14d. The Anonymous Mangaka, Don’t Expect Us

Alright, the last of this four part kerfuffle, and I can imagine you, dear reader, breathing a gale force sigh of relief that my month long digression through ancient history is coming to an end.  The four parts of this series have delved into the roughly four levels of pre-war manga notoriety: legend, notable, who?, and today’s entry, “what on earth are you droning on about?”  I promised to reveal to you the most prolific manga artist of the kindai period and likely the most prolific manga artist of all time!  And this person is… unknown–or rather Unknown.  At the risk of rehearsing a variation on that classic Abbott and Costello routine, I should perhaps explain what I mean.

The vast majority of comics that appear in pre-war magazines and newspapers in Japan are unsigned.  More than that, we don’t know who all the artists working for print media as illustrators even are so as to guess who might have drawn what.  Yet, we have the comics.  We have this massive amount of material ranging from the unique to the mundane, an amount that easily dwarfs that produced by any attributable artist or all attributable artists put together.  Manga historiography, reliant as it is upon “major” and “minor” figures, artists to serve as the unifying locus for an entire oeuvre (e.g. a Tezuka or an Ishinomori [who?])–nevermind much of the actual work of various manga “geniuses” having been produced by legions of nameless assistants and studio employees who will likely never be acknowledged for their contributions–doesn’t really know what to do with all this anonymous work and thus, for the most part, ignores it.  One might be forgiven for thinking that this fact of kindai manga might greatly contribute to its being consistently slighted.

The Treaty Ports and Early Manga Print Culture

Kitazawa Rakuten, "The painter and his model have extraterritoriality against his wife" in Manga zasshi hakubutsukan vol. 5 p. 82

Kitazawa Rakuten, “The painter and his model have extraterritoriality against his wife” in Manga zasshi hakubutsukan vol. 5 p. 82

The first wave of periodicals published in Japan were nearly all started by foreigners and not in Japanese.  You might wonder how it is that one could get away with publishing English only newspapers and magazines in a country where English was not really spoken.  It has to do with a phenomenon of the nineteenth century, the so-called treaty ports established throughout East Asia by a variety of Western powers, though later the Japanese themselves established a presence in both Korea (which it later “annexed”) and China.  Though treaty port is the term typically used in the context of colonialism in East Asia, the phenomenon is more generally known as extraterritoriality.  Extraterritoriality differs from good old fashioned colonialism in that the powers who establish treaty ports don’t actually administer the territory in which they are.  So, in the case of Yokohama, which was a nowhere village outside Edo prior to the Convention of Kanagawa, the Japanese government–initially the shogunate, later the Meiji government–was “in charge,” but foreign residents were not subject to Japanese laws and regulations, at least in theory.  So, a large foreign population came to reside there, until the treaty with Britain was revised in 1899, thus ending extraterritoriality in Japan.

Of the humor magazines that were published in Yokohama (and have survived), Charles Wirgman’s Japan Punch and George Bigot’s Tōbaé are the most well known, though there was also E.V. Thorn’s The Illustrated Monthly of the Box of Curios (or just Box of Curios), which Rakuten began working for in 1895.  I point this out, because when you consider that the print milieu in which Rakuten began to work was 1) transnational and 2) eclectic, much of what we see in kindai manga ceases to be such a great mystery or in need of being overlooked.  It explains quite clearly why Tokyo Puck was in Japanese, English, and Chinese given those were the most common languages of Yokohama as well as the world of transnational print culture in East Asia.

