Representing Hirohito in Wartime: the art of Arthur Szyk

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Illustrator and caricaturist Arthur Syzk, a Polish Jew born in 1894, fled Nazism for America in 1940. There he applied his considerable talent to war propaganda – so successfully that the American press often described him as a “one man army” against fascism.

A 2002 exhibition of Szyk’s work at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington sparked a revival of interest in the artist in the US and Europe, but until a recent Foreign Correspondent Club exhibition, Szyk was virtually unknown in Japan. Many of the cartoons from Sodei’s personal collection were displayed at the FCCJ in Tokyo throughought July and August.

When Professor Sodei Rinjiro submitted his book on Szyk to his Hosei University publishers, he received an apologetic but unequivocal rejection: “It is well written, nothing wrong with the content, but we can’t print the pictures.” The problem was several war-time caricatures of the late Emperor Hirohito that Sodei had provided from his personal collection. “I am sure they were afraid of right-wingers.”

Some of Szyk’s cartoons show the Emperor or military figures wearing Nazi insignia, standing shoulder to shoulder with Hitler and Mussolini. His hate-filled, sometimes monkey-like, caricatures of the Japanese enemy ruthlessly employ the racist imagery of the time. Nevertheless, Sodei believes that it is important for Japanese people, particularly young people, to learn how they were seen during the Second World War. He describes the cartoons as “strong medicine”; an antidote to historical amnesia.

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