19th-Century Japanese Woodblocks Illustrate the Lives of Western Inventors, Artists, and Scholars (1873)

For more than 200 years between the mid-17th and mid-19th cen­tu­ry, Japan closed itself to the out­side world. But when it final­ly opened again, it could­n’t get enough of the out­side world. The Amer­i­can Navy com­modore Matthew Per­ry arrived with his for­mi­da­ble “Black Ships” in 1853, demand­ing that Japan engage in trade. Five years lat­er came the Mei­ji Restora­tion, which con­sol­i­dat­ed Japan’s polit­i­cal sys­tem under impe­r­i­al rule and encour­aged both indus­tri­al­iza­tion and West­ern­iza­tion. Or rather, it encour­aged the impor­ta­tion of West­ern tech­nol­o­gy and ideas for use in Japan­ese ways, a com­bi­na­tion known as wakon-yōsai, mean­ing “Japan­ese spir­it and West­ern tech­niques.”

It is in the mind­set of wakon-yōsai, says the Pub­lic Domain Review, that we should view these Japan­ese wood­block prints of West­ern inven­tors, schol­ars, and artists. Most like­ly dat­ing from 1873 — a heady time for the mix­ture of Japan­ese spir­it and West­ern tech­niques — they depict these fig­ures fac­ing a vari­ety of chal­lenges, some more plau­si­ble than oth­ers.

“The great nat­u­ral­ist John James Audubon bat­tles with a mis­chie­vous rat who has eat­en his work; the dog of his­to­ri­an and poet Thomas Car­lyle has upset a lamp burn­ing his papers; the wife of Richard Ark­wright, inven­tor of the spin­ning-frame, smash­es his cre­ation; the devel­op­er of the Watt steam engine James Watt suf­fers the wrath of his impa­tient Aunt; pot­tery impre­sario Bernard Palis­sy has to burn his fam­i­ly’s fur­ni­ture to keep his kil­n’s fire going.”

Com­mis­sioned by the Japan­ese Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion, these school­book illus­tra­tions may bring to mind the 1861 Japan­ese his­to­ry of Amer­i­ca pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured on Open Cul­ture, with its tiger-punch­ing George Wash­ing­ton and ser­pent-slay­ing John Adams. But the text that accom­pa­nies these might­i­ly strug­gling West­ern lumi­nar­ies, trans­la­tions of which you can find along with the images at the Pub­lic Domain Review, “paints a slight­ly more pos­i­tive pic­ture, reveal­ing the moral, some­thing akin to ‘If at first you don’t suc­ceed then try again,’ or ‘Per­se­ver­ance pros­pers.’ ” In Japan’s case, per­se­ver­ance would indeed make it one of the most pros­per­ous nations in the world — if only after its defeat in World War II, by some of the very nations whose his­tor­i­cal fig­ures it had lion­ized less than a cen­tu­ry before. Find more images at the Pub­lic Domain Review and the Library of Con­gress.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

19th Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Wood­block Prints Cre­ative­ly Illus­trate the Inner Work­ings of the Human Body

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

Enter a Dig­i­tal Archive of 213,000+ Beau­ti­ful Japan­ese Wood­block Prints

The 10 Com­mand­ments of Chindōgu, the Japan­ese Art of Cre­at­ing Unusu­al­ly Use­less Inven­tions

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, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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