2015 has been a good year for lovers of Japanese art in Boston. The city’s phenomenal Museum of Fine Arts has hosted not just one, but three special exhibitions of Japanese art so far this year, along with its newly restored Japanese garden outside. The most hyped of all of these is an exhibition dedicated solely to Katsushika Hokusai, one of the most important ukiyo-e painters and printmakers of the Edo period who’s best known as the creator of The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Besides the Hokusai collection, the museum is also hosting a particularly powerful exhibit displaying the work of 17 photographers in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku triple disasters, along with a lighthearted exhibit showcasing prints of some whimsical Japanese toys and games. As all three of the exhibitions are preparing to wind down within the next few weeks after hosting thousands of visitors over the past months, we thought we’d take a moment to share some of their highlights with you!

Unbeknownst to me and many of my fellow New Englanders for a long time, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (hereafter MFA) prides itself on having the largest collection of Japanese art outside of Japan–and that’s no exaggeration. The collection is largely thanks to the efforts of one William Sturgis Bigelow (1850-1926), an American physician who journeyed to Japan in 1882 and ended up staying there for seven years. He became an avid collector of art and donated over 40,000 pieces to the museum upon his return to America. In fact, over 80 percent of the works of art in the current Hokusai exhibition are directly attributed to him.

We’ll provide brief synopses of the three Japanese exhibitions listed in the introduction of this piece, along with some photos from our Boston-based writer’s recent visit to check them out. Keep in mind that the MFA’s official website provides a wealth of background information on each of the exhibits, including slideshow previews of some of the work in each gallery for those of you who can’t make it to Boston in the very near future.

April 5, 2015-August 9, 2015
Gund Gallery (Gallery LG31)
Exhibition website

The MFA spared no expense promoting the Hokusai exhibit in the weeks leading up to its opening earlier this year. Advertisements were plastered on every imaginable surface in Boston; the exterior of the museum was even decorated with huge banners displaying The Great Wave (check out the picture at the top of this article), beating out another featured exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches which opened only 10 days later. Various media praised its astounding comprehensiveness when it finally opened to the public on April 5.

▼ Local paper The Cape Cod Times advertising the exhibition back in April


This highly billed exhibition features over 200 works by the master artist over the span of his life, including the famous print Under the Wave Off Kanagawa (The Great Wave) from the 36 Views of Mt. Fuji series and an absolutely stunning multi-panel screen painting titled Phoenix (1835).

▼ The free brochure given out at the exhibition


Take a moment to watch these introductory video clips.

▼ A short preview of the exhibition

▼ A message from curator Sarah Thompson

The exhibit itself is divided into seven different areas, each easily distinguishable by a colored wall and a descriptive introductory text. In order of progression through the galleries, the six are Urban Pleasures, Views of Mt. Fuji, Waterfalls & Bridges, Ingenious Designs, Private Commissions, Nature Studies, and Legend & Literature.

Let’s take a look now at some of the featured art (Note: We apologize for the dim lighting in some of these photos, but flash photography is not permitted in the galleries).

  ▼ This sign is the first thing you see as you walk into the gallery.


▼ A steady stream of people was in the Urban Pleasures gallery, as well as a traditional koto instrument.




▼ I found this boar to be incredibly endearing, somehow.



Though the views of Mt. Fuji, bridges, and waterfalls prints were undeniably exquisite, I thought that some of the lesser known pictures in the Nature Studies gallery were incredibly refreshing:






▼ One corner in the last area was dedicated to the printmaking process, showing the various tools used when making a woodblock print.


▼ The procedure was then illustrated using prints of The Great Wave at various stages of completion.


Upon exiting the exhibition, visitors pass through an entirely Hokusai-themed gift shop (what tactical genius!). The shop also includes a variety of general Japan-themed items as well, and I had fun perusing the merchandise.

Out of the museum’s three temporary Japan-themed exhibitions, the Hokusai one will be open for the longest remaining time, until August 9. Be sure to stop by if you’re in the area!

Moving on…

In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11
April 5, 2015-July 12, 2015
Foster Gallery (Gallery 158)
Exhibition website

The second of the featured exhibitions is titled In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11, and explores the physical and emotional aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown through photographs taken by 17 Japanese photographers.

