Buruma’s Inventing Japan and Kiyochika’s A Thick Skinned Face provide support for Modernization

The First Sino-Japanese War was a conflict between the Japanese and the Chinese from 1894-95 (New World Encyclopedia). The war showcased their military advancement, but was more like a war of ideals. It was backwards China versus modernizing Japan. Japan shed its identity of sinocentrism for one of westernization. As a result, China’s defeat solidified Japan as a westernized nation (Buruma). Buruma notes that Fukazawa thought “Joining the West, in his view, would have to mean a rejection of Asia.” This sentiment is present in the work of Japanese artist Kobayashi Kiyochika specifically in his 1895 woodblock print, A Thick Skinned Face (Smith). Kiyochika uses satire as a means of emphasizing this belief that the Chinese were almost inhuman. He highlights the need for the Japanese to erase Chinese influence. Kiyochika uses humorous imagery to aggrandize the Japanese and slander the perception of the Chinese. In cooperation, Kiyochika’s use of woodblock printing provides evidence that strengthens Buruma’s claim, but Kiyochika furthers this claim by presenting the idea of actively removing Chinese influence.

The use of woodblock printing emphasizes Kiyochika’s argument for modernization through its parallels with a changing Japan. Woodblock printing modernized during the Meiji Restoration. This form transitioned from a 17th-century method of producing beautiful images to becoming a means of distributing information to the common people. The prints went from elegant images of former Japanese lifestyles to a crude depiction of current events. Specifically, there was a struggle to hide this previous identity and adopt modernity (Dower). During the war, the prints depicted battlefront scenes and soldiers. Woodblock printing adapted with the changing culture and lost its traditional style during the Meiji restoration as Japan was struggling to shed its identity.

The characters and objects in the print present an argument for modernization through imagery and symbolism. The design of the characters and the objects in the image highlight the argument for advancement. There is a drastic contrast to the depiction of the Japanese soldier or hero and the comical portrayal of the Chinese man. The Japanese soldier is in iconic Japanese hero stance as he uses a variety of tools to erase the Chinese man. The hero stance is iconic in prints as a representation of honor and heroism which increases his authority over the Chinese man (Dower). Then, there is the action being portrayed by Kiyochika. The Japanese hero is sanding the Chinese man’s head while if complications arise other tools can be used to erase the Chinese man. The variety of tools, including saws, a sickle, and soap and water emphasize the importance of Japan removing the stain that is Chinese culture from their society. There is this feeling that Chinese influence is being removed from Japanese culture, by any means necessary.

This noble depiction of the Japanese man is very different from the ridiculous portrayal of a savage Chinese man. The large head seems to be the most prominent aspect of the man’s identity and the saw and sickle in the background imply decapitation, so the allusions to violence are present in a scene that seems more laborious than violent. The Chinese man is dehumanized in the act of sanding. There is no gore, and he does not seem to be in pain, just anger and resistance. The dehumanization of the Chinese man heightens the assumption that the Japanese soldier is not erasing a person, but something greater. This coincides with the perception that the Chinese influence in Japan is a large stain visible to western nations that represent weak traditionalism and is impeding the Japanese from achieving modernity.

Analyzing their differences, we can see the intended tone and message of the print. The Japanese soldier is devoid of Asian features, while the physical appearance of the Chinese man is exaggerated. Buruma describes that the Japanese are, “tall, pale-skinned, heroic figures, while the Chinese enemies are grotesque, covering Asiatics with pigtails.” (Buruma 50). The comical image of the large-headed Chinese man with the epitomic Asian ponytail turns the culture of the Chinese into a joke. The Japanese man, on the other hand, has no features that are Japanese as if he, “suddenly belonged to a different race, one akin to the Europeans.” (Buruma 50). The piece cannot speak to the sentiment of all the Japanese people as there is no singular Japanese consciousness. But, the piece in collaboration with Buruma’s analysis of Japanese sentiment spotlight the importance of the Japanese separating themselves from Chinese influence. The Japanese hero was this European manifestation of Japanese hope and the Chinese man was this burden that overshadowed the Japanese man until he was cut down to size.


Thanks to Romare from the Writing Center for helping me sift through my ideas and clarify my thoughts. Thanks to Jeff, Henry, and Cole for providing insight and helping me shorten this analysis.

Works Cited

Buruma, Ian. Inventing Japan. Modern Library, 2003.Dower, John. “Throwing Off Asia II.” Visualizing Cultures, https://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/throwing_off_asia_02/visnav_ii_g.html. Accessed 19 Oct. 2017.

Dower, John. “Throwing Off Asia II.” Visualizing Cultures, https://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/throwing_off_asia_02/visnav_ii_g.html. Accessed 19 Oct. 2017.

—. “Throwing Off Asia: Lesson One.” Visualizing Cultures, https://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/throwing_off_asia_01/cur_student/toa_cur_01_h1a.html. Accessed 19 Oct. 2017.

Smith, Henry. A Thick-Skinned Face from the Series Long Live Japan: One Hundred Victories, One Hundred Laughs – The Lavenberg Collection of Japanese Prints. http://www.myjapanesehanga.com/home/artists/kiyochika-kobayashi-1847-1915-/a-thick-skinned-face. Accessed 3 Nov. 2017.

First Sino-Japanese War – New World Encyclopedia. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/First_Sino-Japanese_War. Accessed 19 Oct. 2017.


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