By William Wetherall

First posted 12 August 2004
Last updated 1 September 2005

Even Homer nods

Until the summer of 2003, when I happened to purchase a Tokyo nichinichi shinbun print about an attempted suicide, brought to my attention by my friend Mark Schreiber, I knew nothing about news-related nishikie. I was not particularly interested in woodblock prints other than shunga, and my interest in shunga did not extend to curiosity about the world of woodblock art or publishing generally.

There was not a lot of information in Japanese and practically none in English about news nishikie. Information in Japanese often turned out to be incomplete and sometimes unreliable. Information in English was not only more skimpy but frequently wrong.

This did not particularly surprise me. The world is full of "misinformation" -- facts and interpretations that are erroneous or mislead though not intentionally. We are apt to accept information in textbooks and news media as "truthful" because we trust, and want to believe, the sources. But a lot of the information we accept as correct would prove to be wrong or misleading if we had the time to vet every detail and otherwise examine the sources critically.

Anyone who does any eyes-open, brain-alert research, into any subject, quickly learns to be on the lookout for misinformation. One also learns to be watchful for "disinformation" -- or facts and interpretations known by their disseminators to be either false or misleading. But misinformation is the more difficult to detect, precisely because it comes from the least suspicious, usually friendly, sources.

When critically examining what others have said or written, one also learns to be humble. For the other side of the coin is that, in the process of discovering the oversights and mistakes of others, and trying to correct them, one is bound to overlook other things, and make new mistakes, that will fall to others to discover and correct.

Different interests

People who study and write about Yoshitoshi, for example, do not intend to be ignorant about him, and do not set out to misinform readers about his life and works. Experts are generally sincere, and we trust them to know what they are talking about. No one, though, can know everything, or know everything equally well. What and how much one knows is usually limited to one's interests, and one's motivation to pursue veins of knowledge to their critical end.

Students of Yoshitoshi, for instance, are typically interested in his more acclaimed work and dismiss or mention only in passing his less recognized, putatively mundane work. They will speculate for pages on end about Yoshitoshi's moods and how they affected his works on warriors, women, and moons, but entirely ignore his news nishikie or allude to them in a paragraph that lacks both enthusiasm and factuality.

The problem we face when gathering information about news nishikie is that too few people have taken enough interest in them to pursue the facts behind their birth, short life, and passing. This is only by degree a greater problem outside Japan, where people are inclined to focus on the more refined art of the country for reasons having little to do with understanding the drawers or their society.

In the defense of such disinterest in news nishikie outside Japan, and the paucity of knowledge about them, let it be pointed out that most Japanese have never seen or heard of news nishikie. As with many things Japanese, the least reliable sources or information are the people, young and old, who press against you on a Tokyo subway. They might know their way around the maze of contemporary popular culture, but probably have no interest in woodblock prints. Some will recognize the name Yoshitoshi but not recall if we was a Shogun or rock star. A few will even ask, with complete earnesty, if Meiji came before or after Tokugawa.

You can count the number of books about news nishikie on your fingers, and maybe a toe or two, and they are all in Japanese. In the process of condensing some of this information into English, and offering their own analyses, the contributors to this website are aware that they are unwittingly adding their own share of errors of commission and omission to the pile.

While acknowledging their own capacity for ignorance, they nonetheless advocate the need to read with vigilance and caution in both Japanese and English, and to take nothing the experts say for granted. Only by asking and attempting to answer the toughest questions can the past be understood as it probably was, as opposed to what people today may need or want to believe or think it was.

Endless verification

The spirit of our research is to take what others have said into account, but not to assume that they are right, or have not made critical errors, simply because they are experts. We will go to the source -- read for ourselves, determine meanings ourselves, verify, reverify -- take responsibility for the facts as we find and interpret them -- then be prepared, years later, to go back and see if perhaps, in our excessive enthusiasm and caution, we missed something because we knew less then than now.

And we expect, always, to be treated the same way -- as sources of information and interpretation that require critical scrutiny and verification.