Japanese Art and the Tragic Life of a Socialist Sympathizer: The State Apparatus


Japanese Art and the Tragic Life of a Socialist Sympathizer: The State Apparatus

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Time

Yumeji Takehisa (1884-1934) witnessed the excessiveness of the state apparatus. It concerns the Meiji period (1868-1912), the rise of militarism in Japan, and he feared the rise of Nazism after his travels in the early 1930s. Thus, throughout his life, Takehisa witnessed the threat of the state apparatus and the fragility of democracy.

In 1910, after the discovery of a plot to assassinate Emperor Meiji (the Kotoku Incident), Takehisa was interrogated for several days. He was exonerated, unlike some people he knew. So, although he always had socialist leanings, Takehisa lessened his political involvement and focused entirely on art.

The execution of his friend Shusui Kotoku (1871 – 1911), who played an important role in the socialist and anarchist movements of the time, has always remained etched in his soul. Thus Takehisa – who struggled with poverty early in his artistic career – felt warmth towards the socialist cause and the oppressed working classes.

In art, says the British Museum, “Yumeji exerted a great influence on Japanese graphic design, illustration and popular literature from 1909, when he published his first collection. His melancholic and poetic outlook on life, his ideals of artist independence, and his own bohemian and tragic lifestyle endeared him to many of his generation, including surprisingly Onchi Koshiro; and its effects on ‘Shin Hanga’ and ‘Sosaku Hanga’ were considerable, as well as on graphic design and literary illustration in general.

Vincent van Gogh – after committing suicide – said, “Sadness will last forever.” In a sense, the same can be said for Takehisa’s ambitions and ideals – and the literal pain he felt during the final stages of his life. Therefore, not having the artistic impact he dreamed of, witnessing the growth of militarism in Japan and Nazism in Germany, and dying of pain after entering a sanatorium – and his chaotic love life – meant that “Sadness will last forever” for Takehisa.

Takehisa also felt the economic convulsions of the Great Kanto Earthquake which killed more than 100,000 people. This brutal earthquake happened in 1923. Ethnic massacres also ensued against the Korean population. Thus, many Koreans were killed around Tokyo and Yokohama. Indeed, Chinese, Ryukyuns and Japanese with distant dialects from Tokyo and Yokohama were also brutally killed. Therefore, for Takehisa and his socialist leanings – one can only imagine how much it impacted his soul – much like witnessing Nazism in Europe in the early 1930s shortly before his death.


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