Anonymous (Possibly by Kuniyoshi) On The Belly Of Calmness, The Hand of Anxiety, unsigned, undated. Oban Diptych.
This is quite some print. The catalogue entry covers much of what is known or can be assumed about the print. There is some space here though for some further enquiry and a little more background on what may have inspired the piece.
A few questions arise; who is the author? What is the date? What was the intention behind the making of such an image and lastly, are there any precedents? Well, it is a bold image… outstanding really, reminiscent of European posters of the twentieth century perhaps or more interestingly, political cartoons from Britain and America from the early nineteenth century. There is something about the drawing of that outstretched hand that owes a great deal to Gillray, there is nothing really that is Japanese about the hand. The question is I suppose, whose hand is it?
The copy in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston carries an interpretation, (which is unusual for them):
The two body parts symbolize contrasting reactions on the parts of citizens of Edo to the news of a possible foreign invasion. At the lower right, people not afflicted by unsettled stomachs calmly go about their business. Above, those affected by “the Hand (te) of Anxiety (awate)” worry that there may be a war and rush about making plans to sell their homes, move their possessions out of town, etc.
This interpretation refers to the 1863 ‘Order to Expel the Barbarians’. A xenophobic measure designed to shore up support for the crumbling shogunate government. Ironically, it had the opposite effect, causing internal dissent and violent attacks against foreigners in Japan. The Namamugi Incident worsened foreign relations; the incident was a fatal attack on British merchants which resulted in the British Navy firing on coastal towns and bombarding the port of Kagoshima. So great was the scale of conflict, that the escalation is sometimes referred to as the Anglo-Satsuma War. Retaliation by the Japanese led to an international force shelling the town of Shimonoseki in 1864… no doubt the incident to which this print is said to refer. That is all very well, but I don’t really see this as an illustration either of military engagement, anxiety about invasion or impending war.
I think, (and I will be shouted down for this) that there is a possibility that this print refers to the anxiety caused by the earlier ‘invasion’ by Commander Mathew Perry in 1854. This suggests that the current dating of the print is wrong. I just suggest that the imagery is all wrong. I also think that it is possible that if the print is from 1854, then think that there is an argument that the piece is by Kuniyoshi.
It’s an interesting hand... the artist has been careful not to ‘dress’ the sleeve… it is not immediately identifiable as western, there is no uniform or mark of rank that I would expect to see in a Yokohama print of an American officer. I think that is explained by the sensitivity of the subject matter, which suggests to me that the date is probably around 1854. Commander Matthew Perry forced a disreputable trade deal on the Japanese resulting in the Convention of Kanagawa which effectively ended the 220-year-old policy of national seclusion. There was a great deal of unrest, panic even, at what the implications of such a move would be on the population. Traditionalists were horrified and I think that even those citizens who wanted economic progress were shocked at the speed of transition.
The print could therefore depict the grasping hand of Commander Perry. Although often exaggerated, there were severe penalties for both natives and foreigners alike if trade was conducted with the outside world. As the old Tokugawa regime collapsed, Perry’s timely arrival with iron clad gunboats forced the weakened government to pen trade negotiations that were essentially aggressive and detrimental to Japanese interests. This in turn led to the Meiji revolution a decade later and the collapse of the old regime. The new government, despite the reinstatement of a monarch, was modernising, forward looking and outward reaching. This print then, shows Perry’s grasping mitt, and the mixed reactions of the Japanese merchants who now made up the most significant social group in Japanese society. The vignettes here are charming, the figure of the merchant at the bottom left has laid out his cooking pots and cupboards for sale and gestures with open hands… the poorer merchants in the same sheet rush away with their cart in fear. One woman serenades the giant hand with a shamisen.
Criticism of the trade deal would certainly have been seen in 1854 as criticism of the Tokugawa shogunate and could have resulted in imprisonment or worse… hence the print is unsigned. My instinct then - to answer the first question - is that the print has been drawn by an artist not unfamiliar with comical attacks on the government, one who was aware of European political satire through journals and engravings smuggled into the country illegally and one whose style uniquely suited the arrangement, humour, design and drawing… there is only one artist who fits all these criteria and that is Kuniyoshi. I quite accept that the MFA interpretation is the correct one, but the alternative that I have put forward, certainly suits the drawing much better. I shall leave it to you to decide on this MYSTERY!