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Belligerents and Participants
in World War One:
The Empire of Japan


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Though long isolated from the West, the Japanese quickly became keen observers of occidental behavior. They came to realize that the only way to avoid becoming a victim of Western imperialism was to adopt Western ways, particularly in the industrialization and militarization of their Empire. By 1873 the emperor established a modern Western styled army that replaced traditional samurai warriors with conscripts. In an attempt to hold on to traditional elements of their culture, Shinto became a State Religion, which fostered nationalistic and militaristic attitudes. This was admired by the Europeans who began supporting Japanese racism toward other Asian peoples. Europeans may not have seen the Japanese as equals, but they were regarded high above other Asians and their growing military might demanded respect.

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Although America was wary of Japan’s expansionist tendencies due to her growing need for food and raw materials, President Theodore Roosevelt saw a partner he could work with. Roosevelt entered into a secret and illegal treaty with Japan (Congress was not made aware of this) in which he gave them the green light to invade Korea in exchange for their help in expanding America’s own imperialistic ambitions in Asia. This treaty also encouraged Japan to adopt ongoing expansionist policies in the region. The United States never received Japan’s help as they made a deal with their old enemy the Russians instead, and divided up interests in Manchuria between them.

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Great Britain had been one of the few Western nations friendly to Japan as they had little competing interests. To counterbalance the growing presence of France and Russia in Asia, the two signed a mutual aid treaty in 1902, which bound each to come to the aid of the other if attacked by two or more enemies. Though Germany thought this treaty a wise move at the time, they grew to warn Japan that British manipulation of their relationship would lead them to ruin. There were many sympathetic ears in Japan as many were unsure who was the better partner to support.




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On August 4, 1914, Britain requested Japan’s help in protecting British shipping in the Far East. Even if this request under the exact terms of their treaty was questionable, Japan saw this as a unique opportunity to quickly expand its Empire. Japan replied that the only way for her to protect shipping was by seizing the German possessions in the Pacific. After Britain agreed, Japan issued an ultimatum to Germany demanding the evacuation of their naval base at Tsingtao. Receiving no reply, Japan declared war on Germany on August 23rd. When Austria-Hungry would not remove its cruiser SMS Kaiserin Elisabeth from Chinese waters, Japan declared war on the Hapsburg Empire two days later.

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The Japanese began military operations by deploying their navy to capture the Marina, Caroline, and Marshall Islands, which were all then part of German New Guinea. Their only major land operations began that October when a joint British-Japanese force began blockading Germany’s only Pacific naval base at Tsingtao. When the Germans refused to surrender the Japanese landed troops in Shandong to begin its siege. Finally on November 7th Tsingtao surrendered. Most postcards of these events were produced in Europe by both the Allies and Central Powers.

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Japanese publishers also produced postcards depicting this campaign but not in the numbers one might expect considering their proximity and involvement in this campaign. They tend to be photo-based view-cards depicting discarded weapons, abandoned trenches or the ruins of German coastal defenses. The Japanese government did not publicize the Great War at home and discouraged others from doing so as well. The Russo-Japanese War fought just ten years earlier had left scars, and there were fears that another war that did not involve JapanŐs defense might stir unrest. Many ordinary Japanese never knew of the conflict let alone their involvement in it. Since it was largely a naval war, no one was called up to serve in the army, which helped prevent the news from spreading.

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There was no general mobilization in Japan; its military was already much stronger than it had been during the Russo-Japanese War. This prompted many European publishers to produce propaganda cards showing Germany or the Kaiser specifically faltering under the pressure of this new allied foe. While the large Japanese army made its weight felt in the brief campaign against Tsingtao, there was little other opportunity for it to be deployed against the forces of the central powers. These cards largely demonstrate an ignorance of Asian affairs by publishers and a lot of wishful thinking. Europeans had little desire to have Asians on the Continent outside of those used as laborers. Japan on the other hand only seemed interested in deploying its own army in China for its own imperialist ambitions.

