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Views of Korea from an Englishman's pen (Part 1)

The signing of the Korean-Japanese Treaty, Japan Punch, March 1876
The signing of the Korean-Japanese Treaty, Japan Punch, March 1876

By Robert Neff

The cover of Japan Punch, November 1882
The cover of Japan Punch, November 1882
Charles Wirgman (1832-1891) is an unlikely witness of Korean history ― especially considering, as far as I know, he never visited the country. But his view of the peninsula from afar is, nonetheless, interesting and entertaining.

He arrived in Japan in 1861 and spent the rest of his life in Yokohama illustrating and writing ― often satirically ― about Japanese society. Like many artists and writers, he apparently struggled to make a living and was forced to augment his income by teaching art and English tutoring.

In 1862, he began publishing Japan's first monthly magazine ― Japan Punch. For the most part, his witty sketches (often accompanied by captions in various languages) were readily appreciated by the small foreign community ― except, of course, those who found themselves the target of his satirical pen.

So much time has passed that many of his caricatured subjects are not so readily identifiable now but one can imagine that when they were published, few, if any, had any doubt as to their identities.

But his observations weren't confined just to the expat community in Japan. He also commented on affairs outside Japan ― including Korea. Following the Unyo incident on September 10, 1875, and the subsequent destruction of Korean fortifications on Ganghwa Island two weeks later by the Japanese navy, a war between Korea and Japan seemed inevitable.

The Korean government explaining the Imo Mutiny to the Japanese government, Japan Punch, September 1882The Korean government explaining the Imo Mutiny to the Japanese government, Japan Punch, September 1882
The foreign diplomatic community in Yokohama. Japan Punch, May 1871The Korean government explaining the Imo Mutiny to the Japanese government, Japan Punch, September 1882

In February 1876, a Japanese fleet of warships and transports anchored off the coast of Jemulpo. Over the next couple of weeks, a treaty was drawn up and ratified between the two countries ― opening Korea to Japan. Wirgman's sketch portrays the officials of both countries dancing with joy.

Following the Imo Mutiny in Seoul in July 1882, Wirgman took the opportunity to demonstrate ― through one of his sketches ― that China was still controlling Korea from behind the scenes.

When the Korean delegations arrived in Japan, Wirgman and his pen were there. Judging from the sketch, he was more pleased to meet them than they were to meet him.

Wirgman encounters the Korean delegation in Japan. Japan Punch, October 1882
Wirgman encounters the Korean delegation in Japan. Japan Punch, October 1882

One of his sketches ― "The Nippon Race Club [and] the Korean jock" ― shows a Korean official starting out on a horse and returning in a jinrikisha. A little over a year later, 50 jinrikishas were exported to Korea and were, for a short time, popular with the upper class and foreigners. Many, however, were destroyed during the anti-foreign sentiment following the unsuccessful coup attempt by Korean progressives in December 1884.

When the Korean delegation left Japan, Wirgman took a parting shot. He portrays them as leaving Japan quite satisfied and obese ― all smoking cigarettes and carrying bags of money ― an open bottle of alcohol raised in celebration of their success.

It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword and, as we shall see tomorrow, Wirgman wielded his pen like a gladiator when it came to Western ― especially British ― policy involving Korea.

A Korean official in the
A Korean official in the "Nippon Race." Japan Punch, October 1882

The Korean delegation returning home. Japan Punch, January 1883
The Korean delegation returning home. Japan Punch, January 1883



The signing of the Korean-Japanese Treaty, Japan Punch, March 1876
The signing of the Korean-Japanese Treaty, Japan Punch, March 1876

By Robert Neff

The cover of Japan Punch, November 1882
The cover of Japan Punch, November 1882
Charles Wirgman (1832-1891) is an unlikely witness of Korean history ― especially considering, as far as I know, he never visited the country. But his view of the peninsula from afar is, nonetheless, interesting and entertaining.

He arrived in Japan in 1861 and spent the rest of his life in Yokohama illustrating and writing ― often satirically ― about Japanese society. Like many artists and writers, he apparently struggled to make a living and was forced to augment his income by teaching art and English tutoring.

In 1862, he began publishing Japan's first monthly magazine ― Japan Punch. For the most part, his witty sketches (often accompanied by captions in various languages) were readily appreciated by the small foreign community ― except, of course, those who found themselves the target of his satirical pen.

So much time has passed that many of his caricatured subjects are not so readily identifiable now but one can imagine that when they were published, few, if any, had any doubt as to their identities.

But his observations weren't confined just to the expat community in Japan. He also commented on affairs outside Japan ― including Korea. Following the Unyo incident on September 10, 1875, and the subsequent destruction of Korean fortifications on Ganghwa Island two weeks later by the Japanese navy, a war between Korea and Japan seemed inevitable.

The Korean government explaining the Imo Mutiny to the Japanese government, Japan Punch, September 1882The Korean government explaining the Imo Mutiny to the Japanese government, Japan Punch, September 1882
The foreign diplomatic community in Yokohama. Japan Punch, May 1871The Korean government explaining the Imo Mutiny to the Japanese government, Japan Punch, September 1882

In February 1876, a Japanese fleet of warships and transports anchored off the coast of Jemulpo. Over the next couple of weeks, a treaty was drawn up and ratified between the two countries ― opening Korea to Japan. Wirgman's sketch portrays the officials of both countries dancing with joy.

Following the Imo Mutiny in Seoul in July 1882, Wirgman took the opportunity to demonstrate ― through one of his sketches ― that China was still controlling Korea from behind the scenes.

When the Korean delegations arrived in Japan, Wirgman and his pen were there. Judging from the sketch, he was more pleased to meet them than they were to meet him.

Wirgman encounters the Korean delegation in Japan. Japan Punch, October 1882
Wirgman encounters the Korean delegation in Japan. Japan Punch, October 1882

One of his sketches ― "The Nippon Race Club [and] the Korean jock" ― shows a Korean official starting out on a horse and returning in a jinrikisha. A little over a year later, 50 jinrikishas were exported to Korea and were, for a short time, popular with the upper class and foreigners. Many, however, were destroyed during the anti-foreign sentiment following the unsuccessful coup attempt by Korean progressives in December 1884.

When the Korean delegation left Japan, Wirgman took a parting shot. He portrays them as leaving Japan quite satisfied and obese ― all smoking cigarettes and carrying bags of money ― an open bottle of alcohol raised in celebration of their success.

It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword and, as we shall see tomorrow, Wirgman wielded his pen like a gladiator when it came to Western ― especially British ― policy involving Korea.

A Korean official in the
A Korean official in the "Nippon Race." Japan Punch, October 1882

The Korean delegation returning home. Japan Punch, January 1883
The Korean delegation returning home. Japan Punch, January 1883




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