The first Sino-Japanese War, commonly now in China as the War of Jiawu 甲午戰爭, began in 1894 and ended in 1895 and was fought between the China’s Qing Empire and the Empire of Japan, primarily over the influence of Korea.
After more than six months of battles on land and sea and the loss of the Chinese port of Weihaiwei, China sued for peace in February 1895. This war demonstrated that China failed to modernize its military and, for the first time, regional control shifted from China to Japan.
More than 240.000 Japanese fighting men were mobilized for the campaigns in Korea and China, with another 154.000 behind-the-lines workers. Japan with the victory over China, entered a new era, becoming a major power.
Although the Sino-Japanese War lasted less than a year, woodblock artists produced around 3,000 works of images depicting the battlefront, approximately 10 new images every day.
The woodblock printing had been used in China for centuries to print books but was widely adopted in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868). It is best known for its use in the ukiyo-e artistic genre of single sheets and found its audience in the emerging class of city dwellers. The prints were neither costly nor meant to be preserved, but to amuse and entertain.
“Similarly, it is to the modern woodblock prints that we now turn to recapture a sense of the emotional popular support that accompanied Japan’s emergence as an aggressive, expansionist power at the end of the 19th century. Nationalism, militarism, imperialism, a new sense of cultural and even racial identity—all found their most flamboyant expression here. Indeed, the popular prints did not merely “capture” this sentiment; they played a role in pumping it up. They are the most dramatic and easily accessible source we have for getting a “feel” for the redefinition of national identity that went hand-in-hand with Japan’s debut as a major power.
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In the West, the “journalistic” role that woodblock prints played in late-19th-century Japan was largely filled by publications that featured engravings and lithographs based on photographs. By the time of the Sino-Japanese War, popular periodicals such as the Illustrated London News also featured photographs themselves. The impression of the world these Western graphics conveyed was, as a rule, both more “realistic” and more detached. They were literally, and often figuratively as well, colorless—a sharp contrast to the vivacious and highly subjective woodblock prints.
Japanese photographers did cover the Sino-Japanese War; an evocative woodblock by Kobayashi Kiyochika even takes them as its subject, standing in the snow and photographing the troops with a large box camera on a tripod.” John W. Dower, Throwing Off Asia II