News nishikie

On "nishikie shinbun"

By William Wetherall

First posted 27 August 2004
Last updated 5 June 2008

Linguistic note

In the following article, "nishikiga" and "nishikie" are used to differentiate 錦画 and 錦絵, though both are read "nishikie".

Word wars

In the not-so-peaceful academy, there rages a war over whether news-related color woodblock prints should be called nishikie shinbun or shinbun nishikie. To say that the war is unnecessary is to wish away the fact that wars begin only because something thinks they need to fight. This war began many decades ago, and it continues to bloody the literature today because its belligerents believe in their conflicting causes.

Linhart's petition for peace

If by chance the reader has stumbled upon Sepp Linhart's "Shinbun nishiki-e, Nishiki-e shinbun: News and New Sensations in Old Garb at the Beginning of a New Era" (Formanek and Linhart 2005:341-356), be advised that, while Linhart's heart is properly on the side of peace, his petition for peace is flawed by his (or the translator's or editor's) mistranslation of "shinbun" as "newspaper" throughout the article.

In his discussion of the nishikie shinbun versus shinbun nishikie debate, Linhart wonders whether they are "illustrated newspapers" or "illustrations of newspaper articles". By mistranslating "shinbun", though, he shows that he has both misread and misunderstood the nature of the terminology war in Japan, where everyone agrees that, regardless of what news nishikie are called, they were not newspapers.

Here is what Linhart says about the dispute (Linhart 2005:355).

Coming back to the question as to whether this unique category of woodblock prints should be called 'illustrations of newspaper articles' or 'illustrated newspapers', and, in Japanese accordingly, shinbun nishiki-e or nishiki-e shinbun, we can thus conclude that they evolved from being brocade pictures illustrating a news story to news presented as brocade pictures, and that by doing so, they reached their limit and were eventually discarded because the new newspapers enjoyed more possibilities, including a regular readership. The usage of the above denominations is, therefore, not a matter that can be decided once and for all, and, assuming we have understood the described transitory character of the prints, the question of denomination no longer seems to be important.

This website, too, has taken the position that news nishikie are not one or the other, in terms of the counterclaims one finds in Japanese literature on such prints. Yet "transitional" is not a proper description of news nishikie, even in Osaka. In fact, the story of their appearance and passing in Osaka has been pressed into the service of proving that they were "nishikie shinbun" rather than "shinbun nishikie". In other words, terminology preferences have colored descriptions of Osaka and Tokyo news nishikie.

Limitations of evolution metaphor

The vast majority of Osaka news nishikie series had ended months before the appearance of local dailies. The single exception is Nishikiga hyakuji shinbun, which Linhart presents as the quintessential example of what he calls the "transitional character" of such prints. But even this series, which in time became more newspaperesque, was merely a late-start dinosaur that took a bit longer to reach the end of its trail.

The "evolution" metaphor works only if we recognize what is changing and what is not. The environment, not the dinosaur, was changing. A nishikie was always a nishikie. There was no way nishikie could be other than nishikie -- whether they featured kabuki actors, historical heroes, or news.

As Linhart and others have suggested, the rise and fall of news nishikie was largely a matter of economic imperatives. Publishers began producing them to make money, and they stopped producing them when the promise of profits dwindled. And the advent and spread of newspapers, especially illustrated papers, undoubtedly hastened the inevitable extinction of this species of woodblock prints.

But my analysis of the demise of the Tokyo nichinichi shinbun suggests that it came to an abrupt end mainly because its principle drawer and writer abandoned it in favor of publishing the Hiragana eiri shinbun, Japan's first illustrated daily. And my analysis of Osaka news nishikie suggests that their extinction was accelerated by political and regulatory factors, which resulted in the suppression of "shinbun" from such nishikie because authorities concluded they were abusing the idea of "shinbun" (news).

Elsewhere on this website I have also shown that the Tokyo nichinichi shinbun nishikie series began featuring mostly older stories and later turned to more recent stories. But this pattern is not apparent in other series of sufficient duration to show such change. And despite this mutation in the timeliness of TNS stories, its genetic colors did not change -- TNS, the nishikie, remained a nishikie, albeit it one that pretended to convey news.

Again, the only exception to all the above is Nishikiga hyakuji shinbun, which began publishing no earlier than October and as late as December 1875. This was (1) about the time Osaka's first daily paper appeared (14 December 1875), (2) after all other Osaka news nishikie series had ended (August), (3) after Yoshiiku's TNS series had ended (August), and (4) as Yoshitoshi's (by then really Toshimitsu's) YHS series was gasping its last breath (November).

