Monday, January 4, 2010

More on Rakuten Kitazawa

(The cover of what I'm calling the "red book".)

In the History of Manga, part 8, I wrote a short description of Rakuten. Afterwards, I visited the Saitama Manga Museum and picked up the red book: "Kitazawa Rakuten: Founder of the Modern Japanese Cartoon". I'll take this opportunity to write a little more about him, based on this book. Fortunately, it's in both Japanese and English, with a forward from the Mayor of Omiya, Shindo Takahiro, 1991. There are a few errors (with one date given as 1990, instead of 1899), and some inconsistencies. The book calls Frank Nankivell an "English cartoonist" (he was Australian) and gives the name of the first paper Rakuten worked at (ボックス・オブ・キュリオス) as "Box of Curious" (which many other websites repeat), while the sound is closer to "Box of Curios" (which many other websites repeat). I'm using "Box of Curios" for the moment because I can't find copies of it online to reference.

(Rakuten's portraits of leading kabuki actors of the day, from the red book.)

Born on July 20, 1876, Yasuji Kitazawa was the 4th son of Yasusada Kitazawa, a member of the Ministry of the Interior. The family relocated to Kanda, Tokyo, from Omiya, where they'd had their roots as a chief retainer to an Omiya feudal lord in the 1560s. Yasusada was skilled as both a swordsman and an artist, which may be how Yasuji first gained an interest in painting. After completing middle school, Yasuji trained in western-style painting for 2 years under Ono Yukihiko.

("Never Flurried, Japan", Rakuten's first cartoon for Box of Curios, from the red book.)

At age 14, in 1890, Yasuji moved to Yokosuka to study ukiyo-e under Inoue Shunzui. He joined Box of Curios, a weekly newspaper run by the American E.B. Thorne in Yokohama, at age 19, where Frank Nankivell taught him western-style political caricature. There was a growing public unrest regarding the way Asia was being carved up by the major western powers, with the U.S. taking Hawaii and the Philippines, and other countries making inroads into China. After the first sino-Japanese war (1894-1895), there was a sense that Japan was just sitting on the sidelines, complacent with having Taiwan and Fu Jian, China. Yasuji drew a series of political cartoons that his American boss, Thorne, didn't really approve of, including the first one, "Never Flurried, Japan". Eventually, he made the move to the ponchi-e section of Jiji Shinpo (Editorial Cartoon Newspaper) in 1899, founded by Fukuzawa Yukichi.

("Cut now, and I'll fall", 1901, showing Russia's precarious position between China and Japan.)

At the time, many of the cartoons were known as "ponchi-e" meaning "Punch pictures", based on the jokes appearing in the British Punch magazine, or "odoke-e". Ponchi-e were crude, tasteless and without a focused point of view. Yasuji wanted a forum with artistic and social merit, so he adopted the concept of "manga as caricature" as mentioned previously in the History of Manga. However, he started receiving editorial pushback again, and in 1905 founded Tokyo Puck. According to the red book, Tokyo Puck was Japan's first color magazine, and Yasuji drew both the artwork for the ads he ran as well as for his own cartoons. Another feature was that the cartoons all carried captions in Japanese, English and Chinese. As a result of his nationalist views, he received protests from both the German and American embassies. Also in 1905, he married Ino Suzuki. And in the same year, Admiral Togo defeated the Russian Baltic fleet in the Sea of Japan, which Yasuji highlighted in the magazine.

(Early yonkoma (4-panel gag strip), from the red book.)

Tokyo Puck's publisher, Yurakusha, had wanted the magazine to have "tanuki" (Japanese raccoon dog) in the title, and Yasuji felt that the old-fashioned "pon-poko-pon" sound associated with a tanuki's pounding its stomach was too close to "ponchi-e", which he was trying to avoid. Nankivell had moved to the U.S., where he was working at Puck, and that may have influenced Yasuji's choice of a name. The stalemate between Yasuji and Yurakusha was broken when the first issue of Tokyo Puck came out with a picture of a tanuki's stomach on the cover. Around this time, he took on the pen name Rakuten (楽天).

(Rakuten's take on censorship, and the train company heads sinking in a "sea of shame", from the red book.)

Rakuten attacked anything that he deemed a worthy target, from corrupt politicians to bankers stealing people's money. When the railroads were nationalized, the heads of 17 formerly private companies pocketed the dividends. Rakuten pilloried this act in Tokyo Puck, and when one of the company presidents saw the cartoon, he became so ashamed that he gave the money to the workers, and they in turn visited Tokyo Puck's offices to thank Rakuten personally. When other cartoonists bent under political pressure, Rakuten didn't, and he addressed government censorship in his magazine. Later, he started up a school for training new Japanese artists to reach western levels, and ran an ad in Tokyo Puck saying "Want to become a cartoonist? Come study with us. We provide meals and housing, too." Profits from the magazine went to funding the school.

(Kodomo no Tomo, from the Saitama Manga Museum display space on Rakuten.)

