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

Ōsaka Shōsen Kabushiki Kaisha [Red-Seal Ship]

This advertisement for the Osaka Mercantile Steamship Company reflects the buoyant mood of the Taishō period (1912–1926), marked by Japan’s internationalization, movement of people and goods, and transmission of cultures. The subject is an old-style ship, popularly called “Red-Seal Ship,” in reference to “red seals,” or permits, that were given to merchants by the Shogunate government during the Edo period (1600–1868). In other words, the poster represents commercial trade between Japan and the rest of Asia. 

It is painted in the yōga (Western) style, communicating the sought after ideals of modernization and westernization during a time when Japan’s emerging middle class began to break away from Japanese tradition. This painting style is also emblematic of a unity of cultures, as it integrated the western oil painting tradition with a uniquely Japanese aesthetic. Printed using a modern printing press, the poster is done in rich coloring and creates an almost luminous surface. This recalls the effect of oil painting and can be seen especially in the ocean’s surface where the tonal range of the pigments creates multidimensional shadows and highlights that evoke both the ocean’s opacity and transparency. 

Founded in 1884, Ōsaka Shōsen Kabushiki Kaisha (OSK) or Osaka Merchant Shipping Company nearly dominated shipping in East Asia. The poster thus evokes the power and pride of the corporation, as well as a sense of nostalgia and Japan’s cultural identity through the depiction of a Red-Seal Ship. (Shalexxus Aaron and Lilith Coryell Jenkins)

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