Japanese woodcut prints depicting scenes from the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895 and the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 are usually called War Prints by collectors.
Collecting Japanese war prints is a somewhat special genre. Most collectors prefer designs of beautiful women to fierce and sometimes cruel images of war. Nevertheless, Japanese woodcut prints glorifying the Sino Japanese and the Russo Japanese war are an important part of the history of ukiyo-e. Many of these prints have an artistic value and are a testimony of a period that seems to be so far away.
In 1867 the last Shogun resigned and nominal power went to the emperor Mutsushito, who took the name Meiji - meaning "The Enlightened". Under the era of the emperor, Japan transformed itself from a feudal, medieval state into a country of Western civilization and technology. Foreign experts were called into the country by thousands to modernize the Japanese economy, society and the armed forces. Young Japanese were sent abroad in large numbers to study Western methods. As a result, Japan had become a serious economic and military power within a very short period of time.
Japan's conflict with China broke out over the control of Korea. After some skirmishes and uprisings of pro-Chinese against pro-Japanese groups in Seoul, Chinese and Japanese forces were embarked in Korea. On July 14, 1894 fighting had started at Phungtao between Chinese ships and the Japanese fleet. Within less than one year, Japan defeated the Chinese armed forces without great efforts.
The Sino-Japanese War ended with the Treaty of Shimonoseki. China had to make territorial concessions (Taiwan and some islands) and had to pay large indemnities to Japan. Korea's independence was formally confirmed. But de facto Korea became a part of the Japanese hemisphere.
During the Sino-Japanese war, Japan had mobilized 140,000 soldiers. Only 1,400 died in combat, but many more as a result of harsh weather conditions in the Manchurian winter. The swift victory of the Japanese troops was achieved because of the massive and systematic modernization of Japan after the Meiji Restoration.
Chinese troops were no match for the Japanese who fought with latest Western weapon technology. Furthermore, the Japanese troops were supported by a wave of nationalistic enthusiasm.
The woodcut prints reflected the military situation and the dominant aggressive Japanese expansionism. The Chinese enemies are depicted as some kind of primitive barbarians and backward people armed with spears, while the fierce-looking Japanese soldiers attack with modern rifles.
In 1898 Russia leased Port Arthur from China. Two years later in 1900, Russia took the Boxer Rebellion in China as an excuse to occupy Manchuria. An expansion into Korea seemed to be imminent. After negotiations between the two countries had failed, the Japanese navy launched an attack on Port Arthur in 1904.
The Russo-Japanese War was fought on land and on sea. The Japanese remained victorious in several land battles with high casualties on both sides. The final outcome of the war was decided in a naval battle.
Japan had established a sea blockade against the Russian ships at Port Arthur. Russia sent its Baltic fleet with 45 ships altogether for rescue. The Russians were intercepted in Tsushima Strait between Japan and Korea and were devastatingly defeated.
The Russo-Japanese war ended with the peace treaty of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, mediated by President Theodor Roosevelt. Russia recognized the Japanese dominance over Korea and agreed to the long-term lease of the Liaodong Peninsula. Ten years later, Korea was formally integrated into Japan as a province.
Until about 1900 ukiyo-e was a means of illustrating news, of announcing events with a commercial background. And it served as an advertising media. No wonder that the Sino-Japanese war spurred a flurry of prints. The war was popular among the Japanese, and people were eager to learn the latest news from the front.
It was some kind of a mixture of tabloid press and coffee table books. Publishers and artists rushed to be the first to push prints with the latest events into the market. The situation is comparable to today's haste with book publishers trying to be the first after the end of a big event like the olympic games.
Also during the war against Russia, Japanese woodcut prints were designed and swiftly published. But they turned out to be shelf warmers because people preferred the latest photographs of the war correspondents. What a difference a decade can make!
Japanese woodcut prints glorifying the two wars were made by all major artists and by a great number of designers whose dates are not even known and who are sometimes unknown for any other print output. The prints made by such well-known ukiyo-e artists like Kiyochika, Gekko, Toshihide or Toshikata are more subtle in design and color and more artistically elaborated.
Here is a list in alphabetical order by first name of many of the known artists with war print designs. The list was taken from the book "Impressions of the Front" with slight modifications and some minor additions regarding name spelling and completeness of artists' names and dates.
Collecting Japanese woodcut prints with war scenes is a wallet-friendly market niche. Since the end of World War II, the Japanese people have a strong antipathy towards war and avoid anything that reminds them of the cruelties committed by their troops in the first half of the twentieth century.
US$200 to US$400 for a good triptych bought on the Internet are a reasonable price. Everything distinctively above US$500 is either something very rare and special or overpriced or you are shopping on New York's Fifth Avenue.
Prints with designs of the Sino-Japanese War are easily available. Those from the Russo-Japanese war are harder to find and they are usually somewhat more expensive. Naval battle designs are more popular - especially among British collectors.
Most war prints were designed as triptychs - a set of three panels. On today's art market, they are found either as a set of three separate panels or the panels are pasted together. From a collector's value point it does not make much difference. What counts, is the attractiveness of the design and condition.
Author: Dieter Wanczura