Moreover, NgHS was permitted to publish as a "shinbun" only because, following the suppression of "shinbun" in all other defunct Osaka news nishikie series, its publisher -- the Wataki group that had put out several of the suppressed Osaka series -- set up a subsidiary called "Hyakuji Shinbunkyoku" [Hyakuji News Bureau] with the approval of the authorities -- and otherwise endeavored to abide by the new regulations requiring disclosure of writer/editor names and publisher addresses and names. Even then, some early issues of NgHS reached back a few months for older stories.

Nothing new about "news"

But to return to our story about the dispute between "nishikie shinbun" and "shinbun nishikie" -- while "shinbun" is not a particarly old word, neither is it especially new.

All Japanese dictionaries agree that "shinbun" originally meant something recently heard or "new tidings" -- still its primary meaning in dictionaries. It's secondary meaning, as an abbreviation for "shinbunshi" or "newspaper", came later.

Today "nyuusu" has become the most common word for "news" -- even in the names of some publications, such as Shuppan nyuusu [Shuppan News].

While "shinbun" retains its original meaning of "news" in the names of newspapers -- Asahi shinbun [Asahi News], for example -- as an independent word it has all but replaced "shinbunshi" as a reference to the physical paper.

"shinbun" and "shinbunshi" in the 1870s

At the time news nishikie appear in the 1870s, however, "shinbun" is only "news" and "shinbunshi" is newspaper. This is clear from the stories in the news nishikie themselves, which invariably refer to the physical papers as "shinbunshi" (82 instances on Tsuchiya 2000) -- whereas "shinbun" is merely what "shinbunshi" and some nishikie contain.

Hence Tokyo nichinichi shinbun [Tokyo daily news] was called such, not because it was a newspaper, but because it contained "shinbun" (news). And Osaka nishikiga shinbun [Osaka nishikie news] was called such because it was a nishikie that claimed to contain news.

In other words, "shinbunshi" (newspapers) were the medium, while "shinbun" (news) was the message. And some nishikie became a medium for similar messages.

Or "shinbunshi" (newspapers) were butter, while "shinbun" (news) was their distinct flavor. And news-flavored nishikie were margarine colored to look like butter.

One Japanese dictionary (Ueda, Daijiten, 102nd special edition, Kodansha, 1969) cites an example of "shinbun" with its essential meaning from a work by the Chen Jiri (1558-1639), a somewhat reclusive late Ming (1368-1644) writer. In one of his works, Chen wrote "zhe2 wen4 xing1 wen2", meaning "[I] at once inquired about new tidings [i.e., something newly heard]". The dictionary marked the Chinese text for translation into Japanese as something like "tayasuku atarashii hanashi o tou" [immediately inquire about new stories].

Another dictionary (Kojien, 5th edition) gives an example from Aguranabe [Cross-legged (at a beef) pot], a satirical story by Kanagaki Robun (1829-1894), published in 1871-1872. The novel lampoons people who spend all their time pursuing "western" fashions in "gyuten" [beef shops]. The dictionary cites the phrase "kappankyoku kara mainichi shinbun o saisoku ni kuru shi" -- meaning people "from the printing bureau come dunning for new tidings every day". This is also a good example of the linguistic logic of phrases like mainichi shinbun and nichinichi shinbun -- meaning simply "daily news".

The citation from Aguranabe, which uses "shinbunshi" when referring to a "newspaper", comes toward the end of the last episode of the 3rd part of the 5-part story. The episode is 半可の江湖談 with furigana reading "Namakiki no ukiyobanashi". The graphs mean "Half-baked river-lake [world] stories" and their reading means "heard-live floating-world stories". The episode lampoons the way people go around trying to hear the last "news" the world, and repeat everything they hear as though they are knowledgeable. This includes entertainers (including Robun himself), and the people from the Yokohama printing bureau (which was printed paper currency). (Kanagaki 1997:55-58 and notes)

The last episode of the last part of the story is called 新聞好きの生鍋 ("shinbunzuki no namanabe"), meaning "live pot of news lovers", and pokes fun at all the people who read "shinbunshi" (新聞紙) or "new-tidings-paper" and, punning, "chinbunshi" (珍聞紙) or "odd-tidings-paper", full of "chinbun" (odd tidings) beyond just "shinbun" (new tidings). A woodcut shows a smartly dressed young man being served sake while sitting "agura" (cross-legged) before a steaming "nabe" (pot). His right hand is extending a cup for the sake. His left hand is holding an open pamphlet, which he is reading. The cover of the pamphlet bears two graphs reading 新聞 (shinbun). (Kanagaki 1997:104-108)

To wit: The man is reading news (新聞 shinbun) in a newspaper (新聞紙 shinbunshi).

