Propaganda flourishes in wartime, and the Asian Propaganda exhibition at the British Museum has plenty of examples from Japan’s twentieth century wars – with China (1894-5), Russia (1904-5), Korea (1905), China again (Asia-Pacific War 1931-1945), when Japan occupied Manchuria, and America and its allies (World War II 1941-1945). A sad start to the twentieth century, but a rich source of propaganda art.
The exhibition includes political art from all over Asia, including China, Vietnam and India, but I’ve focused on propaganda by Japan and its adversaries, starting with this Japanese depiction of Russian Navy boats limping home in 1904. It’s titled Aimless Boats and comes from the series Hurrah for Japan! One Hundred Selections, One Hundred Laughs.
During the Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945) between Japan and China people would often wear patriotic textiles to express their nationalism. Like this kimono – unremarkable from a distance but when you see it from close up it’s covered in a montage of pictures relating to Japan’s occupation of Manchuria.
This picture, called Big Tank Battle, is one of a series of six posters produced in Shanghai between 1940 and 1945 celebrating the strength of China’s defence forces in the Asia-Pacific War against Japan:
While this idealised 1942 picture of airmen is Japanese. It comes from Front magazine, which was intended for foreign audiences and was published in fifteen languages.
This cartoon shows the benefits of using Japan’s Federal Reserve Bank currency in the puppet state of Manchuria. Reading in order from right top, right bottom, left top, left bottom: a man is kicked out by a shopkeeper when he offers Chinese banknotes and is reduced to tears but is set on the right path by a kindly policemen and is welcomed with open arms when he returns with Japanese currency.
More textile propaganda from the Asia-Pacific War. This carrying cloth (furoshiki) is decorated with war planes and the word Patriotism.
Propaganda directed at its own citizens was a feature of Japanese wartime life. This series of three cartoons is based on the Japanese fairytale, The Mouse’s Wedding. In the first plate (at the top of this post) the mouse bride wears a gorgeous kimono but holds a fan showing the Japanese flag; in the second plate her bridegroom is shown as a hard worker:
In the last the last plate, depicting the wedding, both she and her bridegroom are dressed as Japanese people were required to dress in wartime – he in khaki and she in loose trousers known as monpe.
This 1930’s drawing of duplicitous Japan is by Chinese resistance artist Lu Shaofei. It depicts Japan hiding its aggressive intention behind a diplomatic front.
And Winston Churchill gets much the same treatment in this Japanese satirical drawing from 1943, after Japan invaded Burma and Malaya and declared them independent from British rule.
The exhibition defines propaganda as ‘art with a political message that is intended to motivate or persuade’, and includes examples of peacetime propaganda, though I’m not sure I’m convinced by this. Take this print of the Meiji Emperor and his family in western dress, Yes, it encourages Japanese people to be open to western ideas, but is that propaganda?
Or this poster for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. If that’s propaganda then presumably all our posters for the London Olympics last year were propaganda too.
But let’s not end on a quibble. I enjoyed the exhibition very much. It’s free and it runs until 1 September in Room 91 at the British Museum.
And for those of you who’ve been thinking I’ve got it wrong and the exhibition is really at the British Library, we’re both right. The British Library Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition runs until 17 September. Tickets cost £9 but it looks like a good combination with the BM one.