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History of the nishiki-e caricatures from 1842 to 1905

The Tenpō-reform was one of the three big reforms that took place in the Edo-period. It was conducted from the 15th day of the 5th month of 1841 by the chancellor Mizuno Tadakuni under the shogun Ieyoshi. The motto of this reform was gprohibition of luxury" and was, unlike the two foregoing reforms, aiming at the entire people. Every part of daily life, as food, clothing, amusement etc. was concerned. Within the first two years a total of 178 orders (machibure) were given to the townsfolk of Edo. The amusement- and pleasure-industry as well as the theatre-business and publishers etc. were affected by drastic prohibitions.

In the 12th month of 1841 the jihon-tonya kabu nakama as well as all the other publisher guilds were dissolved. The reason was that according to the authorities the guilds had not sufficiently fulfilled their function as censorship organs. On the 3rd day of the 6th month of 1842 a law for the control of books was enacted which replaced the existing system of self-censorship of the guilds. Already during the Kyōhō-reform in 1722 Christian religion, indiscrete comments, fashionable trends, caricatures, erotic presentations and bargain with faked ancestor documentation etc. had been forbidden. In the course of the Tenpō-reform the existing prohibitions were enforced and new ones, like the control system of publishers and authors, were added.

This system was retained in order for 15 years. In 1858 the guilds were allowed to reorganise themselves again because of economic reasons. Until then the system was modified four times:

  1. One censorship seal-period (nanushi tanfin jidai) (1843 - 11th month of 1846)
  2. Two censorship seal-period (nanushi sōfin jidai) (12th month of 1847 - 1st month of 1852)
  3. Two censorship- and date seal-period (nanushi sōfin to nengetsu-in no sanfin jidai) (2nd month of 1852 - 11th month of 1853)
  4. One anonym censorship-seal and date seal-period (aratame to nengetsu no sōfin jidai) (12th month of 1853 - 1857)

On the 4th day of the 6th month of 1842, one day after the general law for the control of books was enacted, a special law for nishiki-e and picture books was given to the townsfolk of Edo. The same measures that had been applied to books before, became applicable for the nishiki-e now: the self censorship of the guild did not exist any longer but censorship was now controlled solely by the bakufu-shogunate. Especially stressed was the prohibition of the representation of kabuki-actors, courtesans and Geishas. The prohibition of sale, of such items did not just effect newly printed, but also stocked nishiki-e, as well as fan-pictures (uchiwa-e). In the 11th month of 1842 new prohibitions concerning nishiki-e emerged. Not more than eight colours for the print were to be used, the form was not allowed to exceed the dimension of a triptych and the price of a picture had not to be more than 16 mon. These different prohibitions were a hard strike for the publishers and artists of nishiki-e as practically all their main themes had been banned.

Therefore Kuniyoshi and his scholars (Yoshitora, Yoshitsuya, Yoshikazu, Yoshifuji, Yoshiiku, Yoshitoshi et al.) started to present the themes in a humoristic and satiric way, as to bypass these prohibitions of presentation. Humorous pictures, satiric information and political caricatures etc. soon got very popular. In the 8th month of 1843 the most famous political caricature of the Tenpō-reform, the picture Minamoto Raikō-kō yakata tsuchigumo yōkai o nasu no zu was released. This caricature made a huge impact and became a big success. The publisher Ibaya Senzaburō destroyed the printing plates shortly after the first release and withdraw the unsold copies to avoid punishment for Kuniyoshi and himself. Kuniyoshi kept on producing political caricatures until his death. He produced a huge quantity of the forbidden yakusha-e and bijin-ga in a humorous way and replaced the forbidden presentation of the performers by animals, household articles etc. as travesties.

In 1845 the chancellor Mizuno Tadakuni had to step down for the second time in his career because the Tenpō-reform had failed. Thus the execution of the prohibitions loosened a bit and around 1846/47 the nishiki-e began to gain importance again. As a result of this, large quantities of nishiki-e caricatures were produced and evolved as a source of information on current events.

In the 1st month of 1847 the totetsuru-ken (Ken is a game for two or more persons, played with the hands. Different versions of ken-plays existed; one of it was similar to the "paper, fist and scissors" we are still playing nowadays.) was first performed at the Kawarazaki-theatre, causing a real ken-boom, whereupon the ken no e-versions of the actor-pictures became resoundingly successful. From Kuniyoshi alone, some 60 different versions of this type of pictures are preserved. Until the Meiji-period there have been some other successful performances of kabuki-ken-dances (kitsune-ken, sangoku-ken, Asakusa-ken, yonaoshi-ken etc.) with the belonging ken-play-pictures, but the ken-motiv has also been used with many caricatures.

From spring to summer of 1849 there was a temporary boom of the three fashion-gods. Okina Inari Daimyōjin was worshipped in Nihonbashi, Datsueba in Naitō Shinjuku Shōjuin and Otake Dainichi-nyorai in Ryōgoku Ekōin. These usually funny hayarigami-e became resoundingly popular at that time.

Not just Kuniyoshi but Hiroshige, Hirokage or Sadahide with their respective pupils were also active in the field of caricatures. A plenty of parodies about famous kabuki-plays as well as picture series (e.g.: gThe 53 Tokaidō stations"), but also about pictures of places of interest, emerged.

