Meiji at 150: The Prints of Toyohara Chikanobu

Imperial Procession throughout the Streets after the Ceremony of the Promulgation of the Constitution (1889) by Toyohara Chikanobu

This year, 2018, marks the 150th anniversary of Japan’s Meiji Restoration — the official restoration of the emperor to power after centuries of rule by the Tokugawa Shogunate. In realty, however, the emperor still wielded relatively little power. The Meiji Restoration, however, was a turning point in Japanese history — the Han System (the system of feudal domains) was abolished, a national legislature established, constitutional government established, Japan industrialized, the samurai were replaced by a conscript military, education was made universal for children, and Japan became a world power by the time Emperor Meiji died in 1912. Photography was an important medium, capturing many of the major changes in Japan from the 1850s onward. The traditional Japanese art of woodblock printing remained strong as well. Japanese woodblock print artists created images of striking quality and color, portraying the many changes in society which took place between 1868 and 1912. One of those artists was Toyohara Chikanobu (1838–1912).

Chikanobu was born twenty years before the restoration. He was a Tokugawa loyalist in the civil wars of the 1860s and even served in military campaigns at the time. After the establishment of the Meiji government, Toyohara Chikanobu decided to try to make a living as an artist. He was a successful war artist but depicted many other scenes (as we shall see below).

a school choir

Western fashions were all the rage in Meiji-era Japan. The Meiji oligarch Inoue Kaoru hosted elaborate balls at his western-style mansion. Women were encouraged to wear the colorful western dresses which appear frequently in Meiji-era prints.

As the years passed, Japanese flags began to appear in prints as well. The first Japanese flag of the Meiji state was adopted in 1870. Both the present flag of Japan and the Rising Sun flag were used.

Japanese flags in a print depicting a Korean uprising

Japan became increasingly involved in continental Asian politics. The Japanese used gunboat diplomacy on the Koreans in the 1870s, just as the Western powers used such tactics on Japan two decades earlier. Korea would become a Japanese protectorate in 1905 and a colony in 1910.

Western-style buildings were constructed throughout major Japanese cities during the Meiji Period (surviving examples can be seen in Hakodate and Kobe).

view of a horse track (1885) — emphasis on the Imperial family as spectators

In previous centuries, the emperor was rarely seen by the people of Japan. This changed after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Emperor Meiji made tours around the country, had his photo taken and placed in official buildings, and appeared in woodblock prints. Toyohara Chikanobu depicted him frequently.

Imperial Family in 1887

The future Emperor Taisho (r.1912–1926) occasionally appeared as well.

ceremonial issuing of the Constitution by the Emperor Meiji

In 1889, the Japanese government promulgated the first western-style codified constitution in Asia. The Constitution of the Empire of Japan (Meiji Constitution) went into force in 1890 and remained officially in force until 1947. The constitution was written by the Meiji oligarchs. The leaders of the Meiji Government looked to Prussia (and later Germany) as a model.

A scene in the Japanese Diet

The Imperial Diet was the national legislature established in Japan during the Meiji period. It first met in 1890 and was bicameral. The lower house was an elected House of Representatives while the upper house was the House of Peers.

House of Peers

Toyohara Chikanobu created quite a few war prints during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). Here is an example:

Battle at the Yalu River (1904)

Japan defeated Russia in 1905 — the first time in modern history that an Asian nation defeated a Western power. Japan became a force to be reckoned with on the world stage. Both Toyohara Chikanobu and Emperor Meiji died in 1912 — the end of a monumental era.