March 23, 2011

Japan's Catastrophe: Reading the Cartoons

Pedro Molina, Managua, Nicaragua “El Nuevo Diario”

Although we have only a small sense so far of the consequences of the cataclysmic earthquake, political cartoonists world-wide are manipulating the image of the Japanese flag, positioning the crisis as a national tragedy/catastrophe and exploring the aftershocks.  The results are interesting both for their simplicity and the complex arguments they (inadvertently?) offer.

Red Teardrop, via Anota bien.

This thoughtful post explores a manipulation of the Japanese flag in which the rising sun has morphed into a tear drop.  That image highlights the sorrow of the tragedy – evoking global sympathy for a nation in crisis.  Yet from another perspective, the image could also represent a drop of blood – acting as either a memorial for those who died or, theoretically, a call to arms. Though I doubt those readings are intended, I merely want to point out that even fairly straightforward images can be fuel for argument.

The images above and below strike me as more overtly complex arguments about the disastrous consequences for the nation.  In Molina’s image, the sun is now a skull, cracked and disintegrating.  While the image immediately points toward the massive death toll (8,450 dead and 12,931 missing so far), it also posits the disaster as crippling (and potentially lethal) for the nation as a whole.

John Sherffius, Colorado, Boulder Daily Camera

Various cartoonists have played with fracture and symbolic post-quake cracks, but Sherffius presents a sun severed completely in half.  The image suggests a rupture, with one half of the nation more grievously effected.  Unlike the red teardrop which unifies the nation’s grief, Sherffius’ image points towards an irrevocable severance.

While the symbolic value of the flag makes it universally recognizable (and superficially simple to read), the effects become more opaque when cartoonists combine the flag with other “easily recognizable” symbols of Japan.

Damien Glez, Journal du Jeudi, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Dozens of Japanese flags combined with the radioactive symbol have emerged this past week, but they are mostly presented as solitary images – either the flag itself or a deserted flagpole.  Glez, however, depicts an anxious samurai waiving the flag aloft. The image is troubling for the way in which it suggests a connection between the radiation crisis, military aggression (a warrior in full dress) and surrender (waiving a white flag).  In the post-WWII fallout this image might have made more sense, but it seems both anachronistic and insensitive now.

Political cartoons inevitably exploit stereotypes for both simplicity’s sake and for comedic value, but many of the cartoons emerging after the tsunami raise questions about our ability to comprehend foreign nations.  While the Japanese flag and Godzilla are certainly immediately recognizable, if these are the images through which we understand Japan, what does that say about us?

Paul Zanetti, Australia

— Cate Blouke

Adapted/Cross-posted from viz, maintained by the visual rhetoric workgroup of the Digital Writing and Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin.

Post By

Cate Blouke
See other posts by Cate here.

The Big Picture

Follow us on Instagram (@readingthepictures) and Twitter (@readingthepix), and


Comments Powered by Disqus