Portrait of Eroshenko

By Ian Rapley

Amongst the collection of the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art is an Important Cultural Property (国指定重要文化財) titled ‘Portrait of Eroshenko’. Painted in 1920 by Nakamura Tsune, the subject, Vasili Eroshenko, was a blind Russian who had been living in Japan on and off since 1914. However, in early June 1921, six months after his portrait was first exhibited (and 100 years ago this month), Eroshenko found himself expelled from Japan. Charged with being a threat to national security, he was violently arrested at no notice, and bundled out of the country even as his friends appealed the decision and the newspapers splashed his story across their front pages. The ‘Portrait of Eroshenko’ remains in Tokyo to this day, recognized now as then as an important part of Japan’s modern art history, whereas the man himself was deemed too much of a threat to be allowed to remain.

‘Portrait of Eroshenko’ by Nakamura Tsune, 1920

We live in what we are often reminded is an ‘Asian century’. Eroshenko’s experiences tell us of another era in which Japan was emerging as a cosmopolitan hub and in which Europeans might come to Japan to learn, rather than to teach. It was also an era in which contact and exchange were spreading across Asia, with ideas, people and objects all being coming to Japan from across the continent. However, the story also reveals that, whilst to some a life of travel and reliance upon friendship and the goodwill of others was an inspiration, in the eyes of the Japanese state it came to be seen as a threat.

Cosmopolitan Japan

Vasili Eroshenko was born in rural Ukraine in 1889 and lost his sight as an infant. He arrived in Tokyo in 1914, having studied music in schools for the blind in Moscow and London. Eroshenko arrived in Japan at a moment when it was becoming increasingly international, going beyond the model of ‘learning from the West’ which had predominated in the late nineteenth century. He both symbolized and participated in this trend. His first point of contact was through the planned language Esperanto: Eroshenko was a speaker and Japan was one of the most active places outside of Europe. Introduced to a leading Japanese Esperantist, the meteorologist Nakamura Kiyō, he began to participate in their meetings and debates.

Eroshenko’s primary reason for coming to Japan was an interest in learning massage, a traditional occupation of the blind in Japan as it suggested an established place in Japanese society for the blind. However, the friends he made at the blind school came from a generation that was keen to push against traditional boundaries and to explore a fuller range of options: in this they found a kindred spirit in the Russian, whose wanderlust was matched by a progressive vision of social change.

Vasili Eroshenko’s chief method for overcoming the challenges he faced as a blind man travelling alone was to place his faith in those he met, even when he only knew them a little. This proved infectious far beyond his new classmates. Indeed, the single defining aspect of Eroshenko’s time in Asia was this gregarious nature—making connections across a wide range of activities and building a network of admirers beyond his immediate friends. From the start amongst the blind and the Esperantists, he then became involved with other movements, such as the Tokyo chapter of the Persian religion Baháʼí, literary groups like Waseda Bungaku and the Shinjinkai student group.

These groups, and others like them, were at the heart of the new cosmopolitan Japan that was forming. Another significant hub was the Nakamuraya salon, formed around a bakery in Shinjuku. Sōma Aizō and Sōma Kokkō, husband and wife proprietors of the bakery, opened it in order to sell Western foods that appealed to students and intellectuals. At the same time they were artistic patrons, supporting a series of sculptors and painters with ties to the French art scene. Close to the bakery they built a atelier, part of a wave of Taishō-era building across the city (although they were based in Shinjuku, the most famous hub of artists was further north in what later came to be called ‘Ikebukuro Montparnasse’ after the Parisian influence on the movement). A range of Japanese artists inspired by the likes of Rodin and Renoir stayed, worked, and socialized in and around the Sōma’s atelier.

In addition to the visual artists, a literary salon grew up at the bakery, featuring figures such as the playwright Akita Ujaku and the journalist Kamichika Ichiko. It was here that Vasili Eroshenko fitted in—his knowledge of Russian literature and culture was of great interest in a Japan that was drawn to Tolstoy and other writers, but it went beyond that. Kokkō and Aizō came to feel almost parental affection for Eroshenko, letting him stay in their atelier, introducing Russian style breads to the bakery’s menu, and later even getting the staff to adopt Russian style shirts as their uniform. Some of these international influences on Japan are familiar—French art and Russian literature—but others such as universal language and Middle-Eastern religion are perhaps much less so, and the ways in which they were represented stretched beyond books and ideas to include people, food, and clothing.