Back page from Tokyo Puck, August 1, 1907

Back page from Tokyo Puck, August 1, 1907

Most of what appears on this last page are advertisements, snippets from other magazines (like Life), and subscription information.  That the primary region of distribution was Japan, China, and Korea confirms my point above, but I would like to consider the ads more closely.  Notice how they do not differ visually all that much from the comics in the rest of the magazine.  In fact, in many cases, the artists doing illustrations for the ads were also doing comics eerily similar to them on other pages.  For instance, the smoke coming out of the gentleman with the massive collar’s mouth (about 3/4 of the way down on the left) encircles his words just as if it were a classic speech bubble.  Ads are a peculiar reflection of the pre-war manga landscape: they are, by necessity, unsigned, just like many of the comics and visual paraphernalia on any given page, and they represent a visual/print culture wherein far more is unknown than known.


Consider this ad page from Puck from 1907, where the image at center in fact is a single panel comic nestled among ads for whiskey (Jameson!), cigars, spring water, and scrubbing powder.  On the level of the plane of the page, there is no distinction between what is an ad, what is a comic, and what is a reprint from the Chicago Record-Herald.  The comic is unsigned, and so are the ads.  It’s likely far from a coincidence that we see a similar thing in the very magazine upon which Rakuten would later base his first independent venture.

The Uncanny World of Pre-war Manga

from Tokyo Puck June 1912

from Tokyo Puck June 1912

Over the past few weeks I have ascribed a great deal of the avant-garde character of kindai manga to particular artists, as if their peculiar genius might save this work from the marginalia of comics historiography.  The reality is there are as many peculiar works by unknown artists as by anyone else.  This chart to the left compares the price of a bushel of rice against the “price” (i.e. wages) of the various professions that might want to buy rice for their sustenance.  The “joke” is that the rice is valued far more highly than any person.  This is one of many illustrations by an unknown artist to poach upon another visual form in much the same way I have tried to show over the previous weeks.  As it turns out, what Rakuten, Jihei, Hisao, and others were doing was not peculiar to them but part of a larger print culture in which distinctions between illustrations for ads and for comics or between comic geniuses and ordinary unknowns are not as easy to make as you might think.

For example, I made a big point of this image, of how Jihei poaches on the visual form of the rail station map, and of how he develops a form of comic reading not dependent upon the assumptions of time and narrative that are otherwise so common.  But what if it weren’t as simple as Jihei gazing upon a station map for any given railway, suddenly becoming inspired, and producing an ersatz masterpiece?  What if there were a more prosaic explanation of his occasional genius?  What if the way had already been paved to read this other visual form as comic?

Jiji manga December 11, 1921

Jiji manga December 11, 1921

Again, my interest here is not the Jihei illustration above, but the advertisement below for Club Cosmetics, a company still in business after 110 years.  You may have already noticed the “rail line” at the bottom.  It too is merely a hypothetical railway, a means of getting from “makeup sequence” (okesho no junjo) on the right to “beauty” (bijin) on the left.  It is entirely possible that Jihei’s mode of reading had been prepared for him by an advertisement, though it is also possible that the ad could have drawn from the comic.  More likely is that both drew from something that was, in a sense, “in the air,” namely that visual forms were anything but fixed and played upon each other in a print milieu where distinctions between these forms, if any meaningful distinction were made, was more a function of readerly interpretation than a response to particular characteristics of illustration.

Osaka Puck October 15, 1910 - "A Map Showing the Stations of the [sic] Human Life" with an advertisement for Jintan, marketed then as a cure-all but now only as  a breathmint.

Osaka Puck October 15, 1910 – “A Map Showing the Stations of the [sic] Human Life” with an advertisement for Jintan, marketed then as a cure-all but now only as a breathmint.

I cannot stress this enough, because the unknown individuals (or pairs or groups) who created these advertisements were reading/mapping the print visual landscape in exactly the same way as any named manga artist of greater or lesser notoriety.

ibid. July 1, 1917

ibid. July 1, 1917

You might also recal Hisao’s landscape of life as a series of exams, in which little devils prod people along to where, if they succeed in getting to the summit, they merely fall off a cliff.  A similar logic underlies the landscape above by an unknown artist.  People are herded along a winding path by their desire to earn a living at the factories in the city.  Notice how those in the foreground, in the village, have unique characteristics, but as you move further back toward the factories, the figures become more and more uniform in appearance, just like the factories themselves, which vary little in design.

