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Cross-Cultural Counterparts: The Role of Keimin Bunka Shidosho in Indonesian Art, 1942 – 1945
September 12th, 2018Type: Translation
Author: Antariksa, 簡德浩 (翻譯) Editor: Hsu, Fang-tze
Quote From: Keiko Toyoda & Fumi Toyoda (ed), 2015, Tsuyoshi Ozawa, The Return of Painter F, Tokyo: Shiseido, pp16-20
Note: After limited recognition during the Dutch period, the nationalist artists who were active in PERSAGI increased their profile during the Japanese occupation, and were given state sponsorship, thus institutionalised in the key art organisations of the period. One organisation in particular was focussed on the development of nationalist arts during the occupation, namely Keimin Bunka Shidōsho (Institute for People’s Education and Cultural Guidance; better known as Pusat Kebudayaan). The author Antariksa is the co-founder of KUNCI Cultural Studies Center, interests lie in the complexities of the Indonesian art environment. In particular, art collectivism during Japanese occupation (1942–1945) and its impacts on Indonesian art history.


Throughout the Japanese occupation (1942-1945), the Japanese authorities sought to mobilise Indonesian artists for propaganda in support of the ‘Greater East Asian War’. In an unprecedented event in Indonesian art history, art came under centralised supervision, and the idea of art collectivism became an important platform for serving and disseminating the idea of Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere.

Japanese policy for the arts in Indonesia further stimulated a movement that began four years before Japanese soldiers arrived in Indonesia.

In 1938, a small group of Indonesian artists formed the Association of Indonesian Painters (Persatuan Ahli Gambar Indonesia, or PERSAGI). They were politically aligned with the nationalist movement and incorporated Indonesian themes into their work. PERSAGI’s basis was a shared critique of the state of the fine arts in Indonesia based on the nationalist vision of an autonomous and free nation.

Art in 1930s Indonesia was the exclusive domain of the Indo-European community. Only a handful of Indonesian painters were admitted into these prestigious colonial cultural establishments and thus works of young Indonesian artists remained unknown. Sudjojono, one of PERSAGI’s co-founders, reflected on this situation:

S. Sudjojono in Djawa Baroe, 1943

First, the majority of painters here are Europeans, foreigners—who remain here for only two or three years and are thus in a sense tourists themselves. Second, local painters who only want to serve the tourists. Third, local painters who only imitate the works of these foreign painters and serve the need of tourists because they do not have enough force to create anything original.(註1)

PERSAGI’s goal was to develop fine art among the Indonesian people and sought the ‘style of New Indonesia’. They criticized the Dutch colonial romantic style of painting (called mooi Indie, the beautiful Indies) that prevailed in the 1930s and the pre-war art world that was dominated by exhibitions of realistic and impressionist paintings made by Dutch and other foreign artists.

Although PERSAGI was disbanded when the Japanese invaded along with all other social organisations, and replaced with government-run bodies, their nationalist tendencies were in line with the Japanese military administration who wanted to expel any kind of Dutch influence from political, economic, cultural, educational an religious spheres. While Japan’s attitude towards Indonesian independence was consistent, due to the necessity of obtaining Indonesian cooperation, Japan indeed actively introduced a more liberal and assimilative policy for the arts in Indonesia than for any other occupied area of Southeast Asia.(註2) After limited recognition during the Dutch period, the nationalist artists who were active in PERSAGI increased their profile during the occupation, and were given state sponsorship, thus their ideas and techniques were institutionalised in the key art organisations of the period.

One art organisation in particular was focussed on the development of nationalist arts during the Japanese occupation, namely Keimin Bunka Shidōsho (Institute for People’s Education and Cultural Guidance; better known as Pusat Kebudayaan or Cultural Center).

Keimin Bunka Shidōsho was established in April 1943 as an auxiliary organisation of Sendenbu, or the Propaganda Department. Its tasks were to promote traditional Indonesian arts, to introduce and disseminate Japanese culture, and to educate and train Indonesian artists. It comprised of separate sections for film, literature, painting and sculpture, theater and dance, and music, and each section was co-chaired by Japanese bunkajin (men of culture) and Indonesian artists. The painting and sculpture section was co-chaired by Japanese artist Kōno Takashi and Indonesian artist Agus Djajasuminta.


Photograph of Keimin Bunka Shidōsho members / staffs after their 1st meeting, 1943/4/2. Djawa Baroe, 1943/4/15

Japanese bunkajin played an influential mediating role between the occupier and the occupied, the commander and the commanded, especially during the crucial early stages of the occupation, in particular in Java. In this role they solicited and received assistance from influential figures, including Indonesian nationalist artists and members of the intelligentsia. The Sendenbu managed to recruit a large number of talented Japanese bunkajin and prominent Indonesian artists for Keimin Bunka Shidōsho and daily propaganda activities in Indonesia. From Japan there was Iida Nobuo (composer), Kōno Takashi (graphic designer), Kurata Bunjin (film director), Hinatsu Eitarō (film director), Yokoyama Ryūichi (manga artist), Saseo Ono (painter), Koiso Ryōhei (painter), and Hajime Itō (painter) among others.(註3) And from Indonesia there was Kusbini (composer), Sudjojono (painter), Emiria Sunassa (painter), Basuki Abdullah (painter), Barli Sasmitanata (painter), Agus Djajasuminta (painter) and Iton Lesmana (graphic designer) among others.(註4)

Training and exhibiting were core activities of Keimin Bunka Shidōsho’s painting and sculpture section. Compared to the former exclusive exhibitions under the Dutch colonisation the Indonesian painters now could reach a much wider public. Keimin Bunka Shidōsho organized many exhibitions to show the works by Indonesian and Japanese artists to a general public, quite often open air. Organized tours of whole classes of school children contributed to the great amount of visitors, sometimes more than 10,000.

