Research, Updates, and Resources Relating to the Visual Culture of Imperialism in East Asia

Japanese Postcards of Shanghai Campaign–by Tyler Bamford

This series of nine Japanese postcard images, titled “Shanghai Front 1937,” illustrates the early stages of Japanese operations in and around Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War which began with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident on July 7, 1937.[1]  The Japanese maintained a peacetime garrison in the major international port of Shanghai of 5,000 marines, which the Chinese army fought into a confined perimeter during the first weeks of hostilities.[2]  The fighting rapidly escalated as both sides ordered tens of thousands of reinforcements into the city because of its strategic and psychological importance. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek eventually committed over 500,000 soldiers (including several of his elite German-trained divisions) while Japanese forces would swell to about 200,000 soldiers.[3]  The following analyses provide explanations of the photographs and regard them as part of the larger military campaign, assuming they were produced as Japanese wartime propaganda.

[ip0167] (8/13/1937) Caption: “Battle line of Shanghai 1937 Japanese troops dared to land in the face of Chinese fire” (昭和十二年支那事変 上海戦線 敵前上陸敢行丸〇〇部隊の勇姿)

The first image in the series depicts a group of Japanese sailors or soldiers standing in the foreground of a ship anchored at a wharf in Shanghai. The ship is a Japanese transport ship which was used by the Japanese to bring reinforcements to the city after the outbreak of hostilities in early July. Also pictured is a rail turntable beside the soldiers standing in relaxed poses. The prominence with which the train turntable is displayed demonstrated the importance of the conquest of Shanghai because it was a major rail terminus and trading center at the confluence of the Yangtze River and Pacific Ocean. With their relaxed demeanor, the Japanese soldiers indicated the alleged ease with which the campaign was being conducted. This contrasts with the bravery necessary to brave “Chinese fire” according to the English caption. The translated caption does not reflect the scene pictured nor the actual Japanese landings in which Japanese troops did not meet with overwhelming Chinese resistance. Instead the Japanese superiority in artillery and air support enabled their greatly outnumbered forces to overcome the Chinese elite units.

[ip0170] 8/13/1937 Caption: “Shanghai Front 1937 The (deleted) unit occupies Shanghai Municipal Government Building” (昭和十二年支那事変 上海戦線 市政府を占拠せる〇〇部隊の萬歳)

This image of a group of Japanese soldiers posing in a “Banzai” victory cheer was taken in front of the recently constructed Shanghai Municipal Government Building soon after its capture in late summer 1937. Both the demeanor of the soldiers and the building chosen for the background were significant propaganda tools utilized by the photographer for the postcard. The structure was built under the direction of the Kuomintang as part of the initial implementation of the government’s first urban planning agenda for the city.[4] Constructed with traditional stylistic elements as well as modern techniques and materials, the building represented Chiang’s government in the city. Consequently, its capture intact was something which the Japanese photographer wanted to display. The soldiers in the picture convey a sense of high morale and optimism, and their uniforms appear fresh. They also lack any discernable characteristics that might highlight an individual soldier above the collective unit.  Although the fighting has moved beyond the structure, it was captured somewhat early in the campaign as evidenced by its location in the northeastern Yangpu District of the city less than five miles from the International Settlement.[5]

[ip0168] 8/13/1937 Caption: “Shanghai front 1937 Japanese field-artillery corps marching toward the front” (昭和十二年支那事変 上海戦線 前線へ進軍中の我が後続野砲隊

While the postcard including the Shanghai Municipal Government Building illustrated the Japanese victory over the Shanghai government, this postcard depicting a column of Japanese horse-drawn artillery marching past a Chinese pagoda represented the subjugation of Chinese culture by the Japanese invaders. The column of soldiers is pictured with no discernible end or beginning to show the great numbers of Japanese troops, which were in reality almost always greatly outnumbered by Chinese forces. The exact location of the structure could not be determined, however, it was probably located just north of Shanghai given the location of other similarly dated photographs. The change to more rustic scenery in the photographs indicated to viewers the successes of the Japanese army which had pushed the Chinese forces out of Shanghai in the wake of a decisive Japanese landing on November 5 near Chinshanwei [modern Jinshanweizhen] on the north shore of Hangchow Bay, thirty miles south of Shanghai.[6]