Osaka Puck November 1, 1908

ibid. November 1, 1908

Manga of the kindai period is nothing if not populist, and it would be remiss of me, if I were to parade before you a new canon of comic geniuses, the only thing comics historiography seems to deal well with, without mentioning 1) the most prolific artist of all time, Anonymous, and 2) the similarities between the work of the “geniuses” and those whose work survives while their names do not.  This is a lesson that cannot be learned, because the record of their passing in the world does not effectively record their passing, for we have the object and not the hand that drew it.  One must put forth a concerted effort to keep in mind those unnamed and unnameable hands so easily swallowed up by the “big men” of manga history, lest we start to think that the big men and their great accomplishments are much more than a convenient critical fiction.

Next week: manga historiography done right?

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com


  1. “visual forms were anything but fixed and played upon each other in a print milieu where distinctions between these forms … was more a function of readerly interpretation than a response to particular characteristics of illustration”

    Just as Japanese are comfortable using several different modes of writing (hiragana / katakana / kanji / romaji / numbers / emoji) to represent the same exact idea (よろしく / ヨロシク / 宜しく(or 夜露死苦) / yoroshiku / 4649 / (^ー゚)ノ), they are also quite comfortable with all the various and sundry combinations of illustration with text to fulfill visual communication needs. It IS something “in the air” like a spirit or mindset with ancient roots that continues to live on, but is also something “in the water” because manga designs are used everywhere and for everything from editorial to advertising without being considered juvenile.

    1. I don’t think it’s particular to Japan at all, and if anything has been impressed upon me this past week from my archival work, it’s that late 19th/early 20th century print was fluid basically everywhere. There were no fixed forms, and people who made these relatively new things, i.e. illustrated periodicals, were always trying out wacky new things. Thus, what you see in that period, which also happens to correspond with a massive increase in international flows of print materials, is far more avant -garde than anything being produced today. It’s like that, precisely because artists, editors, and publishers from around the world are actively responding to work that they previously had no exposure to. I don’t think you can really locate that in any one particular place. My two cents.


  3. A few points:

    – The cartoon from Puck that you say is unsigned is signed. Under the spats of the character on the left you will see “Erh”. This is the signature of one of Pucks regular artists Samuel D. Ehrhart .

    – The structure of Puck cartoons is fairly consistent, and for this reason they would have stood out to the regular reader (even to me now) on the advertising page. (i.e. almost all cases there is a very clear visual distinction on the picture plane of what is a cartoon and what is an ad.)

    – The reason why Tokyo Puck ads are similar in style to the magazine’s cartoons and comics is because they are almost all drawn by Rakuten and other artists working at the magazine. The magazine made money by offering this service (without being dominated by ads like todays’s advertizing newspapers and mags) and Rakuten would later boast of how successful this was. Making money primarily through advertising rather than circulation (even though it had a relatively large circulation for the time) makes this magazine a very different beast from the treaty port magazines you mentioned. The newspaper Weekly Box of Curios (rather than the one off monthly illustrated) made money as an advertising publication, but it was not a humor magazine.

    – Tokyo Puck owes more to (New York) Puck than any treaty port publication. And its cosmopolitan flavor (multilingual captions and interest Japans place in international politics) may be in part from Rakuten’s experience in Yokosuka and later Yokohama, but it also largely comes from the publisher who was publishing other illustrated publications introducing the world as well as Esperanto publications.

    – Tokyo Puck was also, at least for a while, sold on the West Coast of the USA.

    1. Thanks for you comments, Ron! I only recently got around to reading your piece in Manga’s Cultural Crossroads, but I have enjoyed it greatly.