Asian Networks

The networks that were forming around Japan were stretching out across Asia as well as to Europe, with Tokyo increasingly at the heart. At the Nakamuraya, Vasili Eroshenko was not the only foreigner brought under the Sōma’s wing: in late 1915, shortly before Eroshenko moved into their studio, an Indian named Rash Behari Bose spent some 6 months in hiding in the bakery from the police, seeking to escape arrest and transfer to the British, who sought to try him for his involvement in an attempted bombing in Lahore. After emerging from hiding, he married the Sōma’s daughter, Toshihiko, and helped introduce Indian curry to the bakery’s customers, further expanding its international flavour.

Perhaps the most famous Asian event of this period was the visit, in 1916, of the Indian poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore, recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (the first Asian recipient), came on a speaking tour, followed by packed crowds wherever he appeared. Akita Ujaku, the Sōmas, the blind students, all of the different circles came out to hear him speak, and some such as the Baháʼí managed to arrange a smaller scale meeting. Eroshenko was a member of a literary society, the Red Hat Association (the name seems to related to the fezzes worn by the Baháʼí missionaries), which joined the crowds thronging Tokyo station to see Tagore arrive in the capital, shouting an Esperanto greeting at the Indian across the platform. Although I’ve been unable to prove a definitive meeting between the two men, some accounts record a disagreement between Tagore’s message of a particularly Asian Japan and Eroshenko’s Esperanto-inspired universalism. Regardless, it’s clear that they were both linked into the same webs of friendship and exchange spreading out across the map.

The two men were in the same country only briefly, however. Tagore continued on to the United States, but even before that Eroshenko decided to depart on a journey of his own. Taking advantage of the contacts of friends he had made in Tokyo, he set off to South-East Asia. He stopped first in Siam, mingling with both Russian and Japanese residents there, before moving on to Burma, where he taught in a school for the blind. By 1917, he was in Calcutta when news about the Russian Revolution began to filter through. He bounced back between Calcutta and Burma before being put under house arrest in India. After an extended period he was finally expelled—not apparently for any concrete reason but due to suspicion of the combination of his nationality and a lack of obvious purpose for his travels. Forced to end his time in South Asia, he was sent back to his country of origin, arriving in Japan again in 1919. Vasili Eroshenko’s travels across Asia represent one way of mapping the connections growing across Asia, but they also reveal the suspicions which were sparked by his presence.

Portrait of Eroshenko

Whilst this seemed something of a setback, Eroshenko rapidly settled back into his life in Japan: living at the Nakamuraya atelier, writing short stories—fables, really—for major magazines such as Warera and Kaizō, and participating in a now booming Esperanto scene. He became a regular sight at public events, lecturing on Russian culture and playing the violin and /other instruments.  

This was the context in which Nakamura Tsune painted his portrait of Eroshenko. In fact, it was actually one of a pair of portraits, painted and exhibited in parallel. In 1920, Nakamura’s friend and fellow artist, Tsuruda Gōrō had returned to the capital after three years in Harbin. Standing on the platform at Mejiro station, Tsuruda spotted Eroshenko, strikingly tall and blonde haired, carrying a balalaika. Tsuruda approached the Russian, asking whether he would sit for a portrait. Eventually they arranged to include Nakamura Tsune and to use his studio in Shin-Ochiai. The two artists set up side by side, and painted Eroshenko as he sat on the sofa. Visiting the (rebuilt) studio north of Shinjuku, one can recreate the situation, the sofa pushed up against the wall, Nakamura standing straight on and Tsuruda to the right. 

‘Blind Eroshenko’ by Tsuruda Goro, 1920

Both works were exhibited in the 1920 Imperial Exhibition but it was Nakamura’s which attracted attention right from the outset, being hailed as the pick of the year’s paintings. Indeed, the following year, a Franco-Japanese art exchange was announced: in Paris in 1922, Nakamura’s portrait would again be singled out for great praise.


