The empire of woodblock prints

Taiwan, Chosen, and the wars with China and Russia

By William Wetherall

First posted 1 December 2009
Last updated 15 December 2009

Meiji woodblock prints Taiwan | Korea | Sino-Japanese War | Russo-Japanese War

Current events in Meiji woodblock prints

In Japan, woodblock prints with stories and simple pictures related to current events go back to at least the early 17th century. These earliest prints were in black on whitish paper.

Multicolor woodblock prints of the nishikie variety began to be used to convey older or recent news, as distinguished from historical tales or legends, in the mid 1870s. Such prints were most popular in 1874 and 1875, but a variety of formats continued to be used to illustrate current domestic and international events.

A number of news nishikie in the most popular 1874-1875 series depict the 1874 punitive expedition undertaken by Japan against a local tribe in Taiwan that was held responsible for the slaughter of some Ryukyuan fishermen. The Seinan war of 1877 and related confrontations in Japan were subjects of quite a few prints from late 1876 to 1878.

Confrontations between Japan and Korea, in the 1870s and 1880s, were also themes of a number of single sheet prints and triptychs. The wars between China and Russia, over Korea, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, were subjects of triptychs showing battle scenes, as well was of single sheets with satirical caricatures and commentary.

By the First World War, photography had all but entirely replaced such prints.

News related nishikie of the kind that were produced during their peak years in the mid 1870s are explored in great detail at News Nishikie.


Taiwan in woodblock prints


For a general overview of a number of Taiwwan Expedition prints, with links to my longer presentations and translations of the prints, see TNS news nishikie: Taiwan Expedition prints on the News Nishikie website. The prints are also linked from the "Taiwan Expedition" section under "Diplomacy" in the Politics section of this website.

For an article about Taiwan Expedition material in a contemporary illustrated book, see Meiji Taiheiki: Meiji Great Peace Chronicle on the News Nishikie site.


Korea in woodblock prints

Woodblock prints published in Japan during the 1850s and 1860s, depicting the adventures of Empress Jingu (_Vc), circa late 4th century, when she is supposed to have led a punitive Yamato expedition to the Korean peninsula, typically speak of the the "three Koreas" (O Sankan). The can mean n (Bakan), C (Shinkan), and ي (Benkan), each of which countries consisted of numerous tribes, or V (Shiragi), S (Kudara), and (Kōkuri), aka as Silla, Paekche, and Koguryo.

Jingu's expedition is typically referred to as the "three-Korea chastisement" (Oؐ Sankan seibatsu), but is also called the "Silla chastisement" (V Shiragi seibatsu). According to the 8th-century "Chronciles of Japan" ({I Nihon shoki), Empress Jingu -- as Emperor Chuai's wife, then pregnant with Emperor Ojin -- led a punitive force against Silla. After Silla's surrender, Paekche and Koguryo also submitted to Japan's rule.

Apart from the credibility of the story as legendary history, its place in Japanese cultural history is secured by the extent to which Jingu and her adventures have been represent on woodblock prints, currency, stamps, and other such material.

The so-called "Chosen chastisement" (N Chōsen seibatsu) took place in the late 16th century when Toyotomi Hideyoshi (LbGg Toyotomi Hideyoshi) attempted to conquer Ming China via the Korean peninsula. "Chosen" reflects the fact that, since the end of the 14th century, Korea had been ruled by the Yi court () or Yi dynasty, and had called itself N (Chosŏn).

By the middle of the 19th century, "Chosen" is the most common reference in Japanese to Korea. Japan and Korea had exchanged a number of missions between the mid 17th and mid 19th centuries, and during these two centuries there was a not a little trade between the two countries. However, there were also confrontations, especially after the 1850s when the United States, and some European states, forced Japan to open ports for trade under treaties that gave their nationals extraterritorial rights in Japan.

Frictions between Japan and Korea in the early 1870s, partly provoked by Japanese actions, led to divisive exchanges of opinion in the Japanese government in 1873 as to what to do with Korea. These exchanges were then, and are still, called the "Subdue Korea debate" (ؘ_ Sei-Kan ron) or "Subdue Korea dispute" (؋c_ Sei-kan giron).

