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Japan’s past disasters spring to life through prints

Art gallery exhibit features pieces from 1800s and early 1900s
Curator of Asian Art Barry Till points to a woman in a wooden bathtub that was ripped out of her home by the force of a Japan tsunami wave. This and other woodblock prints from the 1800s and early-1900s are on display at the Greater Victoria Art Gallery until Sept. 5.

When an earthquake and tsunami turned Japan’s northeast coast into a swampy wasteland earlier this year, photos were only an Internet search away.

But when three similar disasters struck the island nation between the mid-1800s and early 1900s, before the days of film cameras, the Japanese government had to rely on more creative means to show the devastation.

Artists would be commissioned to design posters to depict the carnage that resulted from the ocean’s pounding. Their images would be mass produced using a woodblock printing method that involved carving wood stamps for each colour and hand-pressing the layers onto the poster, one at a time.

“It was a very labour-intensive process,” explained Barry Till, curator of Asian art at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, where dozens of these disaster prints are on display.

The posters look something like watercolour paintings and they would be distributed throughout the country. People would collect them to hang in their home, though the subject matter was rather grim.

One print included in the exhibit shows a naked woman in a wooden bathtub riding atop a wave filled with bodies, as a man clings to a utility pole trying to rescue someone from the water. A volcano explodes in the background.

“The woman survived – the wave dropped her and her bathtub on a hilltop,” Till said, explaining that the prints were based on true events. “Each one is a little history lesson.”

Other posters show people jumping from a wooden bridge as it burns or a train derailed by the shifting earth. All depict many casualties.

“This is how the government recruited people to help rebuild the cities or to donate money for relief,” Till said.

While the exhibit, which opens Friday (June 17), is timely because of the March earthquake in Japan – the gallery scheduled it long before that tragedy – there’s more than just disaster prints on display.

Japan also produced numerous propaganda posters using the woodblock method during the 1894 war against China and the 1904 war with Russia, to help recruit soldiers and build national pride. Unlike the disaster prints, the war posters rarely showed death or injury and when they did, it was usually an enemy down.

“They glorify the Japanese soldiers as heroes,” Till said.

Before the two wars, the Japanese military had received training in Europe. The posters show the Japanese wearing Western-style uniforms and using more advanced artillery than the opposing soldiers.

“Some of the posters are quite racist, and we’re expecting some people will be offended by them,” Till said.

“We include the controversial prints because they were part of the art of the time.”

The exhibit, War and Disaster in Japanese Prints, continues at the Greater Victoria Art Gallery until Sept. 5. For more information visit