In 1853 Commodore Perry anchored his black ships at Uraga. This caused the shogunate to panic. Kuniyoshi painted the famous caricature Ukiyo Matabei meiga kitoku on the occasion of the resulting confusion. Because the picture became such a big success an investigation was launched but Kuniyoshi remained unmolested.

In the 8th month of 1854 the actor Ichikawa Danjūrō VIII., then superstar of the kabuki-world, killed himself in Ōsaka. 100 to 300 different versions of shini-e for him were produced thus they are forming the most famous theme of this category. Memorial-pictures became popular in the second half of the Edo-period as reminiscence of deceased people (mostly famous actors etc.) and a portrait of their life was drawn, often in an humorous way.

The absolute peek of popularity of nishiki-e caricatures was achieved by the earthquake pictures, which are nowadays known as namazu-e, issued on the occasion of the big earthquake in Edo on the 2nd day of the 10th month of 1855. Immediately after the calamity large quantities of pictures with catfish-motives emerged. The boom was stopped soon after by the prohibition of the government on the 14th day of the 12th month of the same year. Although the production lasted not longer than two and a half months, about 400 different motives of earthquake-pictures are said to have been produced, and today more than 200 different motives are known. You will neither find any signature of the artist nor a censorship stamp on this kind of pictures as the production had to be very fast because of the up-to-dateness but also anonymous because of the ban on the depiction of current events.

In 1858 a trade agreement with US-America was concluded, soon followed by similar agreements with Russia, England, France and the Netherlands. In the course of these agreements the harbours of Nagasaki, Hakodate and Yokohama were opened to foreign ships. Yokohama became an important harbour for foreign trade and a lot of foreigners became residents of this city. The Yokohama-e deal with Westerners themselves, their lifestyle, and manners and quickly gained great popularity. Some of these pictures have a funny content.

In 1861 the sister of the tennō was married to the shogun against her will because of political reasons. Several caricatures were produced on occasion of the event.

From the 4th to the 7th month of 1862 one of Japanfs largest measlesf epidemic spread in Edo. Funny hashika-e emerged as charms against the disease. General information on measles was given, and also therapeutic measures against the disease presented.

Furthermore, in the same year, one Englishman was killed and two others were wounded by samurai of a daimyō procession in the village of Namamugi in the 8th month of the same year (1862). The gIncident of Namamugi" became politically important and the English claimed a huge sum of compensation. To show their military power English war ships sailed into the bay of Edo. As the inhabitants of Edo flew in panic the different scenes of that stampede were shown in a multitude of awate-e.

1863-64 the series shōgun jōraku-e on the current theme of that time, the journey of the shogun to Kyōto, which was forbidden to be reported about, was published. Each of the g53 stations of the Tōkaidō" from Edo to Kyōto and the reception at the emperorfs castle were displayed, in disguised form.

In 1864-65 a war between the shogunate and the daimyate Chōshū took place, and a lot of caricatures were produced about the repression of the daimyate.

From 1868 to 1869 the Boshin-war was fought between the adherents of the emperor (shinseifu-gun: Satsuma-han und Chōshū-han etc.) and the Tokugawa shogunate (sabaku-gun: bakufu, Aizu-han, Kuwana-han etc.). As the year 1868 was called boshin after the Japanese calendar, the war was named after the year in which it took place. Regarding the Boshin-war so called pictures of children, kodomo no asobi-e and pictures of grown-ups, otona no tawamure-e were produced. Among all categories of caricature pictures, Boshin sensō-e are said to have the highest number and thus, constitute the peak of the boom.

After the Meiji-Restauration of 1868 western culture, science and techniques were introduced to Japan as fast as possible. The change to the western culture and ideology was not conducted as a total concept, but parts of the western lifestyle were blended in with the Japanese one. Bunmei kaika-e were making fun about the sometimes grotesque results.

In the year 1873 a hare-boom occurred and a lot of pictures with bunny-motives emerged at this time, called usagi-e.

In 1874 the painter Kawanabe Kyōsai (he had produced gcrazy pictures" about the end of the bakufu) presented the series Kyōsai raku-ga. These pictures dealt in an ironical way with the bunmei kaika of the Meiji-period. Tsukioka Yoshitoshi published Tōkyō kaika kyō-ga meisho and kigen kurabe in the same year.

In 1877 the Seinan sensō (Southwestern War or Satsuma-Rebellion) against the new Meiji-government was presented by Saigō Takamori on many Seinan sensō-e caricatures.

In 1881 Kobayashi Kiyochika, until then a landscapist, started to draw caricatures and to work at the newspaper Marumaru Chinbun (established in 1877). His caricature-series Kiyochika ponchi became resoundingly successful. After that, less and less nishiki-e caricatures were published as woodcut-prints were much more complicated and expensive in production than the new methods (lithographic print, machine print etc.) of the newspaper business. In succession the responsibilities of information and entertainment of the population were taken over by the new medium newspaper, finally displacing the nishiki-e caricatures as a whole.

At the time of the two wars of the Meiji-period, the Sino-Japanese War (Nisshin sensō, 1894-95) and the Russo-Japanese War (Nichiro sensō, 1904-05), traditional nishiki-e caricatures, Nisshin sensō-e and Nichiro sensō-e were still produced in great number. With these last series nishiki-e caricatures, which were a child of the Tenpō-reform, experienced their final boom.