The more than century-long territorial dispute between China and Japan has been in the news over the last few weeks, this time because of the disputed ownership of the tiny island chain which the Japanese call Senkaku and the Chinese Diaoyutai. It is an emotive issue for both nations; popular Chinese sentiment is at the moment fiercely anti-Japanese, hence the very violent protests in recent weeks and attacks in Beijing on Japanese businesses.
The roots of Japanese territorial anxiety stem from the western powers’ harassment of Japanese sovereignty in the mid-nineteenth century. The Tokugawa period (1600 1868) bought peace to the warring factions and with it prosperity and culture. The policy of sakoku (“locked country”), a policy under which no foreigner could enter the country and no Japanese leave on penalty of death, lasted more or less intact until the enforced opening up of Japan by the American Naval Captain Commander Perry in 1854. The superiority of the seven iron-clad ships obliged the Shogun to sign the Treaty of Peace and Amity to be followed by similar accords with other western countries. The treaties, signed under duress, were manifestly unfair to the Japanese and imposed advantageous tariffs to the foreigners. The result was revolution in Japan and the dissolution of the old Shogunate Government and the introduction of the new Meiji Empire in 1868, modelled on the German Constitution and expressly designed to create a rival power in the East as a defence against perceived western imperialism. In this respect, the Japanese were left with little choice but to modernise, westernise and militarise.
To that end, the Japanese devised the principle of “the line of advantage”. The National slogan of the early Meiji period was: “Revere the Empire, Expel the Barbarian”. This was replaced later with Fukoku kyohei (“Enrich the country, strengthen the military”). The line of advantage was an argument that proposed extending Japan’s territory beyond the present borders to make it better able to repel imperial western aggression of the homeland. Particularly troublesome was the Korean Peninsula, described at the time as a “dagger pointed at the heart of Japan”.
Disputes between China and Japan – rumbling since 1885 – tipped over in 1894 into direct conflict. The Korean Government, supplanted by pro-Japanese rebels, invited the Chinese forces to leave and gave permission for Japanese troops to evict them forcibly. This and other events caused a formal declaration of war on the 1st of August. The Chinese took refuge in the city of Pyongyang and the Japanese attacked a garrison of 13,000, killing 2,000 at a cost of only 102 themselves. Pyongyang fell on the 16th September 1894. The victory in Korea was celebrated at home as a justification of the new enlightenment and proof that Japan was now a serious military power in the East; pre-eminent perhaps. Foreign observers had expected Japan to be crushed by the outwardly superior army and navy of China. The various naval battles saw the newly modernised fleets of the two countries come together at disastrous cost to the Chinese. The Japanese fleet destroyed eight out of ten Chinese warships of the mouth of the Yalu River in the September of 1894 and pressed inland taking the city of Port Arthur (Lushunko) at tragic cost to the civilian population.
The treaty of Shimonoseki in April 1895 signalled the end of the conflict, to Japan’s great advantage, and the independence of Korea, albeit with a Japanese leaning administration. More importantly it established Japan as a modern military power, equal in strength to western nations and as the subsequent war with Russia in 1904 demonstrated, the pre-eminent industrial and military power in the east.
Japanese artists celebrated the victories in Korea and China through woodblock prints representing battles on land and sea and scenes of particular heroism and compassion. These prints were the closest the Japanese public had to war reportage and the quality of many of them is quite exceptional both in revolutionary design and the extraordinary sophistication of the printing itself. These pieces are currently being re-evaluated – previously dismissed as mere propaganda, contemporary critics and art historians recognise that many of the best prints were being produced by artists who under different circumstances and at a different time would have been making work of a very different nature. The great names of the period – Kiyochika, Chikanobu, Toshihide, Gekko – all produced senso-e (war prints) partly because the traditional ukiyo-e of the nineteenth century was falling from favour and partly because of the decline of the theatre and the licensed pleasure quarters. The technical quality of the prints can frequently be astonishingly good and the quality of design is also startling in its modernity and brilliance. The requirements of the subject matter – smoke, mists, night-time scenes – forced artists and printmakers to find new ways of depiction, techniques that would influence the new wave of Japanese print artists in the twentieth century and also design, drawing and painting beyond their own borders in Europe and America.
Seeing beyond mere jingoism, we can at this distance appreciate these prints for great works of art and of graphic design… knowingly modern and still somehow mindful of the past. Toshidama Gallery will be showing examples of Japanese war prints and other Meiji art in our forthcoming exhibition, Meiji – Japanese Prints In The New Age, from 19th October 2012.