Aguranabe was published as three volumes (編) in five fascicles (冊). The first volume (one book) and second volume (two books) came out in 1871, and the third volume (two books) appeared in 1872 (Kanagaki 1997:6). The books were illustrated with woodcuts drawn by Ochiai Yoshiiku (1833-1904), Hiroshige III (1842-1894), and Shojo [Kawanabe] Kyosai (1831-1889) (Ibid. 8).

See Kanagaki Robun's Aguranabe: Beef, sake, news, and Westophiles in Early Meiji Japan for more commentary on "Aguranabe" and a partial translation of its first story. See Who's Who in the Almanac section for more information Robun's life and his writing.

"nishikiga/e shinbun" most common

Both terms under scrutiny here originated in the names of Osaka news nishikie. However, "nishikiga/e shinbun" is by far more prevalent than "shinbun nishikiga/e" in names. Morever, the 18 May 1875 (No. 671) issue of Yubin hochi shinbun, which reported on Osaka nishikiga shinbun No. 8, refers to such news nishikie more generally as "nishikie shinbun" (錦絵新聞), while precisely writing the title of ONgS "nishikiga shinbun" (錦画新聞). In other words, the paper was careful to graphically distinguish these two forms of the same expression.

Many Osaka nishikie series show some degree of "ga/e" variation in their titles. Nishikiga hyakuji shinbun is no exception. While predominately a "ga" nishikie, the extra edition that announced the change in format from No. 114 -- and No. 114 itself, and every issue onward through No. 120 -- had "nishikie" in their titles. Moreover, the extra edition -- which appeared shortly before Thurday, 1 July 1876, the date on No. 114 -- specifically refers to the series as a "nishikie shinbun".

Why the sudden and complete change to "nishikie" -- then, just as suddenly and completely, back to "nishikiga"? Someone must have thought "ga" the better way to render "e" -- and very possibly that person was Sadanobu II, who drew the vast majority of Osaka news nishikie, including the NgHS series. Sadanobu II was the "ga" man of Series 23. Perhaps he was unable to "gaman" the change to "e" in the new moveable-type edition of NgHS, and insisted that "ga" be restored to its former glory.

Differentiating "ga" and "e"

The graphic distinction between "ga" and "e" is important because titles sometimes differ only in which graph they use when writing "nishikie". Also, as I have shown in my reconstruction of Series 23 (from Series 2 and Series 3), the variation of "ga" and "e" within a single series can reflect the preferences of a particular drawer.

Tsuchiya conflates "ga/e" variations within a single series under either "ga" (画) or "e" (絵) according to which of these graphs has been adopted for the series name. But she has carefully codes "nishikiga" and "nishikie" differently in the file names assigned specific series, in order to differentiate series that would otherwise appear to have the same name.

Unforunately, Linhart (or the translator or the editor) was not careful about this (among a number of other) details. Linhart conflated "ga" with "e" throughout his article, and so one gets the impression that everything was "nishiki-e" (his romanization). This creates a lot of confusion. For example, in his table showing Osaka news nishikie (Linhart 2005:347), Series 1 and Series 2 appear, in Linhart's conflated romanization, to have the same title -- "Osaka nishiki-e shinbun" -- whereas Series 1 is actually "nishiki-ga" and only Series 2 is "nishiki-e". In fact, "nishiki-ga" is by far the more prevalent term in Osaka news nishikie titles.

Several other details in Linhart's table of Osaka news nishikie are curiously wrong. The most conspicuous mistakes are the labeling of Kanzen choaku nishikiga shinbun, Nishikiga hyakuji shinbun, and Atta sonomama as "v" (vertical) chuban. The prints in these series are clearly horizontal.

Ironically, the caption of Linhart's single example of a Osaka news nishikie (Linhart 2005:352) reads "Osaka nishiki-e shinwa" -- and the text shows the graphs to be 大阪錦絵新話. But the illustration of the print clearly shows 錦画 or "nishiki-ga". The caption also says the print was published by "Awa Bun" and "Ishi Wa" -- though the publisher's cartouche says only Awabun. The drawer is correctly identified as "Sadanobu II" -- who is associated with all but one of the "ga" in this mixed series.

"shinbun" or "shinmon"?

News nishikie are mirrors of linguistic variation at the time. Like kawaraban that included furigana, nishikie with furigana are a historical linguist's dream come true, for narrators typically wrote in their own dialect.