The teaching activities of Japanese artists and Indonesian established painters, reached many young painters. For the first time these state sponsored artists were trained in contemporary fine arts. The necessities for teaching activities (canvas, paint, studio space) were state financed, charging little or nothing. Indonesian artist Barli Sasmitanata recalled his experience:

In the Dutch days, oil paint was very expensive for us as young artists to buy. But the Japanese occupation was not a bad time for us artists. The Japan Culture Center provided us with oil paint, canvases, brushes… everything for free. Every month a truck came to deliver painting material. Oil paint came not in tubes, but in bigger containers. When we ran out of painting material, all I had to do was to telephone or write to the headquarters in Jakarta. As for drawing paper, they supplied us with rolls of paper.(註5)

Djawa Baroe (New Java) Magazine, 1943-1945

Kōno Takashi viewed training as central to developing the future of Indonesian fine art. He placed great emphasis on the encouragement of emerging artists and that art “should not be above but right in the middle of society”.(註6) Kōno himself actively promoted new media and Western techniques to Indonesian artists. For example, he introduced collage and montage into design practices in Indonesia. Another Japanese artist, Ono Saseo, introduced stop motion animation and the mural to Indonesian artists; Hajime Itō actively promoted the woodblock print; and artists like Miyamoto Saburō or Fujita Tsuguharu(註7) promoted nineteenth- century-style history or campaign record paintings.

However, Indonesian artists did not view their style as ‘Western’, but as contemporary. Indonesian artists also viewed works produced by Japanese artists as unique because of their nationalist commitment and their focus on Indonesian themes — to which they applied what they learned from their fellow Indonesian artists. Both Indonesian and Japanese artists of that time broadly shared a perspective about painting and indeed a shared orientation to Indonesian culture. They had a sense of taking Indonesian art from its current state towards a new destination and positioning, as Kōno wrote in 1943:

the new consciousness desired by the emerging Indonesian artists had some commonalities with the new consciousness promoted by the Japanese.(註8)

Indonesian art between 1942 and 1945 and the role of Keimin Bunka Shidōsho during the occupation period created technical, practical and political possibilities for Indonesian painters to further develop their skills and political awareness. The technical and political skills attained during this short period contributed to the maturing of Indonesian artists’ ideas of nationalism and ‘self taught’ work, which played a crucial role during the Indonesian Revolution Period (1945-49).

[1] Sudjojono, "Seni Loekis Indonesia Sekarang dan Jang Akan Datang", 1946. Seni Loekis, Kesenian dan Seniman. Yogyakarta: Indonesia Sekarang; reprint 2000, Yogyakarta: Aksara Indonesia, pp1-8.
[2] See Masahiro Ushiroshoji. "日本軍政と東南アジアの美術 (Art of Southeast Asia under Japanese Occupation 1942-1995)", in Tetsugaku Nenpo or Annual of Philosophy, Vol. 72, 2013, pp49-72.
[3] According to Indonesian artist A.D. Pirous during the Japanese occupation there were more than 100 Japanese artists working in Indonesia (interview I conducted with A.D Pirous, Jakarta, 13 June 2015). The above-mentioned Japanese artists were based and worked mostly in Java, under the 16th Army.
[4] There were 67 Indonesians listed on Gunseikanbu’s list of people who worked in the cultural sector in Java, 27 of these were visual artists. See Gunseikanbu (1944). Orang Indonesia jang terkemoeka di Djawa. Jakarta: Gunseikanbu; reprint 1973, Tokyo: Biblio, pp417-421.
[5] Kosei Ono. “Saseo Ono: An Artist’s Odyssey”. The Comics Journal, Vol. 5, 2005, pp4-21.
[6] Kōno Takashi. “Meneropong Latihan Meloekis”. Keboedajaan Timor, no.1, 1942, pp21-22.
[7] Miyamoto Saburō was based and worked mostly in Sulawesi, under the Navy; Fujita Tsuguharu was in Sumatera and Singapore, under the 25th Army. Other Japanese artists who were in Sumatera include Kikuo Matsushita (cartoonist) and Tsuruta Gorō (painter). Both Fujita and Miyamoto has never been involved directly with Keimin Bunka Shidōsho, as this organization mainly based in Java and operated under the supervision of the 16th Army. But from time to time, this organization also collaborated and worked with artists and organizations in other islands of Indonesia, and helped them with organizing exhibitions or art courses. Sometimes they also invited them to come and work in Java. I dare to argue that Fujita and Miyamoto involvement with Keimin Bunka Sidhōsho was “soft” or “indirect” involvement.
[8] Kōno Takashi. “Kesenian Jang Hidoep dalam Pembangoenan Masjarakat Baru” [Art in the Development of New Society]. Djawa Baroe, 1 April 1943, pp9-10.