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

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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.

1890s • Women Having Tea

Women in Kimono Having Tea

These five women posing in the photographer’s studio as if having tea at home look a bit forlorn. Maybe the photographer took a bit too much time?

Photographs like this one were known as Yokohama Shashin (横浜写真, Yokohama Photographs) and were geared at the tourist market. The photos were so called because many photographers creating this kind of work were based in Yokohama, the port of entry for most travellers to Japan.

After the Meiji government established itself in 1868, travel restrictions to Japan were eased. This happened just as a modern version of the Grand Tour custom developed. This was eagerly adopted by people who had the financial means to travel, now much faster, easier and safer thanks to railways and steamships. Foreign tourists were especially attracted to “mysterious” Japan which had been closed to foreigners for over two centuries.

Enterprising photographers like Felice Beato, Baron Raimund von Stillfried, Kimbei Kusakabe, Nobukuni Enami, Kozaburo Tamamura and others quickly noticed this burgeoning tourist market and seized upon it. Photographs of Japan soon became a required souvenir. They were usually sold in beautifully lacquered albums inlaid with ivory containing twenty-five, fifty or a hundred prints which generally measured around 19 × 26 cm (7.5 × 10 inches).

Japanese lacquer album
Typical lacquered Japanese photo album of the late 19th century.

Foreign tourists had little interest in the modernization that was quickly taking hold in Japan and this was reflected in the photographs they purchased. Relatively few photographs show trains, steamboats and other Western influences. Instead, tourists selected photographs of a way of life that appeared to be quickly disappearing. Japan’s traditional culture also appealed to the romantic sensibilities of the Victorian age with its idealization of idyllic traditional societies.

The characteristics of Japanese tourist photography were first established by Italian–British photographer Felice Beato (1832–1909) who lived in Japan between 1863 and 1884. He hand colored his photographs and mounted them in albums, initially with long descriptions. Many of the themes that he first developed, such as particular types of people, and aspects of traditional life, were carefully emulated by later photographers. Sometimes so slavishly that people are posed in almost the exact same manner.

The photograph of the women drinking tea dates from the 1890s and follows this system carefully. The kimono-clad women sit on tatami rice mats and are surrounded by a hibachi, teapot and cups.

The two interpretations of Japanese wedding rituals below illustrate how different photographers followed an established theme to slavish extremes. Both images were carried in Kimbei Kusakabe’s catalogue as 66. Wedding Ceremony. Most likely, Kimbei first carried Yamamoto’s photo in his catalogue, and replaced this later with his own version.

Late 19th century Japanese marriage ritual
Japanese wedding rituals, Yamamoto Studio (山茂堂), 1870s.

Late 19th century Japanese marriage ritual
Japanese wedding rituals, Kimbei Kusakabe, 1880s, 1890s.

Photographer: Unknown
Publisher: Unknown
Medium: Albumen Print
Image Number 80129-0039

Quote this number when you contact us about licensing this image.
You can also licence this image online: 80129-0039 @ MeijiShowa.com.

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Posted by • 2018-03-01
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