However, whilst all seemed well, Eroshenko’s ties to the left were beginning to attract attention. The end of the First World War and the wave of international optimism which it precipitated had roused Japanese socialism out of its ‘winter period’. Eroshenko’s views seemed more utopian than doctrinaire Marxism, but he was definitely a progressive and many of his friends were known socialists. Eroshenko was arrested at the workers’ march on May 1st, although it seemed that he had done nothing wrong and was released the following day, remarking that the police chief was a good sort who soon saw that as a blind man, Eroshenko was little threat. This led, only seven days later at the AGM of the Socialist League, to another arrest and another rapid release.

Moreover, behind the scenes bureaucratic wheels had begun to turn, the paperwork ‘on the expulsion of a Russian’ beginning to be accumulated. It took until the end of the month, but when it was ready, the authorities went into action.

On the 28th of May Eroshenko returned to his residence in Shinjuku to discover two policemen waiting for him. They were there to serve him with the deportation papers: because of Eroshenko’s blindness, it fell to his close friends Sōma Kokkō and Aizō to read him the order branding him a threat to the public order and demanding his departure from Japan.

‘Kare wa Naita’, Asahi Shinbun, May 29, 1921

That night, Eroshenko chose to stay with the Sōmas at their bakery, rather than remain alone in their atelier around the corner, but just as the last of the shops and restaurants were closing for the night, the quiet was broken by the return of the police, this time in much greater numbers. They forced their way into the building without warning, waking the children, stamping their boots all over the tatami mats, and dragging Eroshenko out and into custody.

His friends were horrified, the newspapers ran front page stories and there was a general outcry at the violent seizure of a blind man. Sōma Aizō was in little doubt that the police were, at least in part, repaying the grudge formed when Bose had been hidden from the police.

But it was to no effect; four days later his friends from left and right of the political spectrum sought to appeal direct to the Home Minister, but discovered that Eroshenko was already out of the city. He had been placed on a train bound for a boat that would take him to Vladivostok, from darkness to darkness, as the Yomiuri Shimbun put it. When we look at ‘The Portrait Of Eroshenko’ today, it is easy to overlook the tumult that played out so soon after it had been painted.


Vasili Eroshenko would never return to Japan, but his travels were far from over. On arrival in Vladivostok, he discovered that it remained in the hands of the last hold-outs of the Russian revolution. His attempts to cross the border into the Soviet Union proper failed—he spent some time in a small town in the far east of Siberia, before giving up and returning to Harbin in Manchuria. Here, too, his Tokyo connections were of use, the press reporting that he was back in touch with the Japanese resident in Manchuria. However, after a few months he moved south to Shanghai, where he befriended the writer Lu Xun and his brother Zhou Zuoren. Lu had studied in Japan, so the two had much in common, and Eroshenko eventually stayed in China for two years, teaching first in Shanghai and then Beijing. Eventually, in 1923 he returned to Europe and the Soviet Union, to remain for the rest of his life.

Vasili Eroshenko’s eight year stint in Asia offers a chance to retrace networks of intellectual and material exchange across Asia and beyond. It tells us of a time when Japan was already becoming a major cosmopolitan hub, linking India, China, Burma, Siam, Persia, and more, through interests in literature, religion, and art, and when a European might come to Japan to learn rather than to teach. The simple fact that he was thrown out of two countries as a suspected socialist tells one story, but digging a bit deeper reveals a more complex one. There is little doubt that he was a social reformer, even a utopian thinker, but his writing was mostly allegory and fable, rather than politics and revolution, and there is little to suggest he participated in genuinely revolutionary activity.

The authorities perceived Eroshenko’s blindness as no barrier to the potential threat he represented to state and society. Indeed, it is striking that it is possible to tell much if not all of the story of his time in Asia with little mention of the disability. At the same time, however, it is an important part of the way in which he inspired so many, and perhaps in a way also, counterintuitively, why the Japanese state found his presence intolerable. The image of a blind man, willing to travel thousands of miles from home with little to support him but his faith in his fellow human’s goodwill proved a powerful symbol of the possibilities of cooperation, but also a subversive and even threatening one in the eyes of the establishment.

The Portrait Of Eroshenko, ‘Masterpieces’ collection, Museum of Modern Art Tokyo, 3-1 Kitanomaru-koen, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, https://www.momat.go.jp/english/am/collection/masterpieces/   

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Ian Rapley

Author's Bio

Ian Rapley is a historian of modern Japan, based at Cardiff University in Wales, UK. He first came to Japan in 1999 and has been a regular visitor ever since.