Unpinning History : Japanese Posters in the Age of Commercialism, Imperialism, and Modernism

Japan in the Age of Commercialism, Imperialism, and Modernism

Japan in the Taishō (1912–1926) and early Shōwa (1926–1989) periods, represented in the Unpinning History exhibition, was quickly transforming due to the boom economy brought about by the First World War. As a result, urbanization accelerated, especially in Tokyo and Osaka. The latter city’s population briefly surpassed that of Tokyo in the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake that devastated the capital but ironically led to an unprecedented level of urban development and renewal.[1] Another phenomen in these cities was the rise of the nouveau riche and middle class of white-collar workers, including women, who propelled consumerism and created the trend of being modan—a Japanese word derived from English modern. Some youth became even more liberated and often self-indulgent. The moga (Japanese abbreviation for “modern girl”) and mobo (“modern boy”) were not only major consumers but also producers of new fashion and culture based on their entertainment activities.[2]

Moreover, the desire to be technologically advanced was shared widely throughout Japanese society. Telecommunication and mass media advanced swiftly during this time. Modern transportation began to be constructed; Asia’s first subway, connecting the Asakusa and Ueno areas of Tokyo, opened in 1927. Shopping districts with department stores became a major locus for displaying advertisements, in addition to other public gathering spots, such as bathhouses, barbershops, and inns.[3] Another emblematic innovation of the Taishō period was mechanical reprography, which brought higher quality mass printing, including posters promoting contemporary and cultured lifestyles or leisure activities including tourism. In other words, the very posters seen in this exhibition embody Japan’s emerging modernity. 

For example, the poster for the Kattoru/Cuttle snack (ca. 1920s) well illustrates the era’s visuality and sensibility. It reflects Western modern design in a stylized form of squid (although the product is in fact dried cuttlefish), play in typography (including the product name in English), and bold coloring. Additionally, the advertisement presents the product as an easy-to-carry nutritious snack, good for mountaineering or with beer and sake through repackaging; otherwise, a conventional delicacy. In doing so, this commercial design speaks to new, healthy, and pleasurable lifestyles much desired at the time. Made slightly earlier than the Cuttle advert, the poster for the Toyo Kisen Kaisha/Oriental Steamship Company (1917), which promotes the corporation’s trans-Pacific Ocean liners, unifies distinct painterly practices and themes. They include conventional pictorial subjects, such as a beautiful woman holding a fan that is also the company’s logo, her kimono merging into the deep blue background in a minimalist style, and a modern steamship and Yokohama Wharf buildings painted in skilled mimetic realism.

Concerning domestic politics, Japan had become a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament under the emperor. Democratic thoughts introduced from the West inspired the women’s rights movement, another testament to their presence in the public sphere even though they were not granted the right to vote until the postwar period, in addition to the labor and suffrage movements. One of the culminating cases in the push for democratization was the 1918 Rice Riot, in which farmers and housewives in rural Toyama Prefecture protested against the rising price of rice and eventually mobilized groups of people across Japan. Nonetheless, the period of “Taishō democracy,” as it was later called, did not last long. The General Election Law (1925) permitted voting rights to all men over twenty-five. Simultaneously, however, accelerating modernization, westernization, and democratization also bore a dilemma among the Japanese and society concerning national identity. In the same year, the Peace Preservation Law was enacted to reassert authoritarian control. This was followed by the prohibition of communism in 1928. 

On the international front, this newly ascendant state had moved steadily toward imperialism and expansionism since the Meiji period (1868–1912). Japan won in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), which allowed the country to occupy Taiwan, Korea, South Sakhalin, and Northeastern China. In short, Japan reimagined its position on a global scale, which is represented visibly or symbolically in a number of posters in the exhibition. In particular, ones for the South Manchuria Railway Company shed light on the critical moment right before the Mukden Incident and the establishment of Manchukuo, Japan’s puppet state (1932). Posters in the 1930s, an area that has been more actively researched, depict more overt political and militaristic messages.[4]

History Unpinned: Concise History of Posters in Interwar-Period Japan

It is undeniable that the invention of mechanical prints was a kernel of modernity and not just of Japan, where Western-style posters were introduced at the end of the nineteenth century. However, posters in Japan also retained a pictorial practice of the Edo period (1603–1868), that being polychrome woodblock prints of ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”). The production method, favored genres, and mode of circulation of these premodern popular prints had indeed paved the way for modern prints and commercial advertisements.[5] Ukiyo-e prints often accompanied texts, occasionally including sponsors’ or products’ names, and that link suggests a relatively high rate of literacy among commoners in Edo-period Japan. More importantly, they were produced based on a well-established division of labor among trained craftspeople under the supervision of publishers. While designers such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) or Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), for instance, were in charge of creating images, their eminent prints would not have been available without the hands of engravers and printers/colorists, as well as the keen eyes of publishers as producers. 

