Kokunimasa, Illustration of the Decapitation of Violent Chinese Soldiers

Utagawa Kokunimasa. (1874–1944) Illustration of the Decapitation of Violent Chinese Soldiers, 1894. Oban triptych.

Click here for a full-size image of the centre panel.

What to make of such an extraordinary image. A moving and distressing image for sure… contradictory and powerfully poignant. The complexity of the piece is compelling and it is a fine, and an historically important piece of work.  Setting aside all the complex layers of morality, the story is simple enough. Japan sought a reason to invade Chinese-held Korea, and swept through the satellite state with ease, its army being a modern well equipped fighting force. This print illustrates the horrific aftermath of a minor rebellion.  The writing at the top of the sheets is a long-winded account, written in the wearily familiar voice of nationalist propagandist. It is a recognisable tone this screed, its echoes ringing down through the years of Nazi triumphalism, Russian revolutionary rhetoric, Serbian self pity and more recently Jihadist propaganda. Roughly translated, it recounts how the peace loving Imperial Army were shocked, yes shocked! to interrupt the attempted escape of Chinese prisoners and their assault of a Red Cross Hospital facility. Such was the degree of 'brutality' - although there is no mention of how many, if any Japanese casualties - that thirty-eight Chinese prisoner’s names were withdrawn from a pottery vase and these hapless individuals were beheaded in front of the other prisoners as an example. The text goes on to say that the benevolence and justice of the Japanese army, equaled and even surpassed that of the civilised Western nations.

The long description attempts to contrast the 'civilised' behaviour of the Japanese to the 'barbarity'  of the Chinese. An extraordinary and to us, baffling declaration in the light of the grimness of the graphic image.

All that said, this disturbing image is an important and collectible print. Although it seems trite, it is important to note that the quality of the printing and the technical achievement is outstanding. The print is in various collections, including M.I.T.

Colour, impression and condition are all very fine.

Publisher Fukuda Hatsujio.

72 x 36 cm.