Military Woodblock Art

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

We tend to associate traditional Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) with traditional Japanese subject matter — namely Hokusai’s Great Wave — but the popular art style found itself applied to modern military subjects, too:

This should not be too much of a surprise, however: the most famous of the great Japanese woodblock artists died only a few decades before Commodore Perry brought his black boats to Edo bay. Much of their era would disappear in the miraculous changes of the Meiji revolution, but as the prints included here show quite clearly, much of the old order lived on into the 20th century.

Woodblock, Kobayashi Kiyochika,  In the Battle of the Yellow Sea

These prints all depict episodes from the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 or the Russo-Japanese War that was waged a decade later. Remarkably, none of these prints were designed to be great works of art; the great majority were carved and colored to accompany news reports from the front-lines, printed in newspapers or periodicals circulating in Japan on short notice. The artists never saw the battlefields they depicted, relying instead on common visual tropes, reporter’s accounts (you can see a gaggle of such reporters in the bottom right corner of the print placed directly below), and their own imaginations to create these images. The prints are therefore less useful for understanding the tactics or battlefield conditions of these wars than they are for understanding the attitude of a Japanese public mobilized for external conquest for the first time in centuries.

Woodblock, Yasuda Hampo, Picture of the Eighth Attack on Port Arthur

As historical sources the prints are revealing. A comparison of the physical features of the Japanese and Chinese soldiers depicted testifies to how thoroughly the Japanese people had adopted the racialist ideology common in European circles at the time. The prints, like the wars themselves, also betray how eager the Japanese were to prove that they were the equals of the Western powers. Perhaps most interesting, however, is how exultantly they depict the wars of their day. Tactically, the Russo-Japanese War was not far removed from the Great War that soon followed it, but the way the Japanese portrayed their experience with industrial warfare could not be further removed from the collective horror Europeans felt when they fought in the trenches. These woodblock prints were some of the first artistic renderings of industrial age warfare; never again would a people forced to wage such a war render it so beautifully.

Woodblock, Mizuno Toshikata, Hurrah, Hurrah for the Great Japanese Empire

Woodblock, Kobayashi Kiyochika, Our Forces Great Victory in the Battle of the Yellow Sea


  1. A Boy and His Dog says:

    There’s a print in the gallery of Chinese prisoners being beheaded that brings to mind the photo of Leonard Siffleet. That kind of prisoner beheading had a long history although the uyoku still deny it.

  2. Exfernal says:

    In these pretty pictures there is a conspicuous lack of effects of explosions up close, especially strewn around human innards, that would in reality often accompany modern battlefields.

  3. As Greer notes, these artists hadn’t themselves seen a modern battlefield. As we see from the beheading image they were hardly squeamish, so the lack of gore can presumably be chalked up to ignorance.

  4. Edwin says:

    A study of these modern woodblock prints with a military perspective is worthy of a PhD thesis?

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