Copped and cropped from National Gallery of Australia
Todai Sannozan Senso
Sannozan War
Triptych by Yoshitoshi

This is the most famous of several Battle of Ueno war triptychs Yoshitoshi designed or helped design. It has been cited as an example of how Yoshitoshi braved the censors -- a claim which appears to have no foundation.

Yoshitoshi is supposed to have witnessed part of the Ueno battle, and this is supposed to have inspired a certain realism in some of his later war prints. One of his bloodiest series was Kaidai hyakusen so -- "Portraits of one-hundred warriors selected by [Ik]Kai[sai Yoshitoshi]" -- which he did between the 7th month of 1868 and 3rd month of 1869, immediately after the suppression of the Shogitai on the 15th day of the 5th month of 1868. He finished only 61 of the planned 100 portraits but is known to have started 4 others (John Stevenson, in van den Ing and Schaap 1992:12).

John Stevenson, writing in his foreword to the Beauty and Violence exhibition catalog, gives these accounts of Yoshitoshi and the Ueno battle.

In January 1868 andante forces gained control of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto and proclaimed an Imperial 'Restoration' with the new era name of Meiji ('Enlightened rule'). The defeated government army fell back on Edo to protect the shogun. In May the shogun's forces were crushed at Ueno, on the outskirts of Edo, in what was essentially a massacre. Yoshitoshi and Toshikage rushed to the battlefield and saw the slaughter with their own eyes. The battle was a graphic illustration of the end of the old order, and its impact reverberated through Yoshitoshi's work. It led directly to an extraordinary series of portraits of warriors, cruel and bloody, called Kaidai hyaku senso (sic), ('Yoshitoshi's selection of one hundred warriors'). (van den Ing and Schaap 1992:12)

Immediately after the battle of Ueno, Yoshitoshi began work on the . . . series Kaidai hyaku sen o (sic). . . . Most of the figures are shown during battle, desperate and cruel. (van den Ing and Schaap 1992:23)"

Apart from what Stevenson says about Yoshitoshi, his account of the fall of the shogunate is not quite correct. Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last shogun, was in the vicinity of the war in Kyoto when his army was routed at Fushimi. He returned to Edo by boat, and once there he recognized the new government and took refuge in his quarters at Kan'eiji on Ueno hill. Then, with the understanding of the new government, he retired to his family haunts in Mito. The holdouts at Ueno were not Tokugawa forces as such but an ad hoc gathering of warriors who were either loyal to Tokugawa or simply against the restorationist government.

But on to the more important issue -- Stevenson's allegation that Yoshitoshi was the first to buck early Meiji censorship.

Stevenson on censorship

Perhaps the word "censorship" should not be so quickly invoked in discussions of what doesn't seem to be published. It certainly does not seem to have prevented anyone from publishing prings or stories about the civil wars that shook Japan at the end of the Edo and start of the Meiji period.

Here is what Stevenson writes, in another reference to the battle of Ueno, about censorship.

The school of Kuniyoshi was known for prints of history, especially gory battle scenes. Yoshitoshi's first published print illustrated a famous scene from Japan's twelfth-century civil wars (fig 2) [1853 print depicting scene from Heike war], and he continued to design prints from history throughout his career. In the Edo period historical prints were encouraged by the fact that government regulations prohibited the description of contemporary or sensitive events. Censorship was intermittent and arbitrary, but punishment for breaking the rules could be heavy. As a result, modern events were often disguised by showing them in historical settings. The regulations lapsed after the Meiji restoration of 1868 -- Yoshitoshi was in fact the first drawer to test the law when he illustrated major contemporary events like the battle of Ueno (fig. 9) [Todai Sannozan senso no zu]. (van den Ing and Schaap 1992:27)

Was Yoshitoshi really so courageous? Assuming he was among a few who dared to brave the censors, wouldn't his publishers also deserve some credit -- since they are hirely him to design prints that they can sell to make money?

In fact, many publishers commissioned many drawers to design numerous very spectacular prints depicting scenes from the various Boshin and related civil wars, including the battle at Ueno, between 1868 and 1874, the 7th-memorial year of the Boshin era, when there was wave of Boshin War nostalgia, and all manner of writers and publishers capitalized on opportunities to make some yen.

There may have been a period of government-encouraged restraint shortly after the revolutionary dust settled a bit in 1868, and the new government turned its attention to maintaining order in the still unstable country. In fact, many prints depicting scenes from recent civil wars, including post-1868 outbreaks, appeared during the first years of the Meiji era.

The 4th volume of Konishi's Nishikie -- Bakumatsu Meiji no rekishi features page after page of many prints, some of them as earlier or earlier than anything Yoshitoshi did on Boshin wars, and few very unique in their own right.

Two suberb Ueno war triptychs

The Boshin War includes many battles in a number of provinces during the last months of the Edo and the first months of the Meiji periods. Among numerous prints by many drawers and publishers, on different aspects of the Ueno war, two deserve special mention.

Todai senso rakkyo no zu (Picture of Todai war fall and retreat), a triptych designed by Koko [Watanabe] Kyosai (1831-1889) and published in November 1874 (seal date), is a study of dynamic realism at its finest. The variety of people who are shown to be caught in the battle is matched only by the diversity of expressions on their faces. All manner of non-combatants are fleeing or pleaing for their lives. Down in one corner a woman with a baby harnessed to her bosom is kneeing and weeping. (Konishi 1977.4:47-49)

Another fine Ueno war triptych is Honnoji gassen no zu (Picture of battle at Honnoji), designed by Sakuranbo [Kosai] Yoshimori (1830-1885) and published by Gusokuya Kahee in 1870. It is unique in that it shows a rather realistic panoramic view of the battle it softer, natural, almost pastel colors. The figure in Nishikie -- Bakumatsu Meiji no rekishi (Konishi 1977.4:38-39) is a bit clipped but bright. The scans on the Noda Public Library website are large but dark.

Publishers more culpable

Though Yoshitoshi drew lots of Boshin War prints before 1874, that year he was drawn into the nostalgia frenzy rather late in the year. Some of Yoshiiku's Tokyo nichinichi shinbun news nishikie dealt with violent civil disturbances that took place in 1872 (TNS-50) and 1874 (TNS-656 and 687). And Yoshiiku's own print celebrating the 7th-memorial year of the fall of the Shogitai at Ueno was published in October 1874 (seal date), one or two months before the appearances of Yoshitoshi's prints on battles in Kyoto and Edo.

No woodblock print drawer seems to have been particularly "brave" when it came to confrontation with the authorities. Some pushed the envelope more than others, but none can be said to have deliberatly flaunted authorities in the interest of freedom of expression. In the first place, it was not the drawer but the publisher was would have taken most of the heat if anything was found offensive. For it was the publisher who controlled the production. Drawers, even Yoshitoshi, was essentially a "have brush will draw" hired hand. was the the More importantly, it was the publisher who really took the heat

Print information

Size oban triptych
Printed [no seal] c 1874
Drawn by [Oju] Taiso Yoshitoshi
Written by [no text]
Carved by [Horiko] Ryukichi
Published by Rokkaen [Zohan]

Principal sources

John Stevenson in van den Ing and Schaap 1992:15 (Fig. 9).
Black and white of image in Stevenson's collection.

Todai Daigaku Rekishi Shiryo Hensanjo
Historiographical Institute (HI), University of Tokyo
Todai Sannozan senso no zu
Large images of each of three prints in database
[ though database link may not work ]

National Gallery of Australia
Monet & Japan
The battle of Toeizan Temple on Mount Sanno at Ueno