Marumaru chinbun was an influential early Meiji period newspaper, founded by Nomura Fumio in 1877, and connected to the Freedom and People's Rights Movement. At its height, the Marumaru Chinbun had a circulation of 150,000.
Somewhat parodic and low-brow, the publication included reports on gossip from the red-light districts, entertainment worlds, and general goings-on around town, as well as serialized light fiction, and bits of information about the outside world. In this respect, it attempted to appeal to a variety of audiences, including literate urban members of the artisan/merchant classes, and newly Westernized intellectual elites (e.g. students).
The phrase marumaru in the title, literally meaning "round" or "circular," had multiple meanings or connotations, evoking an idea of the corpulent, well-fed elite classes, and also the empty circles used in newspapers and elsewhere to self-censor the materials by redacting names or other information. Chinbun is a wordplay on the normal word for "newspaper," shinbun, here meaning "strange/curious news."
The paper incorporated political cartoons in the heavily detailed style of Western zincplate engravings, and included captions and other phrases in English, making it both somewhat accessible to foreigners resident in Japan, and a tool for cultural or educational expansion for Japanese readers. Its first cartoonist was Honda Kinkichirô, who incorporated dense symbolic references into his cartoons, often relying on a combination of Japanese and Western symbolism, and wordplay. Examples include the inclusion of a horse and deer on the cover of the first issue, the word baka 馬鹿, meaning "fool" or "idiot," being written with the kanji for those two animals, and the use of dogs to represent popular sentiment, since the word minken, depending on which kanji are used, can mean either "people's dogs" or "popular rights." Catfish were often used to represent government officials, who had grown impressive mustaches in emulation of Western fashion, while also alluding to unseen and unstoppable forces, the catfish having been since the 1850s popularly associated with earthquakes.
The content of the publication was often critical both of the West & Westerners, and of Japanese Westernization, characterizing Westerners as cultural and economic predators, and a Japan zealous for Westernization as self-colonizing, self-weakening, and overly materialistic. However, in its very Western format and style (e.g. the Western style of its political cartoons, and in the inclusion of English), as well as in its content, this criticism was often balanced out by more positive reactions as well.
In terms of its engagement in Japanese domestic politics, the publication often situated itself left of center, and served as a voice of opposition, in support of the people and against the government, two things which Nomura himself saw as diametrically opposed. Somewhat gentle jabs at government leaders early on soon grew much bolder; policy-makers were attacked in the Marumaru chinbun both for their policies, and their character, and were often represented as self-indulgent and corrupt.
Marumaru chinbun gained a readership quite rapidly; a year after its founding, its circulation exceeded 15,000 copies per issue, and by 1880, it had more readers in the provinces than in Tokyo. Readers were encouraged to send in contributions, a technique which both eased production costs for the paper, and enhanced readers' feeling of involvement and engagement, improving the paper's appeal. This large readership dropped off quickly, however, in 1883, when the publication made a shift from political to social satire. Historian Peter Duus suggests that the decline of the Freedom and People's Rights Movements (jiyû minken undô), also occurring at this time, played a considerable role in the shift, and in the decline of popular interest in such content.
In the 1880s, the magazine turned less satirical, partially in response to increasing government pressure, and in 1892, the year after Nomura's death, the new editorial board declared the magazine would be stepping away from political editorializing, and would instead devote itself to being more purely entertaining.
Ultimately, the new visual symbolic language created in the publication's political cartoons did not last, however, as the population quickly grew more fully Westernized, adopting the symbols of Western collective consciousness, rather than embracing this newly developed "indigenous" Japanese symbolic vocabulary. However, the Marumaru chinbun had set important precedents, both as a newspaper, and in the field of political cartoons.
- Peter Duus, "The Marumaru Chinbun and the Origins of the Japanese Political Cartoon," International Journal of Comic Art 1 (1999), 46-55.
- Miriam Wattles, "Mastering Light and Darkness: The Art of Kobayashi Kiyochika," lecture, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara CA, 3 May 2015.