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

The Rise of Tourism and the Era of Ocean Liners

The majority of posters in USC’s collection of Taishō (1912–1926) and early Shōwa (1926–1989) Japan are travel posters, specifically those intended to promote steamship and railway companies. After the establishment of sea routes and railway networks in the nineteenth century, tourism expanded worldwide, particularly after the First World War. Mechanization and modern technology facilitated safe, speedy, luxurious, and comfortable transportation. In Japan, the boom economy due to the war encouraged the rapidly growing nouveau riche and the new middle class to engage in this latest leisure activity to obtain pleasures in exotic lands, through other cultures, and by Orientalizing other Asians. 

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Japan’s Meiji government had actively supported shipping and shipbuilding businesses since the first Sino-Japanese War (1894–95). In addition, the Japan Tourist Bureau began operating in 1912 within the government’s Tetsudōin (Railway Agency, est. 1908) to promote the tourism industry. This semi-private organization did so by actively producing advertisements and publications with images of cultured or even sacred Japan, as seen in Sugiura Hisui's 1916 poster for the bureau, which included stylized images of five-storied Buddhist pagoda framed by deer and pine trees. The bureau was restructured as the International Tourist Bureau in 1930 to further market Japan as the country moved toward militarism. Indeed, tourism became the second largest industry after the textile trade (cotton, silk, and synthetic, in order of acquired capital) and a major means by which Japan gained foreign currency.[1] 

Unpinning History covers this subject from the mid-1910s to early 1920s. The foremost examples are of steamship companies; these reflect the surge of popularity in luxurious cruise liners with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. Included here are posters of Japan’s major steamship companies, such as the Ōsaka Shōsen Kaisha (OSK)/Osaka Mercantile Steamship Co. (est. 1884) and the Nippon Yūsen Kaisha (NYK)/Japan Mail Steamship Co. (est. 1885). Their ocean liners connected Japan to the rest of the world, but especially throughout East Asia. The companies commissioned posters that used vibrant colors, hybrid painterly styles, and various languages to compete against lavish Western liners. Some posters even incorporated calendars, as well as maps and sea routes, and were intended for year-round display. This practice reflected polychrome ukiyo-e prints with calendars, which arose from competitions among wealthy commissioning merchants for better and more attractive multicolor images. In this respect, the Japan Mail Steamship Co.’s poster with ukiyo-e style beauties not only speaks to this historical connection, but also early posters’ thematic penchant for featuring beautiful women. Other examples also show elements of symbolic and nostalgic Japan along with steamships, which represent quintessential modernity. Together, the posters embody a beautiful, hopeful, and powerful state and help to reimagine Japan’s position among the Western imperial powers. (Rika Hiro)

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