OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN, a photo blog of Japan in the Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods

Old Photos of Japan
shows photos of Japan between the 1860s and 1930s. In 1854, Japan opened its doors to the outside world for the first time in more than 200 years. It set in motion a truly astounding transformation. As fate would have it, photography had just been invented. As the old country vanished and a new one was born, daring photographers took photos. Discover what life was like with their rare and precious photographs of old Japan.
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Yokohama 1910s • Isezaki-cho 2-chome

Isezaki-cho, Yokohama
Isezaki-cho, Yokohama 2008
click to enlarge

A large crowd strolls through Yokohama’s lively Isezaki-cho on a hot summer afternoon. Many people can be seen holding umbrellas. Perhaps to ward off the stinging rays of the sun. The big white building on this postcard is Shintomitei (新富亭), a yose (寄席) theater famous for rakugo and magic shows. In 1922 (Taisho 11) it was bought by the large theater company Tokyo Yoshimoto.1

Upon its foundation, Yokohama was divided into a quarter for foreigners popularly called the Kannai and a native town, called the Kangai. Over the years a large number of bridges were built between these two. Kanenobashi, opened in 1911 (Meiji 44), lead straight into Isezaki-cho, which for many years made it Yokohama’s busiest bridge.2

Isezaki-cho, popularly known as Zaki was built on reclaimed ground in 1874 (Meiji 7). Closely located towards both Kannai and Yokohama’s red light district, it soon became a popular destination itself. The first theater huts were set up here as early as 1877. After a disastrous fire destroyed most of Kangai in 1899 (Meiji 32), the area underwent readjustment and became even more popular.

The street was lined with clothing shops, restaurants, gift shops and countless theaters decorated with colorful banners and flags with the names of theaters and actors in bold kanji. Later movie theaters would choose this street as their home as well.

The street was known among foreigners as Theater Street. The authoritative Terry’s Guide to the Japanese Empire (1920) described it as a “kaleidoscopic thoroughfare attractive to tourists because of the seething life and color of the myriad shops and harlequin theaters.”2

Three years after this guide was published, the Great Kanto Earthquake would raze the city and Isezaki-cho to the ground. It was soon rebuilt, but it had forever lost its pre-quake charm and chaotic beauty.

By the 1930s, a stroll down this street came to be known as Ise-bura, a popular way to spend one’s free time in Yokohama. But this bliss would not last long.

During WWII, it was burnt to the ground again after hundreds of US bombers bombarded the port city with hundreds of thousands of incendiary bombs. No less than 58% of Yokohama was destroyed, a fate similar to that of nearby Tokyo, which also underwent terrible air-raids.

In the movie The Fog of War, a 2003 documentary about the life and times of Robert S. McNamara, the former US Secretary of Defense comments about the American use of napalm on 67 Japanese cities under the command of General Curtis LeMay.

According to McNamara, LeMay said that “‘If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals.”

“LeMay recognized,” McNamara continues, “that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”3

Isezaki-cho in Yokohama after air-raid
Yokohama’s Isezaki-cho after WWII air-raids

After the war ended, Isezaki-cho was once again rebuilt. It still is a busy shopping street today with fashion boutiques, shoe shops, bookstores, coffee shops, movie theaters and shops selling anything one may desire. On the location where Shintomitei once delighted theatergoers, now stands Excel Isezaki, a huge gambling house operated by JRA where one can place bets on Japan’s popular horse races.

Gambling on horses has actually been a custom here for almost as long as the city exists. Japan’s very first race track was set up by foreigners in Yokohama’s Negishi in 1867 (Keiou 3).

Yokohama Map 1920
1920 (Taisho 9) tourist guide map of the area around Isezaki-cho.

1 Wikipedia, Tokyo Yoshimoto. Retrieved on 2008-04-04.

2 Terry, T. Philip (1920). Terry’s Guide to the Japanese Empire Including Korea and Formosa. Houghton Mifflin Company, 16.

3 Morris, Errol (2003). The Fog of War. Sony Pictures.

4 The complete transcript of The Fog of War is available at The Fog of War: Transcript.

Photographer: Unknown
Publisher: Tomboya
Medium: Postcard
Image Number 70111-0008

Quote this number when you contact us about licensing this image.
You can also licence this image online: 70111-0008 @ MeijiShowa.com.

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Posted by • 2008-04-03
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