Maidstone Museum’s Japanese cataloguer Vanessa Tothill provides a compelling look at some of the museum’s Japanese woodblock prints.
This image “Women Insurgents Fight Bravely” (Zokuto no nyotai yûsen no zu), comes from the series “A Description of the Punitive Campaign at Kagoshima in Satsuma Province” (Sasshû Kagoshima Seitôki no uchi).
This woodblock printed triptych by Japanese artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) depicts the bloody battle fought by rebel samurai women against the new Meiji government in 1877. The women insurgents clashed with government soldiers at Kagoshima in Satsuma Province. These rebels were motivated by a sense of injustice at the corruption within the new governing oligarchy and fought under the slogan New government, high morality (Shinsei kôtoku).
The resistance movement, depicted in this print, is not evidence of a steadfast loyalty to the defeated Tokugawa regime or the last Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Many of the rebels actually supported the imperial line and Emperor Meiji, but were suspicious of the self-serving political manoeuvres of the new government. Tokugawa domains were seized in 1868 and, by 1871, the ‘han’ system of semi-autonomous administration that had been in place for centuries was dissolved by imperial declaration. All daimyo were expected to return their domains to the Emperor. The result was tighter control over the entire realm by the centralised authority of the Meiji government. The samurai class was further impoverished by these changes.
The samurai rebels in this woodblock print are resisting the erosion of their authority and power. During the Edo period, the samurai class had long been recognised as a warrior class with the right to bear arms. However, in 1873, when the Meiji government introduced nationwide military conscription, government reforms further undermined the samurai’s privileged social status and made their role obsolete. In January 1877, the samurai Saigô Takamori led the rebellion in Satsuma against the Meiji government. These riots escalated into a civil war (Southwestern War or Seinan sensô). At the Battle of Tabaruzaka, an estimated 4,000 people were killed or wounded. In September 1877, the insurgents were defeated by the Imperial Japanese Army at the Battle of Shiroyama. The rebels were vastly outnumbered and, by the end of the war, approximately 20,000 insurgents were killed or forced to surrender.
It is unusual to see women depicted in battle, even though it is known that women fought in conflicts such as the Genpei Wars (1180-1185), the Shimabara Rebellion (1637-1638), and at the Battle of Aizu (1868) during the Boshin War (1868-1869). Owing to Tokugawa censorship, contemporary events or social unrest could not be depicted in woodblock prints unless those events were projected back in time to an era that predated the establishment of the Shogunate. After the collapse of the Tokugawa regime, a new genre of war prints (sensô-e) was developed that captured contemporary events as they unfolded. This triptych is an example of this new genre, and was printed in May 1877 during this time of unrest. Japan’s first newspapers also appeared around this time.
Throughout the Edo period, ukiyo-e artists had depicted women warriors as romantic figures and capitalised on their beauty. In the 19th century, Utagawa Kuniyoshi responded to a nationalistic trend for warrior prints (musha-e) by producing series inspired by the Chinese semi-historical novel, “The Water Margin” (Suikoden), that celebrated Japan’s own heroes.
In Kuniyoshi’s series “A Women’s Water Margin” (Onna Suikoden), beauties were paired with warriors. This playfully created parallels and contrasts between beauties and warriors, but reinforced traditional ideas about women’s femininity and sexual allure rather than breaking with tradition. These compositions lack the dynamism and aggression of Kuniyoshi’s warrior prints that mainly depict men armed for battle.
In this triptych by Kuniyoshi’s pupil, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, there is a blending of generic styles and artistic conventions. The eroticism of the earlier print designs, common to the Pictures of Beauties (bijin-ga) tradition, is retained in the flowing red garments and loosened hair of the female heroines. Although guns had become commonplace on the battlefield, the women are shown fighting with swords and naginata in order to romanticise the samurai’s connection with their military past. Above the women’s heads hang pink cherry blossom and at their feet are scattered petals, a powerful Japanese symbol for the transitory nature of life.