The British historian A.J.P. Taylor was the first of many historians that concluded that World War II was “a good war”, since it was a righteous war fought against tyrannies. I doubt if there is such a thing as a “good war”, and in my opinion the epithet is not applicable in the Pacific theatre of World War II. At the end of the war huge numbers of people, mainly civilians, had lost their lives, in China alone 15 million people lost their lives, and Japan itself suffered nearly 3 million casualties. The country was devastated, many cities had been fire-bombed, and the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is well-known. On August 15th 1945 Japan surrendered, after emperor Hirohito had announced the end of the war in a radio broadcast. The Japanese people “had to endure the unendurable and bear the unbearable”, words that were not meant to be prophetic (but merely euphemistic), but turned out to be an accurate prediction of what was to follow.
Two weeks later the Americans came, and on September 2nd the surrender was signed on board of the USS Missouri; one of the flags flying on the Missouri was the 31-star-standard used by Commodore Perry in Tokyo Bay in 1854. Less than a hundred years had passed since his arrival.
General Douglas MacArthur, now Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan, chose to maintain Hirohito as emperor, using him as a unifying element. Politically it was probably a prudent move, but morally it was objectionable. Now that the highest man responsible was not punished in any way for the role he had played the last twenty years, many Japanese could easily absolve themselves of any guilt they may have felt. However, it also helped them to forget the past (if they could) and to transcend it.
In an interview MacArthur referred to Japan as a yonto koku, a fourth-rate country, probably correct considering the state of the country, but a deliberate insult as well. A few phrases that recur in the literature describing the situation shortly after the war are maketa sensô, lost war, and kyodatsu, a condition of exhaustion and despair. The two were narrowly interwoven. There was real hunger, and thousands of people starved in the period after the war, in spite of US food transports. There were millions of displaced persons, orphans, war widows, and penniless and starving Japanese returning from territories outside Japan. The defeated soldiers returned to a homefront whose feelings were decidedly unfriendly towards them, much like the US troops returning from Vietnam experienced in 1975.
Economic recovery was slow. Many Japanese cities were yaki-nohara, burnt plains; the population of Tokyo had dropped from 7 million in 1940 to 3 million just after the war, Osaka from 3 to 1 million in the same period. Only in the middle 50s did economic recovery really get underway.
As is to be expected, the war bought artistic development to a standstill. Artists that depended on the proceeds from their work mostly started to work for the government in some way or other, for if they refused they were cut off from all supplies, like paper, paint, ink and the like. Young artists were recruited into the army for propaganda purposes, and the majority of artists already active in the 20s and 30s simply muddled through the best they could. Most remained active throughout the war. In 1939 the Ichimomokukai, the First Thursday Society, came into being. It first consisted of only three artists, Sekino Jun’ichirô (1914-1988), Yamaguchi Gen (1896-1976) and Onchi Kôshirô, at whose house they met every first Thursday of the month. Later others joined them, Maekawa Senpan (1888-1960) and Azechi Umetarô (1902-1999) among them. Another group formed around Hiratsuka Un’ichi at about the same time, the Kitsutsuki-kai, the Woodpecker Society, who gathered in Hiratsuka’s house in Yoyogi, Tokyo. In 1944 the first Ichimoku-shû (First Thursday Collection) was produced, a remarkable achievement at a time of so many shortages, made possible by Onchi Kôshirô, who had both the means and the organizational talent. There were to be six such sets, the last being published in 1950.
Another remarkable publication was the set Tokyo Kaikô Zue – Scenes of Last Tokyo, published in December 1945 by Fugaku Shuppansha and recycling some designs from the series Shin Tôkyô Hyakkei – One hundred views of new Tokyo, published between 1928-32. Tokyo Kaikô Zue can also be translated as “Retrospective pictures of Tokyo”, for quite a lot of emphasis was put on the Tokyo of pre-war fame.
In a weird twist of fate it was the Americans who really boosted sôsaku hanga after the war. William Hartnett, who was among the first to enter Japan as part of the Occupation forces, discovered sôsaku hanga, and he also organized several exhibitions. Another US pioneer was Oliver Statler who first saw an exhibition in Yokohama in 1947. Soon afterwards prints started getting sold in considerable quantities – mainly to US servicemen - and for the first time in many years sôsaku hanga artists were getting paid for their efforts.
Prints made in this decade:
Artists active in this decade,
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