MEIJI JAPAN 1868 - 1912
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Very rare, complete nine-panel woodblock print of the Battle of Ueno at Kaneiji Shrine in 1868.

The battle took place between Meiji imperial “Kangun” forces and samurai loyal to the Tokugawa Shogunate under Shibusawa Seiichirō and Amano Hachirō during the Boshin or Todai Wars of 1868 – 1869. Kaneiji Shrine was the most important Buddhist temple during the Tokugawa era. This amazing work depicts the Meiji soldiers on horseback and on foot streaming through the entrance into the shrine as shots fly through the air, exploding overhead. The samurai, armed with swords, spears and naginata, were no match for the guns and cannons of the Meiji troops, although they fought bravely. Clouds of smoke and flames pour from the temple buildings as grey-robed monks struggle to rescue scrolls and sacred works from the shrine. In the bottom of the seventh panel (from left), two samurai near the bottom of the image commit seppuku, rather than be captured or killed by the enemy.

This is the largest and most famous battle scene of the Ueno war designed by Yoshitora, and is surely the most complete view of the battle ever printed in nine complete panels. It is spectacular and exceedingly rare to find it complete and preserved in such a clean and flawless state. The Boshin Senso [war], "War of the Year of the Dragon" was a civil war in Japan, fought from 1868 to 1869 between forces of the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate and those seeking to return political power to the imperial court. The war finds its origins in dissatisfaction among many nobles and young samurai with the Shogunate's handling of foreigners following the opening of Japan in 1854 by Commodore Perry, the prior decade. An alliance of southern Samurai and court officials secured the cooperation of the young Emperor Meiji, who declared the abolition of the two-hundred-year- old Shogunate. Military movements by imperial forces and partisan violence in Edo led Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the sitting Shogun, to launch a military campaign to seize the emperor's court at Kyoto. The military tide rapidly turned in favour of the smaller but relatively modernized imperial faction, and after a series of battles culminating in the surrender of Edo, Yoshinobu personally surrendered. The Tokugawa remnant retreated to northern Honshu and later to Hokkaido, where they founded the Ezo republic. Defeat at the Battle of Hakodate broke this last holdout and left the imperial rule supreme throughout the whole of Japan, completing the military phase of the Meiji Restoration.  Approximately 120,000 men were mobilized during the conflict and of these about 3,500 were killed. In the end, the victorious imperial faction abandoned its objective to expel foreigners from Japan and instead adopted a policy of continued modernization with an eye to eventual renegotiation of the Unequal Treaties with the Western powers. Due to the persistence of Saigo Takamori, a prominent leader of the imperial faction, the Tokugawa loyalists were shown clemency, and many former Shogun leaders were later given positions of responsibility under the new government.  The Boshin War testifies to the advanced state of modernisation already achieved by Japan barely fourteen years after its opening to the West, the already high involvement of Western nations, especially Great Britain and France in the country's politics, and the rather turbulent installation of Imperial power. Over time, the war has been romanticized by Japanese and others who view the Meiji Restoration as a "bloodless revolution," despite the number of casualties. Various dramatizations of the war have been made in Japan, and elements of the conflict were incorporated into the 2003 American film The Last Samurai. * The work is a series of nine matching panels in vertical Oban format, each with a number i.e. 1-9, with two title cartouches, the first on page 1, the second on page five. Of historical importance, was the actual burning of Kaneji shrine, known then as the most important Buddhist Temple during the Tokugawa Shogunate. It was rebuilt, but this image is perhaps the most original remaining relic of the former glory and true nature of the actual shrine. The battle was conducted during a rain storm, and the prints show the streaks of rain falling in silver giving realism to the overall work. The sky area has been delicately mica dusted to give a shimmering starry effect. The two forces are uniformed in greatly differing ways: the Imperial soldiers are in "modern" Western style uniforms, with back packs and rifles with bayonets drawn, while the Imperial opposition were in traditional Samurai warrior uniform, sporting their famed Samurai swords. In panel seven, the Imperial forces were being over-run by the opposition soldiers and they began to commit suicide rather than be killed or captured. One view shows an Imperial Samurai disemboweling himself in the traditional posture with his sword and cutting his jugular, while another uses his toe to shoot himself in the head. A dramatic insight to the brutality of this war.

Collections:  Harvard Art Museum (1 panel)
                      Los Angeles County Museum of Art (3 panels only)

References:  Rare Oriental
            ZVA on line antiquariate

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