Modern posters were made in a similar collaborative way, albeit directed by printing companies.[6] Designers, who were usually professionally trained artists working for printing companies, made paintings that would be adopted as posters. Then, print artisans/engineers (gakō) hand-copied the paintings onto multiple metal plates, one for each color in the metal lithographic process, in the same way that multiple woodblocks were prepared for ukiyo-e “brocade” prints. A penchant for vivid colors was ingrained in Japanese consciousness, and print engineers had mastered skills to meet such expectations. Thus, early posters in Japan often involved much larger numbers of color plates—as many as more than thirty—in contrast to contemporaneous posters in the West, which generally required four to five color plates.[7] Furthermore, business owners, who commissioned posters, did not directly work with artists or designers but mediated with the printing companies. Under this production model, especially until the early Taishō period, poster designs were often determined before knowledge of the products and/or companies that the posters would advertise. Therefore, images that had universal appeal were preferred, and bijin, or a beautiful woman, became the foremost subject for early posters and small businesses that did not have sufficient budgets to commission specific designs for the marketing of their own products.[8] That being said, large corporations, especially steamship companies and department stores, tended to commission posters with complicated designs and many colors, which thus required more color plates and labor, as seen in the case of the Japan Mail Steamship Company

By the late Taishō period, this hand-drawing part was replaced by a photomechanical process, which, along with the introduction of rotary press, contributed to much faster and more numerous printings.[9] At the same time, several artists or designers came to accept commissions directly from business owners for commercial advertisements. The Unpinning History exhibition posters well represent this juncture. Many of them were printed by Japan’s major offset printing companies, which enlivened the country’s modern visuality with new technology, expertise, and expensive devices that they attained. Such entities included Mitsuma Printing Company in Tokyo as well as Osaka’s Japan Seihan Printing Company and Ichida Offset Printing Company. Interestingly, the printing companies’ names and/or monographs were also printed on Japanese posters until around the mid-1970s.[10] In other words, such posters also functioned to promote printing companies and their high-quality prints. 

Regarding designers, one of the major milestone events in the development of Japanese posters occurred in the late Meiji period (1968–1912). In 1901, the Sixth Annual Exhibition of the Hakuba-kai (White Horse Society), an association of yōga or Western-style painters led by renowned academic painter Kuroda Seiki (1866–1924), included fifty-one lithographic posters that Kuroda acquired during his visits to the 1900 Paris Exposition.[11] The display of Art Nouveau posters, especially those by Alphonse (or Alfons) Mucha and Henri Thiriet, was so impactful that a number of Hakuba-kai apprentices later became major Japanese graphic designers and painters who strived to fill the hierarchical boundary between fine art and design since the birth of “fine art” as part of the Meiji state’s ideology. 

Among these practitioners included in the Unpinning History exhibition is Japan’s pioneering graphic designer, writer, and educator Sugiura Hisui (1876–1965)—whose posters span a range of design styles—in addition to Nagahara Kōtarō (or Shisui) (1864–1930), Mayama Kōji (1882–1982), and Okano Sakae (1880–1942). USC Libraries’ collection represents other artists-turned-designers who also contributed to the social role of designers that emerged in the first few decades of the twentieth century, including Sugiyama Sueo (1885–1946) and Tada Hokuu (1889–1948), both of whom made names for themselves as independent graphic designers.[12] Sugiura Hisui tried to depart from the bijin-ga poster model and establish modern and creative yet clear designs that were conscious of the eyes of the mass consumers.[13]He even organized design exhibitions and a designer collective called the Shichinin-sha (Company of Seven) along with the collective’s journal, Affiches (“Posters”). Similarly, Sugiyama Sueo was central to the organization of the 1921 Insatsu Bunka Hakurankai/Graphic Art Exposition.This Ministry of Education-sponsored exhibition showcased historical prints, graphic art, and printing technologies and attracted more than 310,000 visitors over an exhibition period of only a month. In the exhibition’s illustrated catalogue of historical printed matters, Ikeda Keihachi, a politician and the chairman of the exhibition committee, stated that the development of a country’s culture relies on printing technology and the need for exhibitions about print culture.[14] Out of 150 exhibitions dedicated to advertisements and commercial designs held during the Taishō period’s short but intense fifteen years, this is one prime example attesting to the surge of interest, even from officials, in print culture and graphic design.[15] (Rika Hiro)


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