Depiction of Japanese Sergeant Kawasaki Iseo swimming across the Taidong River to spy on the Chinese during the Sino-Japanese War. He clenches the blade of his sword between his teeth as he makes his way through the swiftly moving current, small white-capped foam splashing up around his body. Smoke rises from the enemy’s campfires on the far shore, drifting up into the night sky. After successfully reconnoitring the enemy’s position, Kawasaki stole a boat and used it to return across the river.
In the hope of destroying a telegraph station, an advance-guard composed of nine Japanese men tried repeatedly to secure boats and cross the Tai-Dong River at night. But no ferry-boats could be found. Then Sergeant Kawasaki boldly swam across the river, and when discovered, swam back amidst a hail of bullets and returned to his companions, who received him clapping their hands at his bravery…
The anonymous artist (most probably Kiyochika) took his inspiration from a somber tale of Shakespearian dimensions, of betrayal and deceit. Kuniyoshi, in his inimitable manner, brought to life several woodcuts concerning the lives of former heroes. One, in particular, about Yoshioki’s destiny (Nitta no, died 1358), second son of the celebrated Yoshisada (Nitta no, 1301-1338), both of them staunch and loyal supporters of the legitimate Emperor against the usurper Takauji (Ashikaga no), who supplanted the Go-Daigo-tennō, and ruled the country until the accession of the Tokugawa clan.
Yoshioki was waylaid into a trap by a former retainer who professed disillusion about the Ashikaga clan, followed by several former Yoshioki’s allies. He was told to board a boat, taking one of his retainers by the name of Ichikawa and cross the Rokugawa to the appointed meeting place. But no sooner was the boat on its way, it was discovered that it had been scuttled, and it began to sink gradually. At the same time, the Ashikaga archers hiding in the reeds, showered them with a hail of arrows. Yoshioki managed to commit seppuku while his loyal retainer jumped overboard, his sword clenched between his teeth, and swam to safety.
This evil deed met with the god’s fury and a terrific storm fell on the ambushed men, while lightning destroyed a large number of them. A temple named Nitta-myōjin was erected in Yoshioki’s memory, where he is venerated under the title of Nitta-daimyōjin.
The Kawasaki incident forms act five in the Kabuki-za play. Nathan Chaikin , The Sino-Japanese War.
The Basil Hall Chamberlain Collection.
Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,
References : Illustrated in the 1983 publication “The Sino-Japanese War by Nathan Chaikïn”, catalogue number: 23. p.131.
Illustrated in the 2008 paper Throwing Off Asia II: woodblock prints of the Sino-Japanese War
(1894-95) by John W. Dower – Chapter Chapter Four, “Symbolic ‘China’”.p.5-5.