A Japanese Illustrated History of America (1861): Features George Washington Punching Tigers, John Adams Slaying Snakes & Other Fantastic Scenes

“George Wash­ing­ton (with bow and arrow) pic­tured along­side the God­dess of Amer­i­ca”

Though I’m Amer­i­can myself, I always learn the most about Amer­i­ca when I look out­side it. When I want to hear my home­land described or see it reflect­ed, I seek out the per­spec­tive of any­one oth­er than my fel­low Amer­i­cans. Giv­en that I live in Korea, such per­spec­tives aren’t hard to come by, and every day here I learn some­thing new — real or imag­ined — about the Unit­ed States. But Japan, the next coun­try over to the east, has a longer and arguably rich­er tra­di­tion of Amer­i­ca-describ­ing. And judg­ing by Osanae­to­ki Bankokubanashi (童絵解万国噺), an 1861 book by writer Kana­ga­ki Robun and artist Uta­gawa Yoshi­to­ra, it cer­tain­ly has a more fan­tas­ti­cal one. “Here is George Wash­ing­ton (with bow and arrow) pic­tured along­side the God­dess of Amer­i­ca,” writes his­to­ri­an of Japan Nick Kapur in a Twit­ter thread fea­tur­ing selec­tions from the book.

“George Wash­ing­ton defend­ing his wife ‘Car­ol’ from a British offi­cial”

His­to­ry does record Wash­ing­ton hav­ing prac­ticed archery in his youth, among oth­er pop­u­lar sports of the day, and the image of the God­dess of Amer­i­ca does look like a faint­ly Japan­ese ver­sion of Colum­bia, the his­tor­i­cal female per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of the Unit­ed States.

The next image Kaur posts shows Christo­pher Colum­bus report­ing his dis­cov­ery of Amer­i­ca to Queen Isabel­la of Spain. “So far, kin­da nor­mal,” but then comes a bit of artis­tic license: a scene from the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion in which we see “George Wash­ing­ton defend­ing his wife ‘Car­ol’ from a British offi­cial named ‘Asura’ (same char­ac­ters as the Bud­dhist deity).” Oth­er illus­trat­ed events from ear­ly Amer­i­can his­to­ry include “Wash­ing­ton’s “sec­ond-in-com­mand” John Adams bat­tling an enor­mous snake,” “the incred­i­bly jacked Ben­jamin Franklin fir­ing a can­non that he holds in his bare hands, while John Adams directs him where to fire,” and “George Wash­ing­ton straight-up punch­ing a tiger.”

“George Wash­ing­ton straight-up punch­ing a tiger”

The found­ing of the Unit­ed States, as Kana­ga­ki and Uta­gawa saw it, seems to have required the defeat of many a fear­some beast, includ­ing a giant snake that eats Adams’ moth­er and against which Adams must then team up with an eagle to slay. What truth we can find here may be metaphor­i­cal in nature: even in the mid-19th cen­tu­ry, the world still saw Amer­i­ca as a vast, wild con­ti­nent just wait­ing to enrich those brave and strong enough to sub­due it. Glob­al inter­est in the still-new repub­lic also ran par­tic­u­lar­ly high at that time, as evi­denced by the pop­u­lar­i­ty of pub­li­ca­tions like Alex­is de Toc­queville’s Democ­ra­cy in Amer­i­ca (which still offers an insight­ful out­sider’s per­spec­tive on Amer­i­ca), first pub­lished in 1835 and 1840.

“Togeth­er, John Adams and the eagle kill the enor­mous snake that ate his Mom. The pow­er of team­work!!!”

Japan, long a closed coun­try, had also begun to take a keen inter­est in the out­side world: Amer­i­can Com­modore Matthew Per­ry and his war­ships, filled with tech­nol­o­gy then unimag­in­able to the Japan­ese, had arrived in 1853 with an intent to open Japan’s ports to trade. In 1868 the Mei­ji Restora­tion would con­sol­i­date impe­r­i­al rule in the coun­try and open it to the world, but Osanae­to­ki Bankokubanashi, which you can read in its entire­ty in dig­i­tized form at Wase­da Unver­si­ty’s web site, came out sev­en years before that. At that time, the likes of Kana­ga­ki and Uta­gawa, rely­ing on sec­ond-hand sources, could still thrill their coun­try­men — none of whom had any more direct expe­ri­ence of Amer­i­ca than they did — with tales of the grotesque crea­tures, vile oppres­sors, hero­ic rebels, and guid­ing god­dess­es to be found just on the oth­er side of the Pacif­ic Ocean.

For more images, see Nick Kapur’s twit­ter stream here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Hap­pens When a Japan­ese Wood­block Artist Depicts Life in Lon­don in 1866, Despite Nev­er Hav­ing Set Foot There

A Won­der­ful­ly Illus­trat­ed 1925 Japan­ese Edi­tion of Aesop’s Fables by Leg­endary Children’s Book Illus­tra­tor Takeo Takei

Down­load Hun­dreds of 19th-Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Wood­block Prints by Mas­ters of the Tra­di­tion

Hand-Col­ored Pho­tographs from 19th Cen­tu­ry Japan: 110 Images Cap­ture the Wan­ing Days of Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Soci­ety

Vin­tage 1930s Japan­ese Posters Artis­ti­cal­ly Mar­ket the Won­ders of Trav­el

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.