It’s not unusual to see political messaging on clothing and accessories these days, from T-shirts promising hope to baseball caps vowing to make America great. But in the first half of the twentieth century, such messaging was rare in most places—except in Japan. From the turn of the twentieth century to the mid-1940s, it was common for Japanese men, women, and children to wear kimonos, obis (sashes), juban (under-kimono robes), and other traditional apparel dense with propagandist symbols and imagery.
In 2015, collector Erik Jacobsen donated a selection of these rare textiles to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and they’re currently on view in Weapons of Mass Seduction: The Art of Propaganda, at the de Young through October 7, 2018. Here, Jacobsen’s collecting partner, Alan Marcuson, shares what first drew the duo to these fascinating garments in 2001 and what they’ve learned about them since then.
We first discovered these textiles by accident over ten years ago. The first piece we found was a fragment of printed cloth depicting planes, tanks, and boy soldiers, drawn with refreshing colors. We were astonished and immediately intrigued and curious. We knew it was Japanese and recognized it as some sort of propaganda, but we didn’t know any more than that. Our appetites were whetted, and we wanted more. It soon developed into a full-blown obsession as we searched far and wide for more examples.
The more pieces we acquired, the more we came to appreciate the vivid creativity and imagination of these textiles; they are endlessly inventive, even playful and imbued with an avant-garde graphic verve and, not least, an extraordinary sense of color—obviously created by highly skilled but anonymous textile designers about whom we would like to know much more. We were also fascinated by the paradox of the grim history of Japan’s imperial period and these beautiful and graphically sophisticated textiles.
Unlike that of Japan’s axis ally, Nazi Germany, this propaganda material contains no racism, no overt expressions of racial superiority, no hatred. And remarkably, despite the much reported cult-like adoration of Japan’s Emperor, in our entire collection, there are no images or any reference to the Emperor or the imperial family (except one minor piece, commemorating the birth of the crown prince).
Excerpt adapted from Marcuson’s introduction in Dreams of Empire: Japanese Propaganda Textiles, by Dr. Barak Kushner (San Francisco: The MHJ Collection, 2011).