokyo has been a crossroads of tradition and modernity for over 150 years.  After centuries of self isolation, Japan allowed itself to “open” to trade with Western nations, especially the United States, in the mid-19th century.   A mixing of culture and technology followed and continues to this day.  From skyscrapers and McDonalds to anime and sushi, the exchange of ideas between Japan and the US crisscrosses the globe.

When Tokyo rebuilt itself after earthquakes, fires, and war, it was the urban architecture popular in the United States and Europe that helped to house quickly the large population.  Yet the new neighborhoods and shopping districts maintained a distinctly Japanese feel and style.  Modern-day Tokyo has the vibrancy of New York yet a sense of place unique to a culture that has thrived in one location for centuries.  It is this ongoing relationship between the past and the future, the result of an amazing resiliency to disaster, that makes Tokyo such a dynamic and important city.

A note to families and teachers: this exhibition includes visual reference to natural disasters, war, and adult sexuality.  Admission to the Mead is always free and parents and teachers are welcome to preview the exhibition.

Reinventing Tokyo: Japan’s Largest City in the Artistic Imagination is open through December 30, 2012. The Mead is located on the Amherst College campus, at the intersection of Routes 9 and 116. Admission to the Mead is always free.

– Submitted by Wendy Somes

Five College Center for East Asian Studies

If you’re interested in additional resources, the Five College Center for East Asian Studies (FCCEAS) at Smith College in Northampton has a free newsletter, “East Asia for Teachers,” which compiles cultural activities and educational opportunities in New England and New York of interest to educators who teach about East Asia or families wanting to further supplement their children’s education in East Asia studies. Included in the newsletter are a calendar of museum exhibits and cultural events,  and resources on East Asia, distributed three times a year.  In their most recent newsletter they shared the follow online supplemental curriculums which might be of interest to teachers and homeschoolers:

  • SPICE (Stanford Program on International and Cross Cultural Education) has several new units: An Interpretive History of Japan; China in Transition: Economic Development, Migra- tion, and Education; and Chinese American Voices: Teaching with Primary Sources. Visit
  • Education about Asia (EAA) has available articles to view and download from back issues published between 1996 and 2008. Registration is free. Visit

Visit FCCEAS for more links and resources to further your education on East Asian studies.  Find it all at

A few fun online resources for younger children to explore Japanese language and culture include:


Wendy Somes is Coordinator of Community Programs at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College.  She lives in Goshen with her husband, young son, and two spoiled felines.

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