Flags of Many Nations

Sarah E. Thompson

When Mizuno Toshikata’s image was circulated in a literary magazine in October 1904, Japanese readers were well aware that their country was engaged in a war with Russia, while also pursuing dialogue with the US to recognize Japan’s stature in the Pacific. With elegant beauty, this magazine frontispiece expresses Japan’s aspiration to join the international community as an equal, and hints at the country’s complex struggle to embrace a culture that was both Japanese and modern. Here, a young woman hangs strings of miniature flags of various countries, with Japan’s among those from the US, Britain, Italy, and others.

The image is composed with an interesting detail. On the wall in the background, the well-known lithographic portrait of the Meiji emperor, which hung in many patriotic homes, is shown with the face obscured by the flags. Why would Mizuno compose the image this way? This likely reflects an older Japanese custom of showing respect to the ruler by avoiding depiction, or at least hiding the face. At the time, this was in direct contrast to the Western-influenced custom of showing respect by displaying the emperor’s picture in the home. Ultimately, the image maintains the delicate political balance of an old custom and new world order, and subtly reveals the imperial power behind an emerging 20th-century internationalism--one worthy of celebratory decorations.

print depicting stringing together flags from multiple nations
Mizuno Toshikata, Flags of Many Nations (Bankoku ki), frontispiece illustration from the literary magazine The Literary Club (Bungei kurabu), vol. 10, no. 14, 1904. Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper. Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection. 2000.311

The MFA has a second impression of this print (2015.2897), Gift of Robert M. Woollacott.

Update January 25, 2017 10:47 pm

Among the 1733 likes and individual comments on this Instagram post, here is a highlight:

dromanite Interesting that the flags do not include the flag of the UK, the Union Jack, but the white ensign of the Royal Navy and the red ensign of the British merchant fleet.


Sarah E. Thompson is curator of Japanese Art, Art of Asia.