[ip0174] 8/13/1937 Caption: “Shanghai Front 1937 Japanese troops enter Yanghangchen” (昭和十二年支那事変 上海戦線 楊行鎮に入る皇軍)

As a Japanese mounted column entered the village of Yanghangzhen, less than four miles from Shanghai and roughly three miles from the Yangtze river, a photographer snapped the next image. Yanghangzhen is now part of Shanghai’s northeastern district of Baoshan, but at the time the photograph was taken it was a town which the Japanese could claim as a victory. While the photograph’s subject is similar to several other postcards, especially [ip0169] and [ip0168], several of its aspects distinguish it. The most noticeable is the camera angle, which the photographer probably achieved by kneeling by the roadside as the soldiers passed. This angle gives the impression that the soldiers (especially on horseback) are quite large and reinforces their intimidating presence as they march through the town’s gate. Another singular aspect of this photograph is the recognizable soldier in the foreground which contrasts with many official images of the war which tend to minimize the individual or make him anonymous. As the Japanese spread out beyond Shanghai’s borders, their line of advance followed the Yangtze River in order to maximize support from the navy and air force which could easily navigate using the River. The River also led to Nanjing, the Nationalist capitol.

[ip0169] 8/13/1937 Caption: “Shanghai Front 1937 Japanese troops advancing toward Yuehpuchen” [Yuepuzhen in the Baoshan district of Shanghai – north easternmost district] (昭和十二年支那事変 上海戦線 月浦鎮へ進撃の我が〇〇部隊)

This postcard image was taken roughly three miles north of Yanghangzhen and is similar in many ways to image [ip0168] in its composition and representation of the Shanghai front. Again the photographer has chosen to capture a column of soldiers on the march. The subject is a light infantry unit marching over a small foot bridge. Because the photograph was taken from the rear of the unit, it gives an impression of constant forward motion over the expansive terrain. The photograph gives an accurate portrayal of the terrain outside of Shanghai; flat, low-lying fields bisected by shallow canals, that the Chinese army was hoping to avoid by tying up Japanese forces in the heart of the city. The Chinese defense proved untenable after the surprise Japanese amphibious landing at Jinshanweizhen and the growing effect of Japanese superiority in artillery, armor, and aircraft. The town given as the Japanese objective on this postcard, Yuepuzhen, was formerly a town located less than four miles north of Yanghangzhen on the Yangtze but it has since also been incorporated into the Baoshan District (the north easternmost district in the city).

[ip0171] 8/13/1937 Caption: “Shanghai Front 1937 The [deleted] unit occupies Yuehpuchen” (昭和十二年支那事変 上海戦線 月浦鎮占拠の〇〇部隊)

This postcard is a sequel to image [ip0169] because it proclaims the capture of the previously stated objective. As a stand-alone account, it is important to note the lack of battle damage to the ceremonial gate which occupies the background. The lack of damage makes it appear the town was taken with little effort as does pose of the soldiers who retain their enthusiasm. The capture of Yuepuzhen was of minimal strategic importance in lieu of the capture of Shanghai proper, but the Japanese army heralded even small victories as a way of maintaining support for the war. This image is similar in nature to the majority of Japanese postcards in this series because it was staged in a carefully chosen setting. It is indicative of the way in which Japanese media constructed perceptions of the conflict in contrast to other sources such as LIFE magazine, the major pictorial news magazine in the United States. LIFE favored news images that were dramatic and emphasized the destructive and psychological aspect of the conflict. For example LIFE printed images that showed the results of the disastrous Chinese attempt to bomb the Japanese cruiser Izumo that resulted in 2,000 civilian casualties when the bombs hit the nearby Cathay Hotel.[7] LIFE photographers also favored images of movement and contrast such as those showing fighting or soldiers amid signs of modernity such as western buildings.

