Take a gander at any tabloid news story today, and you’ll notice it’s hard to focus on articles wedged in between the shouty titles and the bloated gallery of salacious pictures. That’s because tabloids know that a picture is worth more than the 1,000 words their readership has in its collective vocabulary. And before there were cameras, they could draw the pictures themselves, adding in whatever details would sell more papers. Those illustrations were usually as terrible as the rest of the paper … except in Japan, where tabloid sensationalism briefly became an art form of its own.
Be warned: This article contains graphic imagery. As in “genitals served as food” graphic.
In the 1870s, a revolution happened in Japanese journalism. Instead just publishing hot goss whenever they felt like it, newspapers were suddenly taking their job seriously, and they started printing wordy and worthy reporting on the regular. However, this wasn’t very interesting to the majority of the Japanese population, who were functionally illiterate and didn’t really care about actual factual news. To fill this what we now call “Fox News” gap in sensationalist journalism, a new medium was created: shinbun nishiki-e, illustrated woodblock printing that treated the news like a very topical, very bloody comic book.
Shinbun nishiki-e prints were one-page stories light on words and heavy on scandalous imagery. Illustrating them were some of the greatest Japanese woodblock artists of the time. Their outdated art form was losing in popularity, so they were probably glad for the regular paycheck. This led to very evocative pieces with very disturbing subject matter, like the surely real story of a rude foreigner kicking a prostitute in her moneymaker …
… or a smoke monster getting freaky with a carpenter’s wife …
Even the few bits of fluff about cute animals were presented in an overly dramatic way, with titles like A cat interrupts a dogfight to avenge the death of her mother taking a lot of the whimsy out of it.
But with no censorship laws and a government that purposefully sowed misinformation to the public, the tabloids could really push the limits of journalistic decency (which would explain this illustration of murder victims getting eaten by wolves). In fact, the only print to have ever been pulled was one of a woman who had reportedly cut off her husband’s mistress’ genitals and fed it to him as sashimi — and that was due to public outrage over the improper preparation of the sashimi.
However, as scandalous, fearmongering, and exploitative as shinbun nishiki-e was, the prints were also great art. Japanese woodblock printing tended to be very traditional — all geishas, cherry blossoms, and that one print of a wave that now hangs in every sushi restaurant with an average Yelp rating. The tabloid prints were bold and new, with subject matter that shocked folks into admiration. People would buy these prints and take them back to their villages to brag about how interesting big city life was, like we would today brag about getting a selfie with a Real Housewife. Sadly, with the rise of Western printing techniques, both shinbun nishiki-e and woodblock printing were quickly snuffed out. But for a brief moment, the tabloids breathed new life into a dying art form, and in return, that art made fake news more beautiful than it’s ever been.
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