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This essay by Dan McKee describes the political, satirical and journalistic involvment of Meiji printmakers such as Kawanabe Kyosai, Yoshitoshi and Kobayashi Kiyochika.
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Of course this is a simplified version of the story, for printmakers in early Meiji continued to apply satire to the ideals of the Meiji government, and to meet with commercial success thereby. A witty series of prints by Kawanabe Kyosai in the early 1870's imagines all the monsters, spirits, and superstitions of old Japan literally exorcised by the process of enlightenment, the demons of hell de-horned with modern tools, the ghosts forced to learn Romaji at the Kaika Gakko, while paradise is depicted as a land of rickshaws and stewpots full of beef, where even the Buddhist guardian Fudo Myoo is depicted partaking of this bloody new delicacy.
Kyosai's prints depict a world upside down, an enlightenment rife with contradictions and absurdities, but for all that, manage to put on a smiling face that makes the parody seem to be all in good fun.
Somewhat more ominous is the famous triptych "Kaika Injun" ("The Engine of Progress") which shows a fight-to-the-death battle between traditional Japanese goods and Western imports, all in the gray smoke belching from an expressionless, advancing steam engine.
Such prints smack of the old structure of resistance, parody and critical commentary, noting the negative aspects of government policies without really engaging them directly or offering a viable alternative.
Though the same could certainly be said of most forms of satire, there does seem to be a difference between these general commentaries and the specific criticisms of the satire prints in the 1880's and 90's, which aim not only to critique from outside, but to participate in the political process.
Participation is really the keyword for describing the Meiji print politically, and what separates it from the popular print of the Tokugawa Period. By participation, I mean of course prints of government figures and the emperor as celebrities with whom the print buyer can symbolically connect, as well as the patriotic identification of print buyers with scenes from the Sino-Japanese War.
But I do not only mean participation in such a limited sense. For printmakers were basically free now to take a stand politically on issues - as long as that stance did not question the sacred status of the emperor or the validity of the Meiji government - and to influence public opinion thereby.
Though the vast majority of Meiji prints continue to be apolitical, primarily sources of entertainment, the position of artists like Yoshitoshi and Kobayashi Kiyochika in the newspaper industry allowed them to be right at the source of how current events were to be represented to the general public.
It was Yoshitoshi who provided most of the images of the Satsuma Rebellion to a curious populace, and his later alignment with the Eiri Jiyu Shimbun, the newspaper of the newly established Liberal Party, drew him, whether by his will or not, into the forefront of politics.
Kiyochika, likewise, after experimenting with several sets of landscapes that aped the Western etching, devoted the remainder of his artistic life to newspaper work, satire prints, and triptychs of the Sino-Japanese War. His satirical work is particularly important for its committed stance on a variety of issues, including a press for the establishment a National Diet, more humane policies towards commoners, and the punishment of corruption among government officials.
It is important to see here the difference between this kind of politically involved satire, and the parody-from-outside prevalent in late Tokugawa and early Meiji. The flip side of the common man's identification with government and nation was his desire to influence the direction in which they moved, and printmakers expressed this same desire in their committed commentary on current events.
(August 2003, updated by Dieter Wanczura in September 2009)
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