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Popular Prints in the Meiji Era

Kokon Tokyo Meisho - Train in Takanawa
By Hiroshige III Utagawa
By Hiroshige III Utagawa

This essay take a look at the structure by which the popular print was integrated into the political goals of the Meiji era.

From Life-Style Product to Political Media

To sum up the various movements and new genres within the Meiji print I have touched on here, it bears repeating that the most significant difference between the Meiji and Tokugawa prints is not in the form of the prints, but in the new structure of participation.

The popular print was no longer a media outside of politics and the official reality promulgated by authority, but took its place as one part of the nation, devoted to the task of nation building.

In this way, unlike the popular (gesaku) fiction of the Tokugawa Period, which caved in almost at once to the demands of political authority for an ennobling fiction of social morality, the popular print managed to continue remarkably unchanged until its functions were superceded by the photograph at the turn of the century.

Japonisme in France - Craze for Things Japanese

In part, no doubt, this longevity was helped by attention from the West, with displays of Japanese prints causing a stir in France as early as 1867, the print thus being the first and most important Japanese claim for its cultural advancement to the West.

Prints of a modernizing Japan, of railroads, brick buildings, machinery, dances, dresses, uniforms and suits, and particularly of an advanced, modern army, were clearly intended not only for a domestic audience, but also to display Japanese achievements to the watching world, in the hope of ultimately revising the unequal treaties forced upon it.

Though such a goal was of course not the immediate aim of the publishers, who were interested primarily in profit, it meshed neatly with the desires of the print buying public, who, as always, wanted what was new, but now also wanted the new as symbol of its own modernity and enlightenment.

Structure of Meiji Participation

The structure of participation, then, is not merely of the print, but of the people whose desires shaped its content, and the story of the Meiji print is really the story of the changing nature of "the people", defined in abstract.

From the low caste urban commoner excluded from politics and self-representation, the audience of the popular print in bakumatsu-early Meiji transformed (without changing physical bodies) into a people who were the nation, who were at least symbolically represented, and ultimately capable of influencing the decisions of its rulers.

Meiji Censorship

Though Meiji censorship could be as harsh or harsher, and was much more systematic than that of the Tokugawa bakufu, these restrictions, being ostensibly for the good of all people (of the nation) did not stir up the kind of resentment and reaction that the latter did, by pressing down from above.

In this manner, representing the people as itself, the Meiji government could influence the content of the popular print without ever having to directly prescribe it, by modulating the internal desires and self-policing of the populace.

In only in a few exceptional cases did this mechanism break down, forcing officials to punish individual printmakers for challenging the "good of the nation". For in general, the welfare of the nation was what people desired, and their desires what directed the content of the prints.

Dan McKee
Edited by Dieter Wanczura

Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura