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March 2008

Prints of the Russo-Japanese War

Japan: 1903-1904
Sp Coll e159

This month we feature a colourful collection of 57 Japanese prints dating from the period of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Telling the story of the war from the Japanese point of view, the prints depict many of the significant battles of the war and those who were involved in it. Issued by a variety of publishers, the prints were donated to the University of Glasgow together in a bound volume by Professor Percy Archibald Hillhouse in 1935. This donation demonstrates the great connection that existed between Glasgow and Japan through ship building and naval architecture over 100 years ago.

After many meetings, negotiations between Russia and Japan finally failed in February 1904
  (plate 51, July 1903)

The Russo-Japanese war was a conflict between Russia and Japan over land ownership in Manchuria and Korea. Russia was particularly keen to gain control of the ice-free port of Port Arthur in Korea, over which the Japanese wanted to maintain their exclusive control.

On 6th February 1904, with negotiations over Manchuria and Korea having failed, Russia and Japan went to war. Ten Japanese destroyers attacked the Russian Pacific Fleet in Port Arthur.

Numerous sea battles took place during the war, many occurring in the Liaodong Peninsula (at the north of the Yellow Sea where Port Arthur is), and in the seas around Korea, Japan and north eastern China.

The war ended on 5th September 1905, when the Portsmouth Treaty was signed by both Russia and Japan.

Torpedo boats the Hayatori and the Asagiri attacking a Russian ship at Port Arthur
(plate 42, February 1904)

One of the prints satirically summarizes the state of world power (and dominance of Russia) as found at the very beginning of the war. Entitled 'A Humorous Diplomatic Atlas of Europe and Asia', this print was the work of a Japanese student, Kisaburo Ohara (from Keio University). Published in March 1904, it was modelled on a famous illustration by the British cartoonist Frederick W. Rose, the 'Black Octopus' that had been produced earlier in the Nineteenth Century.

Commenting on the print, Ohara is reported to have said that 'the black octopus stretches out his eight arms in all directions, and seizes up every thing that comes within his reach', and 'the continuing existence of the black octopus will depend entirely upon how he comes out of this war'. He predicted that the  'Japanese army is about to win a signal victory over Russia in Korea and Manchuria, so wait & see!'

A Humorous Diplomatic Atlas of Europe and Asia
(plate 53, February 1904)

Commander Hirose on the Fukuimaru
(detail from plate 31, April 1904)

Battles often inspire acts of heroism and the Russo-Japanese war was not an exception. Japan's commander Takeo Hirose and Russia's admiral Stepan Makaroff (or Makarov) both fought at the battle of Port Arthur: Hirose on a "blockship" (a kind of battleship that is deliberately sunk to block the harbour), the Fukuimaru, and Makaroff, who was a serious threat to Japan, on the battleship Petropavlovsk.

On the 27th March 1904, Hirose was searching for one of his subordinates who had been left on the ship as it was prepared for its submergence. While going backwards and forwards to the ship, he was killed by a stray bullet. Only four days after Hirose's death, Admiral Makaroff was killed on the Petropavlovsk when it was hit by a mine and sunk. Both were lauded as heroes and monuments in their honour were erected in both their home countries.

Admiral Makaroff on the Petropavlovsk
(detail from plate 32, April 1904)

Bazoku destroy the railway at Manchuria
(plate 17, February 1904)

Train derailment at the Bikal Lake
(plate 18, March 1904)

The Trans Siberian Railway gave Russia a huge advantage in the war, allowing Russia to send reinforcements to the war zone in a very short time. In retaliation, Japan engaged Bazoku (Manchuria guerrillas on horseback) to destroy the railway.

Plate 17 (above) is a beautiful woodblock print of two Bazoku destroying the railway. A view of a derailment at the Lake Bikal - probably one of the results of such operations - appears on plate 18 to the left.

Some of the prints offer us an insight into the relationship that existed between Britain and Japan during this period. Despite the Eurasian continent and oceans separating them, the two island countries grew closer together from 1858 onwards. This was the end of the Edo period and the beginning of the Imperial Meiji Restoration, when Japan decided to end hundreds of years of isolation and open itself to the world. In 1868, the Charter Oath of Five Articles was signed by the Emperor and Japan began its westernization, cultural modernisation and intensification of its armaments. For the Meiji government, it was important for the country to be recognised as an international community. It was the Emperor himself who started the process to promote civilization to his citizens. He cut his topknot hairstyle, wore western clothing, ate meat, and drank wine. Traditionally in Japan, the Emperor had never appeared in public, but images of him - such as the one seen here - were now widely publicised.

This print is a copy of one of the authorised photographs of the Emperor, signifying the governments' new regime to lead the nation to the absolute obligation of loyalty to him.

Meiji Emperor
(plate 53, March 1904)

Russian fleets (centre) attacked by the Japanese combined fleet formation. Ships are listed on both sides.
(plate 43, February 1904)

The development of a relationship with Britain was very important to Japan. Following the industrial revolution, Britain had the latest technology that Japan was eager to learn. Alliances with cities such as Glasgow were especially sought. As the "Second City of the Empire", Glasgow had become a leading industrial base by the end of Nineteenth Century. Its great reputation in ship building was of particular interest to the Japanese. From the 1860s onwards, the Japanese Navy ordered Scottish designed warships through contracts with some world famous Glasgow companies.

name of the Asahi
(detail from plate 43)

One instance of this is found in the Asahi, a battleship whose name is found amongst the lists of ships in the margins of plate 43. The Asahi was built by John Brown & Company, a leading shipbuilder in Clydebank, held in renown worldwide. At the time that the Asahi was commissioned on the 31st July 1900, she was the heaviest battleship ever built on the Clyde. During the Russo-Japanese war, the Asahi fought actively as a part of the Japanese Combined Fleet formation in attacking the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. The aforementioned Commander Hirose was a torpedo officer aboard the Asahi before serving on the Fukuimaru.
The Japanese government sent students to Glasgow and also invited professors and specialists to Japan to transfer their advanced shipbuilding knowledge, construction technology and design skills. Many examples of Japanese apprentices placed in the Clyde shipyards can be found in the records of the ship building companies. Many of them were also sitting in on lectures at the University of Glasgow, while the archives of the Naval Architecture Department show that some Japanese matriculated as full time students. The Imperial Japanese Navy used the skills learned by these apprentices and students to become self sufficient in their own dockyards.

The Japanese connection with the University of Glasgow is demonstrated in this book of prints. Although the prints themselves document conflict, the story of how the volume came to be in Special Collections today is perhaps one of behind the scenes friendship.  

Japanese Troops Occupied Chong-Ju
(plate 1, March 1904)

Medical treatment of a damaged ship
(plate 25, march 1904)

The book was donated to the University by Professor Percy Archibald Hillhouse (1869-1942) in 1935. From 1921 until 1942 he was the John Elder Professor of Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering at the University of Glasgow; he was also well known as a shipbuilder and engineer in Scottish shipyards. His relationship with Japan began in 1893 when he taught at the Tokyo Imperial University (now Tokyo University) as a professor of Naval Architecture. His five year stay in Japan provided the students and the professors of the Imperial College of Engineering (now the Department of Environmental and Ocean Engineering, School of Engineering) with the latest education on shipbuilding and naval architecture, and he is still regarded as one of the pioneers in the field.

It is not known how Professor Hillhouse acquired these prints. By 1903-1905, the period when these prints were being published, Hillhouse had finished his term in Tokyo and had returned to Glasgow to take up a new post. Given the large number of battleships and sea fight illustrations in the book, it seems possible that some (or one) of the Japanese students or visitors to the Naval Architecture Department may have brought them as gifts to their professor who obviously had an extensive knowledge of their country and the ship building industry. Whether or not Hillhouse received the prints gathered together (as they are now) or whether he acquired them piecemeal, is also not known.

The volume consists of 57 prints, variously dated between 2nd July 1903 and 25th May 1904. Many of them are numbered and were obviously issued separately as items in different series. At some unknown point, the prints were collected together and pasted in to an album: this is how they are kept today. Many of the prints are annotated with translations and notes in English: this is possibly the work of Hillhouse.

There are various styles and techniques represented in the collection.

The earliest colour print production in Japan dates from the Sixteenth Century. These early methods were enhanced by adapting Dutch lithography techniques during the Edo period (1603-1867). The early Eighteenth Century saw the golden age of print-making in Japan, fulfilled by the technique of talented artists. Prints produced during this period are known as Nishiki-e (brocade pictures), a term for the polychrome prints made from cut wood blocks to which bright colours are applied to satisfy the exotic taste for decoration widely loved by the Japanese people.

Battle of Port Arthur. The subtitle noted Nishiki-e of the traditional technique.
(plate 41, February 1904)

 A fierce battle at Seoul. This print has been identified as a woodblock designed  by the artist  Ryukei.
(Plate 6, February 1904)

The success of Japanese wood-block print production lies in its team work. An artist, an engraver, a printer and a publisher collaborate to make around 200 or 250 impressions until the final print is produced. Prints can be identified by their signature and seal (or sensor seal) as well as by the title. The artist's signature is often written in brush work, whereas the seals are clearly found in vermilion. In addition to the artist's signature, the engraver and the publisher's name and address are stamped on or outside the illustration. Most of the publishers of these prints were once located in Tokyo. In this book we have examples of the work of publishers/printers such as Hatsujiro Fukuda, Sonokichi Hasegawa, Kinnosuke Mak and Bunsuke Tsujiokai. Date seals indicate the year, month and day of printing and publication; in these prints, these seals show that most of these prints were published in Meiji 37 (1904), during the Russo-Japanese war period.

Plate 6 has been identified as a work by Ryukei (1874-1944). He was a print artist from the famous Utagawa family, one of the biggest branch of ukiyo-e artists in Japan; his father was Utagawa Kunisada III (or 'Baido Hosai'). Ryukei (also known by the name 'Kokunimasa'), was well known for producing prints relating to the Sino-Japanese war and Russo-Japanese war. Ryukei designed many works for the publisher Hatsujiro Fukuda during the Russo Japanese War; in this collection, for example, his signature appears on plates 17 and plate 18 as published by Fukuda.

 signature of Ryukei in brush work, and his seal in vermilion square.
(detail from plate 6)

10th March 1904: Japanese sailors jump onto a  hostile ship to fight hand to hand at the Port Arthur
(plate 38, March 1904)

During the Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895) and up to the beginning of the period of the Russo-Japanese war, print production was revived dramatically. This boom was caused both by the artists successfully publicising their work, and by a public delighted to see the triumphant progress of the Japanese depicted in art. While newspapers were only available to the elite and intellectuals, the general public relied upon the prints, which were relatively affordable. 

a soldier with Kabuki actor face
(detail from plate 38)

Although in terms of quality these prints might not be classed as high art, they do in fact incorporate some time honoured characteristics of Japanese art. Some of them follow in the tradition of those artists who used to sit in the front row of the Kabuki theatres to draw the play's characters. Close inspection of some of the illustrations reveal faces of troops resembling those of Kabuki actors whose eyes are exaggerated by use of heavy make up: those in the prints display similar expressions of great bravery, with eyes accentuated by being turned up at the outer corners.
Unlike the very famous Japanese prints from the Edo period (those that the greatest of artists such as the Impressionists loved), these prints of the Russo-Japanese War are from a time when western techniques were merged with traditional methods. The decline of traditional print making was mainly caused by the advent of photography and also by the turning of people's interests to western technologies. From the 1870s, print production via non-woodblock media such as etching expanded throughout Japan, and by the 1880s lithography was the dominant production method. In spite of all efforts, during the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japanese wood-block print making seemed to have reached its end: the long-lived traditions could not survive in the face of the dissemination of modernized communication media as Japan became westernised.

There are examples of both traditional wood-block and the newer lithographic method of production in our collection of prints; the different techniques can be clearly distinguished when the individual plates are examined.

detail from plate 38

detail from plate 41

By comparing the details, differences of the print technique can be identified: plate 38 is a  lithograph and plate 41 a woodblock

Hyakusen Hyakusho, A big punch by a Japanese torpedo boat,
(plate 27, April 1904)

Hyakusen Hyakusho ("One hundred selected laughs": a series of caricature prints) is a good example of how one ukiyo-e artist tried to compete with the growing power of photography by using caricature. The print shown here is a single-sheet from a series. As noted by Hillhouse beside the illustration, it is similar in style to cartoons found in Punch magazine. Aiming to satirise Russia, a small Japanese torpedo boat is depicted approaching a huge Russian battleship, saying "Oi, Russian boy, I can see how big you are, but now I am sending this sumo thrust against your recent insolence. It's not just a thrust but with Yamato Damashi (Japanese spirit)!"

Many prints were produced during this period, and they played an important role in the Japanese media for a long time. Their subject matter appealed to popular feeling, and - perhaps even more importantly - they were affordable to the masses. However, owing to this mass production, the Japanese themselves did not consider them as fine art until after the prints had become highly valued by Europeans. This is why such remarkable Japanese print collections today are, to a large extent, found in Europe or America

This collection of original prints is significant for being one of only a few historical Japanese artifacts held in the University's Special Collections today. It is also a pleasant reminder of former friendship and co-operation between Japan and Glasgow.

Note on captions and plate numbering

  • The plate numbers given here are those that have been assigned locally to the prints in a running order as they are now presented in the album (ie. they do not refer to any series numbers as found on the plates themselves).

  • The descriptions given for each illustration (provided as captions) are taken from the Japanese titles as provided on the plate. However, these English versions are not direct translations, and they cannot be used for identification of the individual plates.


Checkland, Olive, 1989 Britain's Encounter with Meiji Japan, 1868-1912 The MacMillan Press Ltd., Basingstoke (GUL L8 History VX 230.G7 CHE)

Clark, John., 1994 Japanese nineteenth-century copperplate prints British Museum, London (GUL L12 Sp Coll Whistler f36)

Illing, Richard., 1980 The art of Japanese prints Octopus, London (GUL L11 Fine Arts E1183 ILL)

Meech-Pekarik, Julia, 1986 The world of the Meiji print : impressions of a new civilization Weatherhill, New York & Tokyo (GUL L11 Fine Arts E1183 MEE)

Moss, Michael., Russell, Iain., 1988 Range and Vision, the first hundred years of Barr & Studio, Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh (GUL L6 Economics L2950. 06.MOS)
Information on Japanese visitors, apprentices and students in company base.

Watts, Anthony.J., Gordon Brian.G. 1971 The Imperial Japanese navy Macdonald & Co. Ltd. (GUL L8 History VX250 WAT)

Whitford, Cecilia 1978 Japanese prints Gallery Books, New York (GUL L11 Fine Arts E1183 WHI)

Kinoshita, Yasuhiko et al 2000 詳説世界史研究 Yamakawa Shuppansha, Tokyo

Archive services, University of Glasgow: exhibition on The University of Glasgow and Japan

The Department of Environmental and Ocean Engineering, School of Engineering, The University of Tokyo

Who's Who 'Professor Percy Archibald Hillhouse'

Wikipedia article Foreign relations of Meiji Japan [accessed February 2008]

Wikipedia article Meiji Period [accessed February 2008]

Wikipedia article Russo Japanese War [accessed February 2008]

Wikipedia article Emperor Meiji [accessed February 2008]

Wikipedia article Ukiyo-e [accessed February 2008]


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Asuka Gamo (Graduate Trainee) March 2008