This essay addresses three key moments in the history of Japan's representation at the Venice Biennale: the introduction of “Japanese art” in the early stages of the exposition's development, in the late nineteenth century; Japan's official participation in the postwar Biennale, starting in 1952 and through the end of the 1960s; and the Japanese pavilion's program during the Biennale's so-called experimental period in the decade following the student demonstrations of 1968. While seemingly distinct, these three episodes evince a structural continuity: the demand for and performance of cultural difference within the space of the exhibition. This essay argues that Japan's (self-)representation of cultural alterity was mediated by the idea of pluralism promoted by the exhibition. Such representation was functional to the Biennale's mandate as well as to Japan's shifting world-historical aspirations. In the postwar period, Japanese artists and critics—including some individuals directly involved in the planning of Japan's submissions—came to diagnose what they saw as the limitations of the Biennale-Pavilion system. In doing so, they intuited a fundamental problem with the discourse of world in art as articulated in this exposition. This was, namely, the “pseudo-objectivity” of the international: the discourse of heterogeneity found in the Venice Biennale concealed inequalities based on the power differentials of the hegemonic world-system.

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