A Visual Revolution: The Japanese Emperor in Popular Nishiki-e

Alice Y. Tseng


The late nineteenth century witnessed a revolution in representations of the Japanese emperor: He was photographed as well as depicted in popular commercial polychrome woodblock prints, or nishiki-e.1 Up to this time, as Donald Keene, a biographer of Emperor Meiji, explained concisely, the monarchy in Japan was “nonvisual.”² Past emperors did not travel, and their portraits did not circulate. Their hermetic existence extended to their visibility, and details about their physical appearance and the spaces they occupied were not made available to prying eyes.


The overthrow of the last Tokugawa shogun and the restoration of political power to Emperor Meiji (1852–1912) in 1868 precipitated a new governmental structure and ethos predicated on progressive reform, thrusting the emperor into the limelight as the supreme national ruler. The Charter Oath in Five Articles that Meiji declared in April of that year vowed to break from “evil customs of the past” and to seek “knowledge throughout the world,” which made his discernible leadership in these unprecedented new directions all the more urgent. A visual revolution accordingly commenced.



Much ink has been spilled on Emperor Meiji’s transition from nonvisual to visual. Scholars have investigated his initial photographic sessions in 1872 and 1873, the proliferation of woodblock prints that featured him in the 1880s to the early 1890s, the construction of his “true likeness” (go-shin’ei) in 1888 from a combination of drawing and photography, and the posthumous painting cycle of eighty works housed in the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery (Seitoku Kinen Kaigakan) that required more than two decades to complete in 1936.3


What has not been noted in the chronology of Meiji’s visual representation is the conspicuous gap between the early 1890s to the end of his life in 1912, essentially the entire second half of his reign. The lull in new imagery is all the more striking considering that Japan during this period was embroiled in two ambitious international wars, the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), and the emperor acted as the nominal commander in chief. The apparent rebound back to largely “nonvisual” for Emperor Meiji in nishiki-e designs occurred exactly when the same medium was enjoying bursts of production during the two wars. In the countless scenes of dynamic fighting and dramatic negotiations, none include the leader of the nation. . . .


The empress similarly appears in only a limited number of triptychs during this war, and in these her unprecedented contribution to the war effort was captured by Utagawa Kokunimasa and Kobayashi Kiyochika (see figure 3). Shōken visited wounded soldiers in the hospital, gifted bandages and artificial eyes and limbs, and bestowed silk wadding and money for sweets.4 As the emperor’s consort, one of her essential public roles was modeling for the women of Japan the many ways they could support their husbands and sons drafted for combat. With Meiji relocated to be in proximity to the battlefront, Shōken guarded the home front and worked as caregiver, emotional support, and morale booster. She stayed back in Tokyo to act as her spouse’s surrogate in meeting with foreign envoys; she also made a monthlong trip to Hiroshima to attend to the emperor and comfort the injured.




1. A literal translation of nishiki-e is “brocade pictures,” in comparison with the better-known term ukiyo-e, or “floating world pictures.” Nishiki-e refers to pitures resulting from the full-color woodblock printing technique (multiple colors resembling vivacious silk brocades) produced starting in the mid-eighteenth century, whereas ukiyo-e is an older term that describes a larger assortment of visual works depicting the culture of the pleasure districts (the floating, fleeting world of brothels and theaters); this term references the subject matter rather than technique of the prints, and it encompasses painting as well as prints in many possible formats such as single sheets, bound books, and scrolls that could be either monochromatic or polychromatic.

2. Donald Keene, Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 211.

3. One of the first thorough investigations in Japanese language is Taki Kōji, Tennō no shōzō (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1988). In English, two early articles stand out: Donald Keene, “Portraits of the Emperor Meiji,” Impressions, no. 21 (1999): 16–29; and Mikiko Hirayama, “The Emperor’s New Clothes: Japanese Visuality and Imperial Portrait Photography,” History of Photography 33, no. 2 (2009): 165–84. A focused discussion of the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery is in Yoshiko Imaizumi, “The Making of a Mnemonic Space: Meiji Shrine Memorial Art Gallery 1912–1936,” Japan Review, no. 23 (2011): 143–76.

4. Otabe, Shōken Kōtaigō, Teimei Kōgō, 119–22. See also Lee Pennington, Casualties of History: Wounded Japanese Servicemen and the Second World War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015).


This is an excerpt from the new book, Fanning the Flames: Propaganda in Modern Japan (Hoover Institution Press), edited by Kaoru Ueda. It’s published here with permission.


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All images courtesy of Hoover Institution Press
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