Some Osaka news nishikie have an interesting linguistic wrinkle in that they show 新聞 pronounced as shinmon rather than shinbun.

Nishikiga zukai, the unnumbered orphan in Series 12, shows Nichinichi shinmon for 日々新聞 ([Tokyo] daily news], and Osaka nishiga shinbun No. 22 has shinmon'ya for 新聞社 (news company).

According to Sato Kenji (Kinoshita and Yoshimi 1999:16), "shinmon" reflects the dialect of Kawachi, a province in present-day Osaka prefecture, in an area between Osaka and Nara. Sato does not say so, but Kawachi was home to many of the Chinese/Korean literati who settled in the area during the early centuries of the first millennium. They served the Yamato court, where they taught the Chinese classics and otherwise imparted their literary arts to members of the imperial family and other aristocracy.

There are broadly three groups of Sino-Japanese readings of kanji. From oldest to most recent, they are referred to as Wu, Han, and Tang (also called Song). The "Wu" readings are those that came with the the earliest flow of Chinese literature, including Chinese translations of Sanskrit Buddhist texts, into Japan, mostly through Korea. "Han" pronunciations came from Chang'an (Xian) during the Tang Dynasty and became the more common readings during the Heian period, displacing most Wu readings except for older Buddhist terms, which to this day favor Wu readings. "Tang" readings are those that came during the Song and later (Yuan, Ming, and even Qing) dynasties.

Wouldn't you know that "mon" is the older Wu reading of 聞 -- a living linguistic fossil in the heart of what was once a thriving immigrant community.

Perhaps all Osaka news nishikie should be romanized nishikie shinmon or the like, to reflect how they were very likely called by the people who produced and consumed them.

Limitations of functionalism

From practically its start in July 2004, this website has called itself ニュース錦絵 / News Nishikie, in order to stress that "nishikie shinbun" and "shinbun nishikie" were really one and the same thing -- "news-related nishikie". The position of this website is that news nishikie, in both Tokyo and Osaka, were essentially the same species of animal -- souvenir "nishikie" regurgitating mostly old "shinbun" (news).

The "nishikie shinbun" versus "shinbun nishikie" dispute is primarily a functionalist one, in that the combatants have disagreed over the social meanings of news nishikie in Tokyo and Osaka. One camp contends they were merely "souvenirs" in Tokyo if not also in Osaka. The other argues that they were "news" in both Osaka and Tokyo.

I have summarized this dispute, and its history, in TNS Souvenirs to News, also in the Articles section, where I present evidence that TNS clearly began as a souvenir and only later took more seriously its posturing as a vehicle for news. My analysis of Osaka news nishikie, especially my article on Suppressing "Shinbun", introduces evidence that similarly cautions against reducing news nishikie to a binary choice of either "news" or "souvenir".

To say that news nishikie are simply that -- news-related nishikie -- is not, however, to deny the importance of the "souvenir" versus "news" debate championed most ardently by Tsuchiya Reiko. It is merely to inject into the debate a healthy dose of empiricism, if not realism.

And to say that news nishikie are simply "news-related nishikie" is not to endorse Linhart's contention that "the question of denomination no longer seems to be important". What one calls things is, in fact, important.

Regional differences also need to be taken into account. There is no question but that conditions in Osaka were somewhat different than those in Tokyo. Hence Osaka news nishikie require special attention when it comes to the dispute over their status in the emerging news industry and the suppression of "shinbun" in the titles of all but the exceptional late-comer, Nishikiga hyakuji shinbun

Calling a zebra a striped horse does not make it a horse

I am merely arguing that anyone seeking to understand news nishikie must avoid boxing themsleves into either corner of the functionalist ring. The conditions under which news nishikie emerged and vanished, in both Tokyo and Osaka, were not fundamentally different. Even where they significantly varied, they shared more in common than not. And in any case, new nishikie, wherever we find them, are too complex to force into reductionist either/or labels.

In the final analysis, nishikie were "margarine" and newspapers were "butter". The essential flavor of newspapers was "news", and news nishikie were merely nishikie that attempted to immitate that flavor.

Margarine, even when colored to look like butter, and flavored to taste like butter, is still margarine. It may be marketed as artificial butter and used as a butter substitute.

Some people may even call it butter whether or not they believe it is butter. In fact, I grew up calling margarine "butter" and butter "real butter".

"Pass the newspaper, please."

"That's a news nishikie."


"It's not a real paper."

"How can you tell?"

"It doesn't spread like a paper."