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Similar to European fantasies, Japanese publishers wanting to impress the public with feats of their army fighting in China and Siberia conjured up a number of fanciful scenes of combat. This makes it difficult to discern the accuracy of obscure incidents like encounters with German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war that were rearmed by the Bolsheviks to fight the Japanese and Czech Legion in 1918. Originally sold as woodblock prints, they were eventually redesigned for use on postcards. Today many reproductions of the original prints can be found on modern continental sized cards.

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For the most part the Great War would be a naval war as far as Japan was concerned, and as a result their navy eventually grew to dominate the Empire’s military affairs. In March 1917 the Japanese Second Special Squadron under Admiral Sato Kozo left Singapore to escort Anzac troops moving westward. Arriving at Malta in April, they added their power to escort Allied ships operating between France and Egypt in the Mediterranean, and they engaged with many U-boats in the process. Other Japanese warships plied the Pacific and Indian Oceans hunting for German raiders. Once the United States entered the War and concentrated their navy in the North Atlantic, the Japanese North American Task Force defended the West Coast of Canada and the U.S. Territory of Hawaii.

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In January 1915 Japan sent China its Twenty-One-Demands to expand its economic control over Manchuria. A much watered down version was eventually accepted by China who feared a war with Japan. These actions however fed Chinese nationalists who were becoming increasingly anti-Japanese. The United States had opposed these moves afraid that they would interfere with their own ambitions in the Pacific and Asia. America had already grown highly suspicious of Japanese motives, but it had to curtail any movement toward open hostilities when they became a nominal Ally of Japan after entering World War One. China also joined the Allies in 1917 on the promise that Shandong Province would be returned to it.

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Japan played a crucial role in providing Russia with military supplies through the port of Vladivostok. They even returned a number of cruisers they had captured during the Russo-Japanese War to help in these efforts. After the October Revolution took Russia out of the War, Japan stopped cooperating with its now weakened ally. Seeing an opportunity to expand on its own imperialistic ambitions, it negotiated with China for the right to transport its troops through its territory. When the Allies began an intervention in August 1918, which was supposedly to prevent Germany from seizing the large stockpiles of military supplies that they had shipped to eastern Siberia, the vast majority of these troops were Japanese that had already been funneled into Manchuria and Korea in preparation for an invasion. Some Japanese troops had already landed in Vladivostok in May under the pretense of protecting Japanese nationals. The Great War and now the Russian Revolution gave cover to Japanese imperialism on the mainland at the expense of Russian and American interests.

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While the Japanese army was able to link up with the Czech Legion fighting with the Bolsheviks in September, conflicting agendas soon came to hamper their military operations. While the British wanted Japanese help in toppling the Bolshevik government to bring Russia back into the War, the Japanese army was unwilling to move west of Lake Baykal once their territorial ambitions were satisfied. Their large presence in the region also gave concern to the United States, who became reluctant to contribute more troops to an intervention that was conflicting with their interests. These issues would not be resolved until the end of the Russian Civil War.

Even though Japan neither suffered from blockade nor foreign occupation, providing its people with enough food became a volatile issue toward the end of the War. While income remained static, the price of rice doubled due to military stockpiling, especially after the Siberian Intervention. The government’s failure to control inflation first led to widespread protest and then grew into violent riots by July 1918. Although government opposition was suppressed and ringleaders executed, Prime minister Terauchi was still forced to resign in mid-September.

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At the end of the Great War, Japan was rewarded with mandates over the Pacific islands they seized during the conflict. The Treaty of Versailles also left Shandong Provence in Japanese hands even though China had joined the other Allied nations in the war against the Central Powers. This was due to pre-peace agreements made among the Allies. This turn of events stirred up much resentment in China and they refused to sign the final peace treaty. These events also helped to inspire the radical May Fourth Movement in 1919, which in turn contributed to the founding of the Communist Party of China in 1921. The United States mediated the Shandong Problem in 1922; and while the Province was eventually returned to China, Japan still maintained its economic dominance over the region.

