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


The image of Japan and the Japanese in Russia during the war with Japan was different for the intellectual elite and for the popular masses. Russian intellectuals were able to realize the potential might of a rapidly modernizing Japanese state and foresaw inevitable rivalry. They perceived Japan as "the yellow peril," as a menace possibly able to shake the foundations of the Russian civilization.26 On the contrary, the ordinary people relied rather on traditional imagery than on reality. They did not view Russian adversary in this war as a threatening menace. Even when popular magazines used the words "the yellow peril," this aimed rather to stress Europe's need to be protected by Russia, and China, not Japan, seemed to be more dangerous. For example, at the beginning of 1905 when the outcome of the war was more or less clear, an article in Niva stated:
Finally, having made a good effort, the Russian people would anyhow put an end to the Japanese invasion. However, it is China with its population of millions who is rising up against us ensuing Japan and due to her help... It is quite likely that the national awakening of the yellow race would have consequences for England, Germany and France. At present we are the only country supping up the broth made by Japan.27
In other words, in spite of her military victory in the war, Japan failed to become an adversary deserving serious attention by the common Russian people. The people actually never understood completely why the war was lost to Japan.
Russians were definitely stunned by the achievements of the "little country," whose "treacherous light... has brightly illuminated Mars [Russia - Y.M.] and overcast even the disorders of the 'moon' [the Muslim world - Y.M.]."28 At the same time Japan remained a "'yellow parvenu' [italics - Y.M.] which due to her dodges and guile managed to get a place in the 'first' class salon." The magazine Budil'nik ran a cartoon representing a small and clumsy Japanese woman making her first steps into the company of the European ladies.29 What an irony this attitude was for Japan who had fought the war with the purpose "to see [the] country cease to be regarded as a land inhabited by dear little doll-like people...," to get rid of the "misconception that [the Japanese] are only pretty weaklings."30 The Russian people did not seem to be much convinced by her efforts. The image of the "little yellow country," though now not so much "pretty" but "cunning and treacherous," constructed by "popular prints" and duplicated by cartoons of popular magazines, lived long in Russia. By appealing to the folklore and popular humor, accentuating the most primitive, racist instincts of the people, and using a traditional art form, "popular prints" helped to promote this image even into the future.
In political cartoons which appeared in 1938 and 1939 on the occasion of the Soviet victory over Japan at Lake Khasan (the Chokoho incident) the Russians were again depicted as giants with boots and guns of enormous size, though now the Cossack was replaced by the brave Soviet soldier.31 The Japanese again bore the same stereotypical features. One may only suggest that the Soviet leaders of the 1930s, who came from the "bottom" of society, in their younger years absorbed well the images of the Japanese spread by "popular prints." These racist images enhanced now by the ideological ethos appeared to be a convenient tool for the Soviet propaganda machine to build up the image of a "weak enemy" and to instill in the consciousness of the Soviet people that they lived in the "most powerful state in the world."
It is obvious that Russian "popular prints" were too boastful and vainglorious, and their laughter was vulgar and even racist. They conveyed what was thought to be people's thoughts and feelings at that time, reflecting the blind and strong faith in victory, regarding failure as inconceivable. "Popular prints" were far from the reality of the war and were fed by rumors or images which were pre-set in the Russian mind. They glorified the Russian national spirit and the moral and physical superiority of the Russians while belittling the Japanese. While denigration of the enemy, attributing to him malevolent characteristics, as well as racism and stereotyping are quite visible in the Russian "popular prints," exaggerated fear and anxiety are expressed to a lesser degree than, for example, in American and British cartoons of the Pacific War.32 There was no Russian analogue for the Japanese superman which later appeared in the American and British war graphics.
However, this form of enmification of Japan was highly ironic for Russia. The "giant" Russia was defeated in 1905 by the same small Japan it made fun of. The denigration of the country which has proved its abilities to enter the world community as a peer turned into humiliation and national shame for Russia itself.
Both in the short and in the long run the Russians became the victims of their own ambitions, exaggerated self-image and misinterpretation of reality and of the Other. The same pattern of enmification when the adversary was "not taken seriously" is clearly visible in the Soviet policy towards Japan from 1945 till the second half of the 1980s. In no small part due to "popular prints" the idea of Japanese treachery and deceit, contrasted with Russian moral justness, became deeply imbedded in the mind of the Russian common folk and provided an effective instrument for the ideological mobilization of anti-Japanese feelings. Only in the 1970s did new images begin to ouster old stereotypes. The latter is, however, a topic for a separate examination.