In 1908, Rakuten began editing a monthly children's magazine called Friend (actually, there's a good chance that the red book has the name wrong, and it should be Friend of Children here). He gave the editorial duties for Tokyo Puck to someone else, then started Rakuten Puck (a bi-monthly) and Home Puck (a monthly) in 1912; and he ran a serialized story named "The Childhood of Toyotomi" in his Friend of Children (Kodomo no Tomo) magazine in 1914. He was also an active member of the newly-formed Cartoon Circle (an organized cartoon study group) in 1918-1919. About this time, he became aware of Ippei Okamoto, another strong political cartoonist working for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. The two of them dominated "manga" at that point.

(Portrayals of various personality types, and associated emotions, from the red book.)

Rakuten may have arguably created the first "character goods" with his serialized "Loafer at Heart" in which the main character, Teino Nukesaku (goofy loafer) was used in markets outside of comics.

(While traveling through France, Rakuten was dismayed at seeing boys at a bakery handling the bread with unwashed hands. From the red book.)

The French ambassador to Japan encouraged Rakuten to journey to France to suggest the possibility of having an exhibition of his art in Paris. Rakuten and his wife set sail in Feb., 1929, by sea through Shanghai, Hong Kong and the Suez Canal, before continuing on through Europe to the U.S, and then returning home in Jan., 1930. During that entire time, Rakuten never missed a deadline, sending artwork every week to Tokyo for printing. The exhibition was a success, and the French Government awarded him a medal of honor, the only medal he received while alive. The Japanese government nominated him for the Order of Cultural Merit, but he wasn't selected for it afterwards.

("Modern Girl", from the red book.)

In the 1930's, Japanese society was becoming ever-yet more westernized, and public tastes were again changing. A new president took over Jiji Shinpo in 1932, and Rakuten used this opportunity to quit the paper. He then took his severance pay and other loans to start up the Rakuten Cartoon School, in Meguro Ward, Tokyo. Some time later, he gave the school to a new group of artists under the name Sanko Cartoon Studio. Unfortunately, the military government became more restrictive regarding entertainment and criticism, with the newspapers and magazines carrying fewer cartoons from 1935 and nothing after 1937. Then came WW II, and the resulting intense aerial bombardment forced Rakuten's family to escape to Akita prefecture, from '44-48.

(Rakuten's impression of the fires resulting from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, from the red book.)

In 1948, the family finally came back to Omiya, and they built the house where the Saitama Manga Museum is now, in the middle of the Bonsai Village (bonsai growers in Tokyo had fled the damage caused by the Kanto earthquake in 1923 and relocated in Omiya).

(Example of Rakuten's sumi-e work, from the red book.)

From this point on, Rakuten would spend 2 hours a day drawing sumi-e ink pictures. In 1955, he was preparing for a trip to Hokkaido, but on August 24 he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and on the 25th he died at age 80. In 1959, his wife donated their house to Omiya City, and the Saitama Manga Museum was built on that land in 1966. Currently, the special exhibits room on the 2nd floor hosts a 3,500 book manga collection during the summer, artwork submitted to the annual contest during the fall, and various special exhibits every few months during the rest of the year. Check the website for details.

(Showing the treatment of Japanese living in Vancouver and San Francisco, from the red book.)

In summary, Rakuten was pivotal in the history of manga for his efforts in moving the word "manga" away from its association with woodblock prints and ukiyo-e towards political commentary and social criticism. At the same time, he diverged from the British "Punch"-style comics and the cruder "ponchi-e" image. While he wasn't the first one to use "manga" to mean "caricature", he was the one that set this meaning in stone in the early 1900's. This action, plus his support of new artists, helped make manga a significant media vehicle in both magazines and the newspapers up to the 1930's. However, it's important to point out that western comics, like "Mutt and Jeff" were being imported to Japan around the 1920's by Rakuten's contemporary Ippei Okamoto, and the magazine illustrators mentioned earlier, like Katsudi and Suiho, were taking a lighter, less politicized approach in the children's magazines from the 1920's onward. While Rakuten's work is distinctly different from what we consider "modern manga", especially since he was trained in the style of people like Thomas Nast, his Tokyo Puck was the first successful, color, all-cartoon magazine in Japan.

More pictures can be found in my album.


geerun said...


This post is very helpful to me. I am researching Chinese manhua (manga) from the 1920s and 1930s. The Chinese sources I am reading mention very little about possible Japanese influence from Rakuten or Tokyo Puck, but there is no doubt that the Chinese cartoonists were influenced, or at least I see important parallels. Not least, Rakuten's redefining manga as oriented toward political/social commentary is very important, and not mentioned at all in the sources I've seen (btw Chinese uses the same characters 漫画). I wish I could see more of Rakuten's work, and Ippei Okamoto's.

TSOTE said...

Hi geerun. Thanks for dropping by. Hmm. I don't know much about the influence of Japanese artists on Chinese artists at the beginning of the 1900's. That might be an interesting question to ask to a curator of a large art museum. Or maybe a newspaper museum.

Rakuten isn't very well documented on the internet. Most of the images I have are from one of the art books sold at the Saitama manga museum. There are some other books also sold at the SMM, but they're part of a $100-$200 USD set.

Ippei Okamoto is even harder to get information on. The Taro Okamoto museum in Kawasaki is dedicated to Ippei's son's works, and the one book of Ippei's that they'd had is out of print. The book I have came from a used book dealer off of

Probably the best bet would be to send an e-mail to the curator of the Kyoto Manga Museum - they have a large collection of books, and the people there seem to be pretty knowledgeable.