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Sunday, Sept. 19, 2004


Just picture that!

Special to The Japan Times

The overthrow of the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867 and the restoration of imperial rule in 1868 was preceded by 15 years of intense change in news reporting.

News photo
This nishiki-e by Yoshitoshi dramatizes the story of a foreigner felling a brothel after trying to evade payment by claiming the prostitute stole his watch (Yubin Hochi Shinbun,1875).

Woodblock news prints called kawaraban had been published since at least 1615. The opening of ports to commerce and the growth of foreign settlements in the 1850s exposed Japan to Western broadsheets and tabloid newspapers. So, by the 1860s,a variety of news publications were being printed in Japan both by foreigners and Japanese.

As early as 1861, the ukiyo-e artist Yoshiiku Ochiai (1833-1904) was inspired by The Illustrated London News to create a series of prints about Yokohama and its foreign settlement. In 1872, with other writers and publishers, he started Tokyo's first daily newspaper, Tokyo Nichinichi Shinbun (Tokyo Daily News), or "Tonichi" for short.

Two years later, a woodblock publisher, with Yoshiiku and Tonichi's writers, came up with a revolutionary idea: publish some of Tonichi's human-interest stories as nishiki-e, a more colorful and vivid form of ukiyo-e.

News photo
Drawn by Sadanobu II, this nishiki-e relates the story of a woman in her 70s who, after her daughter died, was able to breastfeed her granddaughter. (Osaka Nishikie Shinwa, 1875)

Over the next year, Yoshiiku and his collaborators produced more than 100 news nishiki-e under the cherub-supported Tokyo Nichinichi Shinbun banner (though the prints were not published by the paper itself). Meanwhile, another publisher commissioned ukiyo-e artist Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839-92) to begin producing nishiki-e under the masthead of Yubin Hochi Shinbun (Post Dispatch News), the Tonichi's chief rival.

These news nishiki-e did not compete with newspapers. Mostly they were a novelty, a variety of woodblock print sold mainly at shops that carried prints, books and other publications. However, the Tonichi and Hochi news nishiki-e lasted barely a year and the news nishiki-e boom was over by the late 1870s.

News nishiki-e were unique as a format for providing full-color graphic renditions of recent and older stories in the news. Their vivid images must have delighted their purchasers, who probably took them home to read to the assembled family.

News photo
Drawn by Shigehiro this nishiki-e relates the story of a poor, sick Osaka widow who was unwilling to sell her daughter to keep herself alive, and chose instead to leap to her death from a bridge. Distraught, her daughter then jumped after

According to Reiko Tsuchiya, an associate professor of sociology at Osaka City University who has researched and written extensively on this topic, nishiki-e typically sold by the hundreds, with the more popular issues "surpassing 1,000."

Considering that the larger prints (which were slightly smaller than B4 size) took about a week to draw, write, carve and print, they could not hope to compete in timeliness with daily newspapers, but they made up for it in their use of lively imagery and language.

"I suppose in most cases the costumes, hairstyles and so on depicted in these prints were based on the artists' fancy, and it would be wrong to believe they resemble the actual appearance," Tsuchiya points out. "However, their themes do reflect the interests and concerns of ordinary people in those times. Topics like murders, robberies and love suicides of the day, as well as stories of ghosts and other mysterious occurrences, were not really so different from what we encounter in today's mass media," she observes.

News photo
This nishiki-e by Yoshiku illustrates how a farmer in Miyazaki Prefecture killed a peddler and thought he had got away with it until a dog brought her head into his village. (Tokyo Nichinichi Shinbun, 1875)

"We might laugh at how the prints depict old-fashioned attitudes toward foreigners, or the bunmei kaika (quest for civilization and enlightenment)," Tsuchiya adds. "But I think their true appeal lies in the contrast between the customs and values of people back then with ourselves today."

Interestingly, Yoshiiku and Yoshitoshi -- the central competing illustrators in the brief flowering of news nishiki-e -- were already rivals. Both artists had been students of woodblock master Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861). Both had also acquired reputations as iconoclasts by 1866, when they collaborated on a portfolio of 28 brazenly gruesome prints titled "Eimei Nijuhasshuku," whose title means "Twenty-Eight Plebeian Verses about Glorious Figures." But to people back then, its wordplays and allusions would have conveyed an in-your-face attitude akin to The Sex Pistols' 1977 album, "Never Mind the Bollocks."

The muzan-e (atrocious pictures) of the "Eimei" made spectacles of some of the most notorious rogues in Japan's history and they became a prototype for future collaborations of artists and writers on news nishiki-e less than a decade later.

"News nishiki-e were an amazing marriage of journalism and art," says long-term Japan resident William Wetherall, an authority on Japanese social issues who recently launched a Web site titled News Nishikie at www.nishikie.com

"They are generally more dynamic and expressive than the papers illustrated with woodcuts popular in England at the time. And, they were in color."

To find out more visit the Japan Newspaper Museum in Yokohama ( www.pressnet.or.jp/newsparkindex.html). Its shop sells postcard reproductions of old news prints and an illustrated catalog (in Japanese) of the museum's 2001 exhibition, "Meiji no media-shitachi: Nishiki-e shinbun no sekai (Media Men of Meiji: The World of Nishiki-e Newspapers)."

For other Week 3 stories in our package, please click the following links:

A flavor of Lima with Fujimori to the fore By Eric Prideaux Cream-puff heaven is open to all By Yoko Hani

Talkin' 'grassroots social reform' By Tomoko Otake

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