[ip0172] 8/13/1937 Caption: “Shanghai Front 1937 Japanese soldiers at work at Liuchiachang” (Japanese) (昭和十二年支那事変 上海戦線 劉家行にて奮戦中の我が勇士)

An exception to the previous photographs which largely ignored the reality of the violent war is this image. On the face of this postcard a squad of soldiers is engaged in combat on a street in “Liuchiachang,” as evidenced by the caption. Chronologically, the image was taken after the fighting in Shanghai proper had largely ceased and the Chinese army was being pushed back yet contesting every small village. The Japanese soldiers are supposedly taking cover from Chinese fire. This static picture is unusual for the aggressive image of its soldiers that the Japanese army usually propagated. However, the dramatic smoke that partially obscures the soldiers advancing on the far side of the street adds action to the scene. It cannot be discerned whether this picture was staged but the high angle of the camera suggests the photographer was kneeling and therefore in little real danger. There is also an absence of debris on the streets or visible damage to the structures.  While it is a departure from some of the other photographs, the postcard falls short of the ultra-sensationalist qualities of most LIFE photographs from the Shanghai campaign.

[ip0173] 8/13/1937 Caption: “Shanghai Front 1937 Ueda unit made the first entry to Liuchiachang” (昭和十二年支那事変 上海戦線 劉家行一番乗り田上部隊の萬歳)

In this image, alleged to be taken in the recently captured village of “Liuchiachang”, Japanese soldiers of the “Ueda unit” take a familiar pose in a group “Banzai” cheer. The slightly damaged agricultural structure they occupy gives the appearance of falling into disrepair. This postcard highlights the high morale of Japanese forces and the ease of their victories. By acting in unison the soldiers demonstrate their unity of purpose which was to be emulated by all Japanese. It is unusual that the caption names a unit from a military security standpoint, perhaps indicating the growing arrogance of Japanese commanders. Throughout the war this genre of unit photography, which included a symbolic cheer, remained a staple of Japanese propaganda and military reporting. As the Shanghai campaign dragged on into the later summer months, the Japanese exploited their great technological advantages although their armor was hampered by the terrain in advances inland. A primary objective for Japanese commanders was to advance further up the Yangtze River, a crucial economic lifeline of the interior and an easy navigation tool for Japanese ships and airplanes supporting the ground forces.

[ip0175] 8/13/1937 Caption: “Shanghai Front 1937 Activities of Japanese landing party at the Eastern foremost front” (昭和十二年支那事変 上海戦線 東部最前線にて陸戦隊の活躍)

The subject of postcard [ip0175] is a group of soldiers in fighting positions on a small canal bridge outside Shanghai. The image is dominated by a Japanese battle flag which is the focal point of the photograph. The viewer then focuses on the soldier in the foreground and back to the rest of his comrades. The vulnerable positions assumed by the soldiers and the high location of the cameraman – probably in a standing pose – indicate the photograph was staged for dramatic effect. The soldiers are armed with a variety of infantry weapons including a Type 11 light machine gun, Type 89 grenade launcher (often incorrectly called a “knee mortar” by Allied forces during WWII), the standard Arisaka Type 38 infantry rifle, and an Army issue sword carried by NCOs and officers. A good display of the small arms used by the Japanese army early in the war, the photograph also shows the superiority of Japanese equipment. The Chinese used a wide assortment of arms from different nations which exacerbated supply problems and created large discrepancies in fighting proficiency between units. Although Japanese infantry units were heavily armed, they lacked modern transport. As a result, army supply columns were especially vulnerable to Chinese guerilla attacks once the area controlled by the Japanese expanded beyond coastal cities like Shanghai.

