Volume 16 (1998)

Images of Enemy and Self:
Russian "Popular Prints" of the Russo-Japanese War*

Yulia Mikhailova

"Popular Prints" in Russia
Images of War with Japan
Japanese Wartime Woodblock Prints: a Comparison

Japanese Wartime Woodblock Prints: a Comparison

During the war with Russia woodblock prints depicting scenes of war and images of the enemy and Self also appeared in Japan. It is interesting to compare what features Russian and Japanese prints had in common and what made them different.24
The immediate social and ideological purposes of the prints in each country were mainly the same: to mobilize people for the war effort and to create a psychological buffer against war's hardships. However, Japan also had a broader and a more complicated task. It had to convince the domestic and international audience that Japan was an important nation fighting a righteous war, and an equal to "civilized" Western powers. The war was a mile-stone in building-up the ideology of modern Japan based on the concepts of the divinity of its imperial dynasty, the family-state and loyalty of subjects to both. It was almost the first time in Japanese history (the Sino-Japanese War was only the first attempt) when woodblock prints were used for the indoctrination of this ideology into the mass consciousness. The prints assisted in creating and supporting the general enthusiasm about the war that existed in the Japanese society.
Because for several centuries Japan had not been engaged in large-scale military campaigns with foreign countries, Japanese artists had little experience in representing their adversaries at war. So, images had to be invented anew. These factors contributed to their novelty and freshness. Japanese prints displayed creativity and artistism. Moreover, they were individual works of art and the names of artists and designers - Getsuzo, Ryua, Kobayashi Kiyochika - were known to the public.
In contrast to Japan, this war was not a matter of vital interest to the whole population of Russia. For the Russians, this war pursued the interests of a narrow group of bourgeoisie and court aristocracy. Until the capitulation of Port Arthur, which was perceived as a national humiliation, ordinary people remained more or less indifferent to the events at the remote Far Eastern theatre of war.
Russian "popular prints" had a long tradition of depicting Russia's adversaries at wars. Russia also possessed a self-image of a great military empire respected and even feared by the world. So, prints produced during the war with Japan could easily borrow the existing images and adapt them to the new situation. Only satirical prints such as How a Russian Sailor Cut off the Japanese Nose or A Foolish Frog at Port Arthur show features of novelty and imagination. This resort to tradition, though guaranteeing the popularity of images on the mass level, at the same time made them stiff and dull. The anonymity of Russian prints only enhanced these features.
Both Russian and Japanese prints contrasted positive images of Self to negative images of Other, but contrasts were often drawn on different assumptions. The Japanese accentuated primarily "the Japanese spirit," their chivalry and discipline, and opposed them to the enemy's arrogance, cruelty and lack of discipline. However, they rarely depicted the foe in a grotesque manner, and did not rely on caricature to convince the viewer in the valour of their fighting man. Moreover, they never resorted to blunt racism for denigrating the enemy. Only in cartoons of that time, an even "lower" genre, may one see Russians represented as "demons," "water-fleas," "worms" or scornfully called Rosuke. Sometimes woodblock painters attributed to Russians even noble features or showed them as a formidable enemy, though primarily to emphasize that the Japanese were strong enough to overcome them. Admiration and respect was felt for those enemy leaders whose strength and bravery were close to the Japanese ideals, this being seen in depicting the tragic death of Admiral Makarov or General Kuropatkin fighting in the battle of Liaoyang.
In general, Russian print designers tended to emphasize the peaceful intentions of their mother-land, its heroic military past, courage and boldness of Russians. However, satirical prints were based on exaggeration of physical, racial differences between the two peoples: the huge height and size of Russian Cossacks, the yellow skin and slant eyes of the Japanese. These caricatures made Russian representations crude and vulgar, though quite appealing to ordinary folks. The intelligent public in St. Petersburg and Moscow was aware of the fact that the Japanese were clever, powerful and dangerous enemies able to fight well. But who would have thought so when looking at the crippled figure of Admiral Togo or at the crying ragged fellow representing Marquis Ito!
On the whole, Japanese woodblock prints seem to be more serious than Russian popular prints, which corresponds to the goals of the war each country had. For Japan this was a national war which was to define the country's future. For Russia this was simply a military campaign in a remote Far Eastern theater. Japanese woodblock prints assisted in mobilizing the population of Japan into one nation pursuing one major goal. Conventional Russian military icons, Cossacks and sailors, were no longer able to promote the spirit of national unity in a country torn apart by the revolutionary movement. However, graphic images of the Japanese created by the war-time "popular prints" appeared able to form attitudes towards the Japanese on what may be called the level of banality, in the sense that they became a part of Russian "banal nationalism" directed against Japan.25
"Popular prints" analysed in the present article and in the works of E. de Swanton demonstrate our hypothesis about the heterogeneity of attitudes to the adversary on different social levels in each country. Japanese woodblock prints supplement a more familiar and widespread image of Japanese intellectuals of the beginning of the 20th century who were enchanted by great Russian literature. As for Russia, though it has recently become popular to write about the hostile attitudes to Japan of the Soviet leaders, usually these attitudes are attributed to ideological confrontation. It seems that another explanation related to deeper layers of mass consciousness, to folkloristic traditions should also be taken into consideration.