Dreams of Empire

The propaganda textiles in this exhibition are mainly incorporated into the traditional clothing; kimono, haori and juban and more. Designed with vivid creativity they display the full pantheon of propaganda imagery over a 40 year period and thus provide a fascinating narative of the time.

This online exhibition is the abridged version of the real thing which was staged at the Caskey Lees, Arts of Pacific Asia Show in San Francisco in February 2011. There were 150 pieces on display, all drawn from the MHJ collection. The exhibition was curated by Alan Marcuson, Diane Hall and Erik Jacobsen. The ink-on-paper catalogue, the exhibition in San Francisco and this online version represent a work in progress and we are still in the early days of studying the collection in depth.

For the San Francisco exhibition we published a 40 page, colour catalogue with a specially commissioned essay in it by Dr Barak Kushner, Associate Professor of Japanese History at Cambridge University in England entitled The Drive to Mobilize Wartime Society in which he illuminates the historical, political and social context in which these extraordinary textiles were made. Dr Kushner is the author of “The Thought War: Japanese Imperial Propaganda”.



The beautifully produced, 44 page limited edition, catalogue of the exhibition with 39 colour illustrations and Barak Kushner’s essay, The Drive to Mobilize Wartime Society is only available from this website.

$25 plus $10 postage to buy the catalogue

“...wonderfully produced, congratulations. Besides being really beautiful it is also very impressive and a great addition to our library.” Doug Dawson
“I just wanted to thank you for sending me a copy of your beautiful catalogue of Japanese Propaganda Textiles.  Congratulations on a superb collection and a fascinating insight into this very unusual material.” John Eskenazi
“These textiles are so compelling, both visually and intellectually, and your collection is fascinating.  I certainly do hope it leads to a larger publication.” Anna Jackson, Keeper, Asian Department, Victoria and Albert Museum


By Alan Marcuson

It was the late, great Lenny Bruce who said, “information about syphilis is not an instruction to get it” in response to the moral outcry that occurred when various authorities in the USA put up posters in men’s urinals warning them about the dangers of syphilis and how to avoid it. So it is with this exhibition. This is an exhibition of Japanese propaganda textiles that covers the entire period of their modernization, industrial development and imperial expansion from the late 19th century to WWII. While I have less than zero empathy with Japanese aims, dreams and ideology of that time, I and my partners in the collection, have become intrigued and fascinated by these beguiling textiles and the story they tell.

The Japanese pursued their dreams of empire, just as did their Western, Caucasian counterparts, projecting themselves to other Asian nations as saviors, the champions of ridding Asia of white racist domination - under their enlightened modern leadership. As history has revealed the actualité was rather different. For this delusional dream the Japanese people and various of their unfortunate neighbours endured a period of war that lasted 15 years.

It was during this time that there developed a burgeoning and largely unregulated market for propaganda textiles (mainly clothing and accoutrements) and our collection reflects the styles, influences and historical events throughout the period as well as being a pantheon of propaganda imagery at the time - much of it incongruously cute and innocent - until you unravel the symbolic sub-texts of what the images signify.

We first discovered these textiles quite by accident over 10 years ago. The first piece we found was a fragment of printed cloth depicting planes, tanks and boy soldiers charmingly drawn with refreshing colours. We were astonished and immediately intrigued and curious. We knew it was Japanese and recognised it as some sort of propaganda but more than that we knew not. Our appetites were whetted, we wanted more. It soon developed into a full blown obsession as we searched far and wide for more examples. Our collection grew.

From the outset we were fascinated by the paradox of knowing something about the grim history of Japan’s imperial period and confronted with these highly attractive and graphically sophisticated textiles. Unlike their 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 the Emperor, in our entire collection, there are no images or any reference to Japan’s Emperor or the imperial family - except one minor piece, commemorating the birth of the crown prince.

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 colour - quite obviously created by highly skilled but anonymous textile designers about whom we would like to know much more. We had been collecting for a couple of years and still knew little about the pieces we were acquiring other than that we could deduct haphazardly for ourselves. It was then that we came in contact with Jaquie Atkins, who, to our great surprise, was working on her celebrated Wearing Propaganda book to accompany an exhibition, which was largely devoted to Japanese propaganda textiles. We ended up loaning several pieces for the exhibition and the publication - and learning a great deal more about the subject but with a lot more questions. The collection is very much a work in progress.

In the course of preparing for this show I came across a book called The Thought War: Japanese Imperial Propaganda by Barak Kushner, who is the Associate Professor of Japanese History at Cambridge University in England. The book was a revelation to me and while there was virtually no mention of textiles in the book it provided an erudite and highly illuminating description of the multi-faceted nature of Japanese propaganda and thus a proper historical, political and social context in which to place our collection. I immediately approached Dr Kushner and he has taken a keen interest in our collection. We are extremely grateful and honoured to have Barak Kushner’s essay on the textiles in our collection in the catalogue we have produced specially for this show.

NOTE: The pieces shown in this exhibition are drawn from our private collection and are not available for purchase.

Marcuson & Hall