The Shanghai campaign lasted from the opening of hostilities in July to November 8, 1937, when Chiang Kai-shek finally gave the order to withdraw along the Yangtze River. It was a disastrous battle for the Chinese forces. Chiang had lost 187,000 of his best soldiers including thousands of irreplaceable young officers.[8] Because Chiang ordered his units to hold at all costs the streets of Shanghai as well as the countryside and towns outside the city were fiercely contested for no appreciable gain.[9] The remnants of Chiang’s army tried desperately to regroup while the Japanese army set its sights on Nanjing. Even after the fall of the coastal areas and every Chinese port, Chiang continued to resist the Japanese invasion from his wartime capital of Chungking in the interior of China. The Japanese continued to penetrate deeper into China with no set objectives nor a detailed plan for obtaining victory, something that seriously hindered their efforts to promote the war and bring it to a conclusion.

These postcards trace the campaign with carefully selected images, apparently meant to convey the campaign to civilians in Japan and around the world, as evidenced by the English captions. They are different from news photographs in publications like TIME and LIFE in their treatment of the war because they are so short on images of Chinese casualties, and focus on the mood of the Japanese troops. The photographs were perhaps useful as symbols of national unity and military prowess. Thus, pictures of troop formations and “Banzai” cheers were popular subjects. Japanese photographers shied away from images depicting suffering or destruction which might cause concern for family members at the front. Although short on images depicting the horrors of the war, the postcards can function as a pictorial timeline for the pivotal Shanghai campaign.

–Tyler Bamford

Editor’s note: For 1930s Japanese postcards of Shanghai in our collection, follow this link. Interestingly, another picture postcard series from Japan, also focused on the 1937 battles for Shanghai, consists solely of photographs of urban destruction. The series is titled “The Vestiges of China Emergency at Shanghai” (大上海の戦跡を巡る). These cards have no English captions, nor do they depict Chinese casualties. Nonetheless, they hardly inspire confidence in the justness of Japan’s cause. Rather, they appear to delight in the sheer destructive power of Japanese bombs.  See images [ip0719][ip0735].

In another 1937 card, of similar design ([ip0604]), is one of the rare Japanese picture postcards that hint at the civilian carnage these battles produced. Unsurprisingly, it utilizes a photograph of the damage caused by Chinese bombers who accidentally hit the Hotel Cathay on August 13, 1937.

–Paul Barclay


[1] Jay Taylor, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 145.

[2] Frank Dorn, The Sino-Japanese War, 1937-41: From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1974), 68.

[3] Dorn, 74.

[4] Michelle Qiao, “Visiting Shanghai’s First City Hall.” The Globalist,

[5] The Shanghai Municipal Government Building is still standing, as are some of the European-style buildings of the International Settlement, the center of western business concerns in the city before the war.

[6] Dorn, 76.

[7] Life, August 14, 1937.

[8] Taylor, 150.

[9] Jonathan Fenby, Chiang Kai Shek and the Nation He Lost (New York: Carrol & Graf Publishers, 2003), 299.


  1. Nan Vance

    I acquired an eight by ten glossy black and white photo of Emperor Hirohito shown in some of your postcards. It is a bust of the full picture of the Showa in full dress uniform presumably taken after his coronation. The photo can be found on numerous web sites including Wikipedia. On the back of the photo I have is written “Japanese war photo N-23223A Emperor Hirohito”. In your interesting piece on “Hometown Flavor” postcards, the postcard [ip0222] [Showa Emperor and Battleships] has the picture I am referring to, which you date at least as far back as 1929. I wondered whether this photo I have was a copy made by the military or how it came to be. Do you know if this is a common issue of the photograph or relatively rare? I have had difficulty finding its source since it now appears to be in the public domain and web sites posting it do not identify its source.

    • barclayp

      I think that all pictures of the prince and the emperor were made under strict guidelines of the imperial household ministry, and were initially government property of a sort. I based the “1929” date on a stamp that says “Showa 4.” But I do not know the photographer’s name, or exactly when it was produced. It is a good question; if I come across some information I will contact you about it. Thanks for your participation!

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