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Japanese Newspaper Broadside Showing the Arrival of Commodore Perry's Ships

Woodcut-printed Kawaraban showing American black ships at sea. The image shows a steamship with a dragon-faced bowsprit firing a cannon shot into the ocean. The ship is imposingly depicted, with high masts, a hellish steam wheel, and numerous canons.

This Kawaraban appears to tell of the ships firing ten shots, which likely recounts the American vessel's warning shots fired. While supposedly in celebration of Independence Day, the firing of these shots was intended to force the Japanese government into opening the empire to American trade. The arrival of Perry into Japan was a turning point for the nation's history, as it forced the country to abandon its traditional isolationist policies and open to western trade. Perry's men, and the black ships they sailed, were a center of attention for late Edo Period Japan.

Kawarabans (literally, "roof tile prints") are broadside newspaper prints that were distributed across Japan and told of major events, such as natural disasters and changes of political regime. According to Tatsuzou Tomizawa, they are characterized by five major points: newsworthy content; commercial availability; printed soon after the event; illegally published without government authorization; published anonymously. The arrival of Perry's ships was such a major event that it generated its own type of kawaraban, "kurofune [black ships] kawaraban." This present image is an example of a kurofune kawaraban.

Condition Description
Minor fold toning. Uneven marginal cut.
Anonymous Kawaraban Biography

Japanese newspapers began in the 17th century as yomiuri (読売、literally "to read and sell") or kawaraban (瓦版, literally "tile-block printing" referring to the use of clay printing blocks), which were printed handbills sold in major cities to commemorate major social gatherings or events. These sheets were often printed anonymously.

The kawaraban publishers served as a crucial vector for the transmission of information about Commodore Mathew Perry's opening of Japan.  During the Edo Period, the arriving European vessels were called kurofune (Black Ships). That time was characterized by great social upheaval, and intense public interest in the agents of the outside world arriving in Japan.

Anna Wada, in "About Kawaraban", Perry in Japan A Visual History, gives background on the kawaraban:

The kawaraban took up a range of topics, including natural disasters, superstitious happenings, murders, and less commonly, political satire. Printers chose topics more to entertain and satisfy the readers’ curiosity than to educate them. Visual components such as illustrations, diagrams, and maps attracted the people to the print and helped them to understand the text, as well as sometimes offering additional information.

Throughout the Edo period the shogunate repeatedly restricted printing for a mass audience, particularly seeking to avoid rumors and political commentary. By the time the Black Ships [i.e., Perry’s fleet] arrived at the end of the Edo period, however, the system of censorship could not keep up with the number of prints in circulation. The increase in publications coincided with the spread of literacy in both urban and rural areas.