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At the Paris peace conference the Japanese delegation proposed that the racial equality clause be put into the Covenant of the League of Nations so that Japanese nationals would be treated as equals in international affairs. It read: &ldwuo;The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord as soon as possible to all alien nationals of states, members of the League, equal and just treatment in every respect making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality.” While the Japanese saw this clause making up for a long standing slight, a number of her Allies were terrified of its universal meaning. Great Britain in particular was fearful that it would undermine the basis for colonial rule and encourage independence movements, and the United States did not want it interfering with its segregation of Blacks. While the proposal received a majority of affirmative votes, President Woodrow Wilson declared such a vote that uprooted long established social norms would have to be unanimous. The failure of this proposal to pass hurt Japanese relations with both Britain and the United States. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was not renewed when it expired in 1923, and Japan would move closer to Germany.

Korea, under brutal Japanese control since 1910, saw hope in President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which called for the self-determination of peoples. Hoping to be heard at the Paris Peace Talks, protest at home were met by the Japanese army. Tens of thousands of Korean casualties ensued, but the Allies of Japan considered this an internal Japanese matter and took no action.




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Shobido was already a printer of reputation in Tokyo when the Great War broke out. While they were known for their woodblock prints, they were printing lithographs at this time and produced a set of 42 prints in this manner that capture both European and Asian battle scenes. Their compositions are pure fantasy without accurate historical references, and it is even difficult to decipher real place names from their titles. Facts seem to be put aside, either for greater artistic expression or so their narrative better fits what the Japanese people were being told. In either case they are some of the most visually striking images produced of the War. These prints have been reproduced on modern continental sized postcards.

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Japan already had a large postcard industry in 1914 with a tradition of printing military postcards. Many cards depicting the conflict in Europe were made in the same hybrid style that was popular during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. They are a combination of the bold flat pictorial elements of traditional Japanese woodblock prints modified by Western elements of modeling and more naturalistic space. This cross influence was common in Japanese art since the 1890’s. The most common of these postcards were hand colored collotypes published by S.S. Pictures that are based on the military prints published by Shobido. While the titles on the prints were in both English and Japanese, the English only titles on the cards show they were targeted toward that audience, which was probably mostly in India.

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Many small businesses like the bookseller Y. Yorii Shoten in Tokyo sold postcards depicting the fighting in Europe that were based on larger prints. They also tend to be very fanciful, providing compositions that will attract customers over depicting anything real. While Yorii’s cards are titled in Japanese, their backs are primarily in english. These cards were often produced cheaply in black & white collotype.

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Many photo-based military postcards were also published in Japan but these can be placed into different categories. The most common are monochrome cards that reproduce scenes from the European theater of war. They look just like the typical cards that were being produced at the same time in the West except they are titled in Japanese.

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The Tokyo daily, Asahi Shimbun reproduced American and European military posters in their original language with Japanese titles added in. The original artwork was produced as government sponsored propaganda by their allies, so foreign publishers probably had no trouble acquiring rights to it. At this time there was already a long history of Japanese influence on Western art, especially when it came to graphics. As this hybrid style took hold in the West, it in turn became popular in Japan where it began to influence their traditions. By World War One crossovers in style had been so pervasive that much of the graphic art produced had gained universal appeal.

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The Japanese had long used photo-montage on their postcards and had also created hybrids by combining different printing techniques on a single card. Many military scenes from this war were also made as composite images. This was not an attempt to falsify facts for its use tends to be fairly obvious. Its use is probably is nothing more than an example of publishers looking to create images with more appeal to generate sales.

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There is often a problem in dating Japanese postcards from this era without a postmark. Many realistic and montaged military postcards were also produced during the 1920Ős depicting troops, ships, and aircraft out on maneuvers. Some of these cards can easily be confused with those printed earlier of the Great War while others depict later actions in China. Some of these cards clearly depict British soldiers fighting during World War One, but they may have been printed in postwar years.




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