The previous sections explain essentially the way senjafuda have been made and used from the early 19th century right up to the present day. That is, they were and are privately published miniature works of art, commissioned by collectors but drawn and printed by specialists in the craft of woodblock printing. One more key change happened in senjafuda between the early modern period and today, however: they became an expression of nostalgia.
Senjafuda exchange and collecting continued to grow in popularity over the course of the 19th century, despite or perhaps in some ways because of the immense transformations Japanese society was undergoing in this era. The Meiji Period (1868-1912) was, as any student of Japanese history knows, the period when everything changed, as the country scrambled to modernize after two centuries or more of relative isolation during which the West experienced an industrial revolution that left Japan far behind. Government, education, industry, defense, and many more aspects of national life were reorganized in ways inspired by (or in reaction to) Western colonial powers. The way people dressed and groomed themselves, the kinds of houses they lived in and buildings they worked in, even the language they spoke changed drastically and swiftly.
These changes were accompanied by intense and long-lasting debates over what was happening. The net effect of the changes often seemed to be that Japan was coming to look more and more like the West, or parts of it; some people celebrated this, while others regretted it. Debates over modernization were also, to some extent, debates over Westernization. And in these debates, representations of the past, particularly the recent past of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, were employed as critiques of where Japan now found itself and where it seemed to be going.
Senjafuda from the early and middle parts of the 19th century use early modern artistic techniques and motifs because that was the state of the art. By the end of the 19th century, though, woodblock printing was no longer the state of the art for publishing, having been largely crowded out by movable type and photography, among other technologies. But senjafuda continued—and continue today—to be made by the older methods. Similarly, while one can find example of modern motifs (Western clothing, for example) or design sensibilities in senjafuda, by and large the aesthetic has continued to be that of the early and middle 19th century.
In other words, while the rest of Japanese life changed, senjafuda culture decided to remain as true as it could to the way things used to be—or the way modern people imagine the way things used to be. While the full dimensions of this reaction are too complex to be explored here, it’s fair to say this is a nostalgic, even antiquarian art form, and has been since at least the early 20th century. Modern senjafuda self-consciously preserve and perpetuate the aesthetics, technologies, and most importantly the subject matter of the early modern era.
Most of the images in this digitial exhibition date from a period spanning the end of the 19th and the first three decades of the 20th century. A few date from as early as the mid-19th century, and a few date from the post-World War II period. In all but the earliest of these images, what we’re seeing is conditioned by this desire to preserve the past. This is why yōkai are such a perfect match for senjafuda, because yōkai are also dependent on the visual culture of the early modern period. Pictures of shape-shifting foxes or tengu, demons or Shōki the demon-queller, are almost always doubling as representations of the Traditional Past. So are senjafuda.
The pair of slips above exemplifies the nostalgia inherent in most modern senjafuda, while revealing their status as products of the modern era. In terms of form, these are two separate slips, but several duplicates of this set are held by the JSMA and none of them have been cut apart, suggesting that they were understood to be related images despite no formal connection. And when one reads the text on each, the relationship becomes clear. The slip on the left depicts Shōki (explained in more detail elsewhere) in bright red. The red writing at the bottom of the slip not only shows Shōki’s name on a wooden plaque, it informs us that this is the Kanda Festival float sponsored by the Tachō 2-chōme neighborhood of Kanda. The daimei, rendered in black, reads Isetatsu. There’s no date, but they’re part of the Starr collection, so can’t be any later than 1933.
Isetatsu was the daimei of a woodblock printer in Kanda who did business under the name Kikujudō. Founded in 1864, Kikujudō's shop survives today and still specializes in printed matter with Edo-esque motifs. The slip on the right is an advertisement for Kikujudō’s products, listing various kinds of paper including chiyogami (patterned papers of the type used in origami and other crafts—Isetatsu’s specialty today), handheld fans of both folding and non-folding varieties (both made of paper attached to wooden frames), paper napkins, standing screens, calendars, paper toys, and woodblock printing services, as well as nishikie (full-color woodblock-printed art). The address of the shop is given at bottom left (Kanda Tachō 2-20) along with a telephone number (Kanda-1950).
Together the two slips speak volumes about the relationship between past and present in senjafuda culture. The slip on the left contains virtually nothing that marks it as a product of the 1920s or 1930s. The slip on the right, however, is a frank advertisement for a modern business, complete with the latest in contact information. The traditional flavor of the slip on the left functions as further advertisement for a shop that was already specializing in old-fashioned paper and printing methods: it was just good marketing for Isetatsu/Kikujudō to present itself as upholding traditional culture in the form of the Kanda Festival and its associated iconography. There’s even a bit of advertising/nostalgia-marketing involved in the fact that the Shōki float is rendered in red. As discussed elsewhere on this site, Shōki was a common motif in red-printed hōsōe 疱瘡絵, “smallpox pictures,” where the combination of red pigment and fierce motif was traditionally held to ward off smallpox in an era before modern medicine. Smallpox pictures, although not listed among Kikujudō’s wares on the right, would have been something an early modern printer sold. This further nod to tradition both reminded the viewer that Isetatsu was a printer and bolstered Isetatsu’s preservationist brand—something that, perhaps ironically for a contemporary viewer, only has meaning in a modern context.