The Floating World at War: Cartoon Historian Mark Bryant Explores the Visual Satire Emanating from Both Sides of the Conflict between Russia and Japan in the First Decade of the 20th Century

By Bryant, Mark | History Today, June 2006 | Go to article overview

The Floating World at War: Cartoon Historian Mark Bryant Explores the Visual Satire Emanating from Both Sides of the Conflict between Russia and Japan in the First Decade of the 20th Century


Bryant, Mark, History Today


In chronicling the events of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05--seen by many as the first modern war--the belligerent nations drew on two great graphic traditions. In Japan these were the famous prints of actors and courtesans known as ukiyo-e (Pictures of the Floating [or Passing] World), which originated in the seventeenth century and whose later masters included Hokusai, Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi, Utamaro and others. In Tsarist Russia the tradition was that of the lubok, a brightly coloured popular print (often including an explanatory text in verse) and dating back to the eighteenth century. However, by the middle of the nineteenth century, artists from both countries had begun to be influenced by European cartoons and caricature.

The Russo-Japanese War began with a surprise Japanese attack on the Pacific Squadron of the Imperial Russian Navy at its base at Port Arthur on the Liaodong peninsula (in what is now north-eastern China) on the night of February 8th, 1904. Later dubbed as 'The First Pearl Harbor' (as the Japanese did not officially declare war until later) the Japanese lorce of eleven small steam-driven torpedo boats had great success and--after crippling two huge Russian battleships and a cruiser with the newly developed British Whitehead torpedoes--blockaded the port. In an attempt to break the blockade, Russia sent its Baltic Fleet half way around the world and the two opposing forces met on May 27th, 1905, in the Straits of Tsushima, south of Fusan in Korea. Commanded by Admiral Heichachiro Togo, the Japanese fleet sank or captured most of the Russian armada--only three out of thirty-eight ships managed to reach the Russian port of Vladivostok. Russian casualties were nearly 4,500 killed and around 6,000 taken prisoner, while the Japanese suffered only 117 killed and 583 wounded for the loss of just three torpedo boats. The Battle of Tsushima was one of history's greatest naval victories and a turning point in the Russo-Japanese War. Not only was it a great success for Japan, which had only recently emerged out of self-imposed isolation, but also an important lesson for Russia, one of the world's greatest empires, whose aggressive expansionist policies had earned it the nickname of 'the Black Octopus'.

This was the Meiji or 'Enlightened' Period (1868-1912) in Japan when, after 250 years of isolation under the dictatorial rule of the military shoguns of the Tokugawa family, the imperial throne was restored and the new Emperor Mutsushito reopened Japan's borders to world affairs. And among the European influences it quickly absorbed was that of political cartoons and caricature. One of the founding fathers of the modern Japanese cartoon was an Englishman, Charles Wirgman (1833-91) who spent the last thirty years of his life in the international port of Yokohama working as a foreign correspondent for the Illustrated London News. In July 1862 he set up the monthly English-language satirical magazine Japan Punch, which ran for twenty-five years. Based on its British counterpart (founded in 1841), it became the model for other Japanese satirical magazines including Nipponchi (1874), Maru Maru Chimbun (1877) and Tokyo Punch (1905). …

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