As someone who lived in the Tohoku region of Japan, knew people who were directly affected by the tsunami, and volunteered in a disaster area, I was very much intrigued by this exhibition, though with a bit of trepidation. While the space was much smaller than that of the Hokusai exhibition, it still packed a powerful emotional punch, accentuated even more so by the eerie silence that seemed to affect all visitors to the room.

▼  The entryway to the exhibition, located right outside of one of the MFA’s main gift shops and cafes



While I didn’t take any pictures of the many photographs in the gallery, there was one area in the back corner which showed a looping video of the tsunami sweeping across land on March 11, 2011. Several people sat here entranced, watching the horrific scenes from four years ago as they played over and over again.


▼ A closer view of the TV screen


Located directly behind that display was a large image of an evacuated street in Fukushima, near the Daiichi power plant. Upon closer inspection, I realized that the picture was actually a video, completely still except for blades of grass waving in the breeze and the flickering of a traffic signal. The visual was also accompanied by a high-pitched, constant beeping sound, which was revealed to be an actual recording of the warning signal given off by a radiation detector belonging to the person who filmed this scene.


Despite the above displays and the photographs of tsunami rubble that have become permanently imprinted in my mind, for me, the most moving work in the entire exhibit was a relatively simple one consisting of dozens of personal photographs arranged on a wall, all with ink smeared to varying degrees:


These weren’t just any photographs, however–they once belonged to people just like you and me, but were lost and then recovered in the waters of the tsunami. Here’s the brief description for the display:


Unfortunately, In the Wake will end its run on July 12, so anyone not in the immediate vicinity probably won’t have a chance to get to the museum in time to see it. However, a book chronicling the exhibition can be purchased here instead.

Playing with Paper: Japanese Toy Prints
September 13, 2014-July 19, 2015
Japanese Print Gallery (Gallery 278A)
Exhibition website

In contrast to the previous exhibition, this one is all fun and games–literally. Composed of a single gallery in the MFA’s Art of Asia wing, it’s an interesting glimpse into a facet of daily life that we don’t usually think about when we consider life in Edo period-Japan. Included in the gallery are prints depicting a variety of board games, paper dolls, cutout dioramas, and pictorial riddles that Japanese people enjoyed in 19th century.

I didn’t have enough time to check out this exhibit after the Hokusai and In the Wake ones, but I had gone to see it earlier in the year and it was quite enjoyable. The works in this gallery will be available for viewing until July 12, one week later than the ones in In the Wake. 

If you’re an enthusiastic lover of Japanese art and have already exhausted the three museum exhibits described above, make sure you don’t overlook the MFA’s permanent galleries of Japanese art as well! Besides the Arts of Japan gallery, which features both ancient and contemporary works, the museum is well-known for its Japanese Buddhist Temple Room. This room was designed in 1909 by adapting elements of the plans used for the main hall of Horyu-ji, an important temple in Nara and one of the oldest wooden buildings left in the world.

Lastly, Japanese art makes an appearance in the exterior of the MFA in the form of a traditional Japanese viewing garden called Tenshin-en. The garden was dedicated in 1988 to a former curator of Chinese and Japanese Art at the museum and is occasionally the site of Japanese tea ceremony events. According to its website,

“Representing a unique merging of two cultures, Tenshin-en combines the profound symbolism of a Japanese garden with a feeling that evokes the rocky coastline and deep forests of New England.” 

The garden was closed for one year for restoration, and it reopened again this past April to coincide with the Hokusai and In the Wake exhibits. If you’re in the area, why not stop by for a few moments of quiet meditation in a serene setting?

▼ Maybe you can even get a sweet rainbow in the corner of your picture, like I did!


Museum Information
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Address: 465 Huntington Ave, Boston, MA 02115 USA
Open Saturday-Tuesday 10 a.m.-4:45 p.m., Wednesday-Friday 10 a.m.-9:45 p.m.
Tel: 1-860-617-267-9300
Website: www.mfa.org
Detailed ticket and pricing information can be found at the website listed above. Here’s a little hint, though–Wednesday nights after 4 p.m. is admission by voluntary contribution only!

Sources: Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston GlobeWikipedia (William Sturgis Bigelow)
All images © RocketNews24 unless otherwise noted.