Sino-Japanese War 1894-95: Asan
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Followed with interest in newspapers and weekly magazines throughout Japan and the world, the Sino-Japanese War introduced a new occupation to the Japanese – war correspondent. This print documents the new phenomenon and identifies those who accompanied the army in the assault on Songhwan on July 29, 1894, before the formal declaration of war. The figures on the right are simply classified as “newspaper correspondents” (shō-shimbunsha tokuhain), but those on the left are identified by name – “artist Kinsen” (gahaku Kinsen-kun) and “artist Beisen” (gahaku Beisen-kun). Kubota Beisen (1852-1906), wearing the white pith helmet, was a well-known Kyoto painter. The most important Japanese reporter at the front, he sent eyewitness reports and illustrations that are a primary source of information on the battles. ‘ His son Kinsen (1875-1954) was a correspondent during both the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars. (‘Kubota Beisen, Nisshin sentō gabō (Picture Reports on the Sino-Japanese War), 11 Volumes (Tokyo, 1894-1895).
From the publication “In Battles Light”, Catalogue number 39, pp.72 and 73.
Dramatic scene of Japanese imperial troops attacking Songhwan during the Sino-7Japanese War. From a steep hill, soldiers fire down on a Chinese fortress, raining a volley of shots over the frightened enemy, who flee in panic under clouds of smoke. In the centre, two officers rally the attack, waving their swords above their heads. Most interestingly, a group of reporters can be seen at right, one man scribbling in a notebook with a pencil while another draws a quick sketch with a brush and ink, a drawing board suspended from his back. A Japanese flag flutters in the breeze overhead. A terrific, bold composition, beautifully detailed.

Eight war correspondents observe the assault on Songhwan on July 29, 1894, in this woodcut. The foremost reporter, the white-capped Kubota Beisen (1852-1906), was also a painter, whose observations are recorded in a series of pictorial reports on the Sino-Japanese War. He wrote: “The company taking the left wing arrived atop the heights northeast of Songhwan at 5:20 AM and, having dug in, started shelling the enemy camp, which was well in range, causing a great number of casualties. The infantry also advanced. –“With a full strike force our men captured five enemy camps by 7:30 AM and the battered Chinese fled, leaving countless quantities of ammunition and supplies, including eight field guns. In these two hours of fierce battle, China suffered five hundred casualties, and Japan, ninety, including two officers,” (‘Kubota Beisen, Nisshin sentō gabō (Picture Reports on the Sino-Japanese War), Volume 2, (November 1894, pp.4-5).

It was the first battle fought by Japan in a foreign war since three centuries, and it was the first experiment of the new army organised entirely on the European system. Although the Japanese were confident of success, it must have been satisfactory to them to find their expectations so fully realised. The Asan campaign was a small affair, but its prompt execution showed that the generals knew how to command, and that the army organisation worked smoothly, even in a country unprovided with good roads. For the first time, or so it seems, artists and newspapermen appeared on the battlefield. The Kubota trio, Beisen the father, Beisen and Kinsen, his sons, were the only ones to be seen on print, although in this one, we can observe the father and the younger son Kinsen, They were present during the Song-hwan engagement, basically sketching the memorable event, nattily dressed, while newspapermen were scribbling notes and comments. Although Beisen had to return home, due to a bout of dysentery, he apparently returned, since his name is affixed on a set of illustrated books, signed by all three. Most of the artists did their stint at home, as news of each battle reached Tokyo as soon as it took place in the fields. Names and places, hitherto unknown to most, came out of press and were digested into vivid depictions about the heroic virtues of the Japanese fighting spirit. At first, some of their creations were rather on the folkloric side, but as time went on, the level of their creations reached a much higher sphere of quality, and brought out many authentic masterpieces. The Manchurian, and even more the Wei-Hai-Wei campaigns, produced works of the highest standard and some breath-taking scenes of snow and storms unequalled to this day. From the 1983 publication “The Sino-Japanese War by Nathan Chaikïn”.

A well-known print by Mizuno Toshikata depicting a battle in July 1894, suggests many of the conventions that came to distinguish the Sino-Japanese War prints in general. This was the opening stage of the war, and the print’s title alone conveys the fever pitch of Japanese nationalism: “Hurrah, Hurrah for the Great Japanese Empire ! Picture of the Assault on Songhwan, a Great Victory for Our Troops.”

  • In Toshikata’s rendering, stalwart Japanese soldiers with a huge “Rising Sun” military flag in their midst advance against a Chinese force in utter disarray. Can we trust the Toshikata’s print we see a delegation of Japanese “newspaper correspondents” that includes at its head not one but two artists, identifies by name. Depictions such as this very print, Toshikata seems to be assuring his audience – and right at the start of the war – could be trusted to be accurate. The overwhelming majority of war prints were, in fact, nothing of the sort. Although some artists and illustrators did travel with the troops, the woodblock artists remained in Japan – catching the latest reports from the front as they came in by telegraph and rushing to draw, cut, print, display, and sell their pictured version of what they had read before this particular “news” became outdated. (Occasionally prints ere initiated in anticipation of the actual event!. Toshikata was offering an imagined scene – a set piece that quickly became formulaic). From From the 2008 paper Throwing Off Asia II: woodblock prints of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) by John W. Dower – Chapter Two, “Kiyochika’s War”.pp.1-6 – 1-8.



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