The period between 1930 and 1945 is often referred to as Kurai tanima, The Dark Valley, “a period of suspicion, narrow-minded nationalism and growing conformity”, to quote Donald Jenkins once more. There were a host of negative developments: in 1931 army officers of the Guandong army (the Japanese army stationed in Manchuria) blew up a few metres of the South Manchurian Railway, and subsequently blamed the attack on Chinese saboteurs, thus giving them a pretext to start the occupation of Manchuria. In 1932 Manchukuo, the Japanese name for Manchuria, was established. Also in 1932 Japan decided to leave the League of Nations, and the Japanese system of party government finally crumbled in1932, when on May 15th a group of junior naval officers and army cadets assassinated Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi (1855-1932). Although the assassins were put on trial and sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment, they were generally seen as having acted out of patriotism.
The role of the army needs some further explanation at this point. From the beginning of the 20th century there had always been a division between the urban and the rural population; the latter could be characterized as conservative, traditional and poor, the former as liberal, westernized and relatively prosperous. The army was primarily recruited from the rural population, and it was the rural population that was hardest hit when the worldwide depression of the 1930s struck Japan. The army had found its own way of overcoming the depression and that was by expansion abroad and by targeting everyone that was obstructing them. All those looking outward were seen as a threat to the nation and to the emperor. The situation worsened every year. A full-scale war in China developed, culminating in the so-called “Nanking massacre”, or “Rape of Nanking”, at the end of 1937, claiming between 150,000 and 300,000 victims.
In 1940, political parties were ordered to dissolve, and the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, comprising members of all former parties, was established to transmit government orders throughout society. Japan occupied French Indochina (Vietnam) upon agreement with the French Vichy government, and joined the Axis powers Germany and Italy. These actions intensified Japan's conflict with the United States, which reacted with an oil boycott. The resulting oil shortage and failures to solve the conflict diplomatically made Japan decide to capture the oil rich Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) and to start a war with the US and Great Britain.
In spite of the pervasive atmosphere of narrow-mindedness the world of art remained relatively unaffected. Artists were not forced to conform, like in Germany and in Russia. For instance, as late as 1937 a major exhibition of European surrealism was held in Tokyo, and artists kept travelling overseas, both to Europe and to the US. One sôsaku hanga artist deserves special mention: Munakata Shikô (1903-1975). Raised in a blacksmith’s family in Aomori he went to Tokyo in 1924 in order “to become the Japanese Van Gogh”. In 1928 he met Hiratsuka Un’ichi (also from Aomori), who made him turn to woodblock printing. Already in the 30s he created some of his major works, e.g. The Ten Great Disciples of Buddha, made in 1939.
In 1931 the Nihon Sôsaku Hanga Kyôkai, founded in 1918, merged with another print group, the Yôfû Hangakai (the “Westen-Style Print Society”), and the result was the Nihon Hanga Kyôkai (the “Japan Print Society”), consisting of 28 former Nihon Sôsaku Hanga Kyôkai members and 5 former Yôfû Hangakai members. From February 5th to April 8th 1934 they organized a major exhibition in Paris, in the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, which later travelled to other European capitals.
In 1932 Ono Tadashige (1909-1990) started a group with a different objective: the Shin Hanga Shûdan (the “New Print Group”). They wanted to create an outlet for the proletarian art movement. Their first exhibition was in a Ginza gallery in 1932; later they also organized street exhibitions to popularize proletarian art. The authorities were very much against all expressions of both socialism and communism, and the efforts of the Shin Hanga Shûdan were thwarted at every turn, though the group was never forbidden. Yet, in 1937 they reformed, changed their name to Zôkei Hanga Kyôkai (literally “Plastic Prints Cooperative Society”), and decided to focus on artistic hanga rather than on proletarian art.
Meanwhile, in 1935, another major breakthrough had been achieved: extracurricular classes of hanga were to be given at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, and on June 17th of that year Hiratsuka Un’ichi taught his first class of 56 students. One of them was Kitaoka Fumio, (b. 1918), who is still active at the time of composing this short essay.
Prints made in this decade:
Artists active in this decade,
who can be found on this website: