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Toys in Satire and Political Commentary on the Russo-Japanese War by Kobayashi Kiyochika


When it comes to the creation of impactful social commentary, few things are as effective as satirical cartoons. Growing up in a rapidly evolving Japan, Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847 — 1915), a printmaker whose illustrated series of political cartoons related to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 are now regarded as an international sensation, stood out for his manga style fusion of Japanese and Western art. Inspired by Western realism and impressionism, Kiyochika “adopted the effects of Western lithography and engraving, especially in his wood-block prints.”

He first found notoriety as a landscape artist. After 1882, however, “he came under the influence of Japanese nationalistic currents and produced educational cartoons and prints based on historical themes.” Considering his international artistic inspirations, it’s interesting that he used his skills for the creation of nationalistic propaganda. Cartoons appealed to Kiyochika because of how easily they were understood by both Japanese and Western readers, and so he quickly “become the main illustrator for Marumaru Chinbun, a satirical newspaper sometimes compared to Punch.“

Marumaru chinbun is said to hold the first example in Japanese print of using facial likeness of a public figure to lampoon that person...While Marumaru chinbun often published pointed political satire, it also contained much manga humor that is less discerningly political.” When working on the Russo-Japanese war series, Kiyochika often targeted Aleksey N. Kuropatkin (1848 — 1925), the minister of war who was blamed for Russia’s defeat in the standoff. His talent as a caricaturist was so impressive, his depictions of politicians or other figures of importance did not need to be labelled as they were easily recognizable.

In his work, ”the victorious Japanese forces are shown as valiant heroes; the invading Russians are thin, foolish and effeminate.” Although his satirical illustrations were similar to other artists of the time, Kiyochika’s background made his participation in the creation of pro-government art a bit unexpected, “due, in part, to his family’s loss of stature following the Meiji Restoration, Kiyochika was powerfully anti-government in his stance, and often was subject to legal action and prosecution for his cartoons — even serving several stints in prison for his controversial rendering of high-profile government figures.”

All in all, Kiyochika was a master of illustrated satire. He seemed to have an understanding of the cultural and political structures of modern society, having witnessed Japan’s quick industrialization and transformation. He also appeared to have a working understanding of the social and imperial mechanisms that governed Imperial Russia, as the notable selections below will illustrate. In them, toys and games are used to indicate the childish foolishness of the Russian forces, and are a clear insult on their perceived military prowess.

Russian soldiers frightened by toy figures of Japanese soldiers hanging by strings.

Two children wearing sailor outfits are playing with a balloon tethered to a Russian battleship, the balloon has burst revealing the head of a Russian admiral or czar and the battleship has been sunk, the Russian child, standing, pointing to the balloon, is crying, the Japanese child, sitting, is joyfully clapping.

Print shows the Russian general A.N. Kuropatkin playing with toy soldiers while a woman sitting on the floor watches.

Print shows a string held by a Japanese man about to ensnare the hands of a Russian man reaching to grab a Chinese or Korean man lying on the ground smoking a pipe with a rooster nearby.

A Russian officer and a Japanese officer are standing on a large map, the Japanese officer has pulled up a piece of the map causing the Russian officer to slip and fall.

A Russian civilian gets upset during a game of dai shogi, while his Japanese opponent appears confident of victory.

Note* All of the images and their descriptions are curtesy of the Library of Congress

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