Poem by Tenchi Tenno:
Emperor Tenchi's poem referring to a rice paddy
Danielle Delpeche, Swarthmore College, Class of 2015
This multi-color woodblock print, or nishiki-e, is the first print in Katsushika Hokusai's series, "One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse", a series based on the widely known anthology of poems, "Hyakunin Isshu", or "A Hundred Poems by A Hundred Poets". This anthology became widely known as a matching card game (uta karuta), still played even today (Figures 1 and 2). The first poem of that anthology, by Emperor Tenchi (r.661-668), is cited in the square at the upper right of the composition. Having taken refuge from an autumn rain in a rice farmer's hut, the emperor looks on in admiration of his hardworking subjects (Morse 1989). Notably, in no part of the work do we see the poet Emperor Tenchi. This work serves as a good conversation piece for a consideration of the notion of the 'invisible' emperor and his presence for the Japanese public.
Hokusai's works in the woodblock medium ranged from individual prints to illustrations that appeared alongside literature. In this print, we have a peaceful depiction of an autumn day in the life of a Japanese rice farmer. Ukiyo-e, or pictures of the floating world, typically featured the lives of courtesans or fantastical scenes from stories (Figure 3). Here, we have a scene of commoners in the countryside. In Bryn Mawr's print, the significant use of blue provides a cool, calming element to this depiction of the everyday, giving it a sort of grace that one would not usually attribute to the gritty life of a farmer (Figure 4). The scene to the right highlights this quality, showing a carefree child playing on the bridge with his parents behind him as they appear to be headed back to their homes shown in the midst of the foliage on the left hand side of the print (Figure 5). This serene scene is given a lighthearted note by the series' name, "Hyakunin isshu uba ga etoki", or "One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse" (Figure 6). Hokusai's print turns the anthology into a common folk's rendition, as told by a wet nurse. The print was designed for popular consumption, as by the time this print was made, woodblock prints were well established as public modes of distributing art and literary works.
The popularity of the woodblock medium soared during the Sino-Japanese War in the 1930s, with over 3,000 prints made during those 9 months. The prints were mainly used as propaganda for the Japanese Imperial Army (Figure 7). Different interpretations of the image of the emperor can be observed in the woodblock print medium. Emperor Tenchi's poem presents the emperor moved to tears in admiration of his hardworking subjects. In Hokusai's print, we do not actually see the emperor at all, we only see a scene that may be similar to what he may have seen that autumn day. On the other hand we have prints promoting the efforts of the Imperial Army. In wake of the Meiji Restoration, a shift occurs in the presence of the Emperor, in his status as ruler of Japan. During the Second World War, the image of the Emperor quietly watching in appreciation of the sacrifices of his hardworking citizens was used as a propaganda tool to instill a mentality that would allow for such actions as the infamous kamikaze suicide bombings and other self-sacrificial acts during the wartime period. The imperial portraits that graced the classrooms during the war and the imperial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial for the dead soldiers of the war, were other tools used for this purpose (Figure 8). Although in this print the Emperor quietly watches as his subjects farm rice, in wartime Japan, the majority of the rice that was farmed were shipped off for the war effort, and those on the homefront were left very malnourished. This severe food shortage was such that upon the occupation of Japan (1945-1952), Douglas MacArthur, the Allied commander of the occupation, made supplying food for the underfed civilians a priority. The thought of the Emperor silently watching in appreciation as his subjects toiled endlessly was a sentiment used as a psychological tool of the government officials to spur on war efforts, but in the face of a suffering country, an invisible Emperor's tears would have been meaningless.