One side, most prominently Saigo Takamori, advocated dispatching troops to the peninsula to take control of Korea, bring order to the country, liberate it from China's political dominance, prevent it from falling into Russian or other Euro-American hands, and otherwise exploit the area for Japan's national benefit. Opponents, including Okubo Toshimichi, argued that such action would embroil Japan in a war at a time when it needed to focus on domestic consolidation and security.

Okubo's arguments prevailed, but demands that Japan take over Korea resurfaced after the Kanghwa island incident of September 1875. Again, however, Okubo and others sought a diplomatic solution, which took the form of Korea agreeing, in a treaty signed February 1875, to open three ports to Japanese commerce.

Both the 1875 incident and the 1876 treaty were subjects of woodblock prints published in Japan. The "Subdue Korea debate" also continued to be a topic in prints from late 1877, immediately after the Seinan War in Kyushu. In this war, which began with local insurrections at the end of 1876 and beginning of 1877, Satsuma and other forces led by Saigo Takamori were defeated by a government army led by Okubo Toshimichi. Both men were former Satsuma samurai, and had been closely allied in the overthrow of the Tokugawa government and establishment of the Meiji government in late 1867 and early 1868.

The name of Korea at the time was N (SK Chosŏson, SJ Chōsen). This was also the most widely used name for the country on wookblock prints depicting a series of 1882 incidents on the peninsula called by various names, including "Chosen incident [disturbance]" (N Chōsen hen) , "Chosen running wild" (N\ Chōsen bōsō), and "Chosen great war" (N푈 Chōsen dai sensō).

1875 Kanghwa island incident in woodblock prints

Several contemporary nishikie depicted the 1875 incident at Kanghwa Island involving a Japanese naval vessel. The print to right is titled Teusen no sensō or "Battle in Chosen". It was published circa June 1876, several months after Japan and Chosen signed a treaty that in principle put the two countries on an equal diplomatic footing. The above link leads to an enlargeable image, a full transcription and translation of the story on this print, and commentary on the series that includes the print.

Kang 2007

The following book is especially valuable as a generally objective overview of Meiji-era -- and a few earlier -- nishikie concerning mostly Korea but also China.

I (JEhNT) (Ғ)

Kang Duksang, compiler and author, et al
Nishikie no naka no Chōsen to Chūgoku
(Bakumatsu / Meiji no Nihonjin no manazashi)
[Korea and China in color woodblock pictures
(The gaze of Bakumatsu / Meiji Japanese)]
Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2007
94 pages, 137 color illustrations, map
softcover, jacket

I have reviewed this book as Kang 2007 under "Politics" in the "Topics" section of the Bibliography feature of the New Nishikie website.

Sakurai Bunko at TKU Library

The website of the Tokyo Keizai University Library (oϑw}) also features a rather large collection of late Edo and Meiji era prints related to Korea.


The Japanese name of feature translates "Chosen nishikie collection". This very simple and objective title is overshadowed by a very long critic-baiting English title reading "Images of Korea in Ukiyoe Prints Reflecting Meiji Era Stereotypes of Korea".

The Chosen nishikie collection is part of the larger Sakurai Bunko (䕶), which was contributed to TKU Library by Sakurai Yoshiyuki (`V 1904-1989). Sakurai had been a reseacher and professor at Keijo Imperial University in Chosen from 1928 to 1941. After this he worked for the Government-General of Chosen, where among other duties he edited its organ magazine "Chōsen" (N). After the war he lectured at a number of universities in Japan.

The Chosen nishikie are listed according to year of production, drawer, and theme. Each lists has links to images of the prints. An index of names of people who appear in the prints shows the numbers of prints in which each person appears. There appear to be about 132 prints, including at least one kawaraban.


Sino-Japanese War in woodblock prints


The following book is the most comprehensive presentation in English of woodblock prints related to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895.

Nathan Chaikin
The Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895)
[The noted Basil Hall Chamberlain collection and a private collection]
Bern: Pillet, Martigny, 1983
203 pages, hardcover

I have reviewed this books as Chaikin 1983 under "Politics" in the "Topics" section of the Bibliography feature of the New Nishikie website.


Russo-Japanese War in woodblock prints