      I would take issue with two of your points, though they are well-advised. 1) the obvious distinctiveness of Puck cartoons: there are discursive connections between ad illustrations in newspapers/other non-humor print media and cartoon illustrations that, to my mind, undermine this point. While you can argue that the framing devices used in Puck for their strips is relatively consistent (I assume this is what you mean by clear visual distinction on the picture plane), in the 1890s and 1900s, strips on interior pages and not the cover (i.e. the six panel cartoons you typically see on the back cover page) often have their panels distributed over several pages and often among the single “panel” ads, meaning the connection between panels-as-unified strip has to be made, in a very basic sense, within the context of any readers interpretive act. That alone is probably not significant, but if you consider how advertisements across all periodicals, not just Puck, occasionally use comic tropes in their illustrations, the obvious distinction between a comic panel and an ad “panel” breaks down somewhat. The Monkey Brand soap ads in the Illustrated London News from roughly this period are a good example of advertisements clearly aping the formal characteristics of contemporary cartoons (e.g. word balloons, their humorous, etc.). I’m also pretty sure I noted that the same artists were drawing the ads in TP; that was kind of the point, I thought, in re-enforcing my argument about a kind of productive non-distinction between comic space and ad space. I wrote this piece back when I was still relying on selected reprint volumes, but since then I came across a Pearl Cream ad in TP (1909, no. 1 p. 12) that is structured exactly like a contemporary comic strip. I suppose you could argue this is a one off, but to my mind it points to a broader sense of poaching on seemingly distinct visual forms that one encounters throughout all print media of the time, not just humor publications.

      2) Perhaps I was unclear about this, but I wasn’t trying to claim that TP is precisely like the treaty port publications themselves, but that Rakuten’s work generally reflects, for lack of a better word, a treaty port ethos (I thought I said this in the 14a post on Rakuten specifically, but reading it again, I realize I only implied this). In addition to the tri-lingualism and the image that specifically references extraterritoriality (though I honestly think for this post those are sufficient reason to argue what I do), I would add his early work on the Jiji manga page of Jiji shinpo. Now, I know you’re familiar with these pages, because you reference them in your MCC piece, so consider those ponchi shashin that Rakuten (as Yasuji, or, at least, I assume the y in Y. Kitazawa is “Yasuji”) produced in 1902. The form of these photographs and even the font he uses for the Romanized form of his name is exactly like the carte-de-visite photos sold in Yokohama and Nagasaki, in particular to foreigners. On first glance, it may not seem all that significant that the first two are a lean and fat sumo wrestler, but photos just like this of Japanese “types” (geisha and coolies were also common) were part of the consumer culture of foreign visitors to Yokohama especially in the 1880s/1890s. Allen Hockley has written quite a bit recently about the relationship between tourism in the treaty ports and photographs as commodities marketed specifically within that context. With all this in mind, I suppose a compromise-y way of putting it (though compromise is not quite in my nature), would be to say that the ways TP differs from Puck, and I think we can agree it differs rather a great deal, owe a lot to treaty port culture. The visual media that Rakuten poaches (e.g. film, karuta, sugoroku, etc.) are also an important component of this distinction, but because I had yet to see anything pointing to the Rakuten treaty port connection, I thought it would be a good idea to air that argument here.

  4. […] published in Yokohama, before moving to Fukuzawa Yukichi’s newspaper Jiji shinpō in 1895. I have argued elsewhere that Rakuten’s work is clearly indicative of a treaty port ethos, and his having worked for a foreign owned publication in Yokohama as well as his use of [manga] in […]

  5. […] In the comments section to an earlier version of the argument[s] about to follow, Stewart, in response to my reading of a particular page from the July 31st, 1907 issue of Puck (above), gave what I presume to be a rather likely objection to the entire purview of this chapter. […]

  6. […] Ron Stewart, who certainly possesses more in depth knowledge of Rakuten’s work than I do, critiqued the last of my four part series on kindai manga, it helped focus precisely what it was I was trying to say.  Even though, in the end, I wavered […]

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