This series of prints, from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, depict scenes fairly typical of Japanese propaganda for the period. The victorious Japanese forces are shown as valiant heroes; the invading Russians are thin, foolish and effeminate. Many similar prints were produced over the course of the war by other artists, but this series stands out as their creator, Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915), was not only an extremely accomplished and versatile artist, but also an unlikely propagandist.
How Kiyochika learnt to paint is unknown. There is little evidence that he ever trained in the Japanese style, but seems to have had some rudimentary training in Western painting under Charles Wirgman, an English artist and cartoonist — although there are reports that he hated the smell of oil paints so much that he abandoned the medium almost immediately. He was, however, inspired by Western realism and impressionism, and this filtered through into his work.
This modern take on painting reflected the fast-modernising world Kiyochika experienced around him. His family were wealthy and respected under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogun, however when the shogun was deposed during the Meiji Restoration, they lost everything and went into exile. When Kiyochika eventually returned to Tokyo, the place of his birth, in 1874, he found it had entirely transformed. The Meiji government had opened Japan’s borders and, after years of isolationist rule, engineers, scientists and architects from the West began to pour in. Tokyo was now filled with brick buildings, trains and railways lines, telegraph poles and steamships.
Kioychika began painting the cityscape in the ukiyo-e woodblock tradition, but with shading and perspective influenced by Western art, juxtaposing the elements of the traditional Japanese past with the modernising West. This choice of subject matter makes Kiyochika’s work stand apart from other practitioners of the style, which traditionally depicted ghosts and demons, legends from Kabuki, or samurai and historical figures. After the Tokyo Fire of 1881, Kiyochika stopped producing these landscapes — although the images he painted of the fire would come to inspire his depiction of bombshell blasts and explosions in his war prints.
Perhaps influenced by Wirgman, Kiyochika moved into producing satirical cartoons for newspapers. Cartoons, as a medium that could easily be understood by both Japanese readers and those in the West, appealed to Kiyochika and he soon became the main illustrator for Marumaru Chinbun, a satirical newspaper sometimes compared to Punch. A talented caricaturist, his depictions of politicians and military figures were so recognisable that they did not need to be labelled. Due, in part, to his family’s loss of stature following the Meiji Restoration, Kiyochika was powerfully anti-government in his stance, and often was subject to legal action and prosecution for his cartoons — even serving several stints in prison for his controversial rendering of high-profile government figures.
Given this long-held opposition to the government, it is perhaps surprising that he turned his hand to government propaganda — first with a set of 1895 prints depicting scenes from the First Sino-Japanese War, and then almost ten years later, with the scenes featured here. His satirical cartoons were far removed from the patriotic war prints he produced during this time, although we plainly see his skill as a caricaturist in his images of the Russian soldiers, his interest in modern technological developments, and his continued affinity for Western realism. It is possible that he discovering a nationalistic streak during wartime, but it is also true that cartoonists can be efficient instruments of propaganda, and these prints proved very popular at the time.