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.
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Tokyo 1880s • Shinagawa Station

160301-0026 Shinagawa Station Tokyo 1880s

This is one of those photos that makes you look at the title in utter disbelief. But Shinagawa Station in the late nineteenth century did actually look this rural, with the waves of Tokyo Bay reaching to the very edge of the station. In those days, certainly nobody foresaw that the tiny country station would grow into today’s massive complex. It now services over three quarters of a million passengers daily, making it one of the busiest stations in Japan.1

In spite of its humble location and looks, Shinagawa Station played a title role in the development of Japan’s railway system. The country’s very first daily train services, which started on June 12, 1872 (Meiji 5), ran between this station and Yokohama. Yokohama’s foreign settlement had turned into a crucial trading port and was located some twenty kilometers southwest of Shinagawa.

80115-0049 - Shinagawa Map

1879 (Meiji 12) Map of Tokyo Bay near Shinagawa: 1. Shinagawa Shuku; 2. Shinagawa Station; 3. Odaiba Forts. Almost all of Tokyo Bay visible in this map was reclaimed in the twentieth century.

That trains went no further than Shinagawa was rather inconvenient for travelers because, as this photo makes clear, it was far on the edge of Tokyo. In those days, Shinagawa was not even part of Tokyo. Nobody would have considered it either. This was countryside. So much so, that on many old maps of Tokyo, Shinagawa lies outside the confines of the map.

The railway was really supposed to go on to Shinbashi (also: Shimbashi) Station, near Ginza. But Japan’s military balked. They would not allow tracks on their land. It took months before the line was finally extended to the brand new Shinbashi Station. On October 14, 1872 the line was officially opened by Emperor Meiji and for many years passengers came to see Shinagawa Station as merely an irrelevant stop on their way to other destinations. So irrelevant actually, that in tourist guidebooks to Japan of the late 19th and early 20th century usually just a few sentences are expended on Shinagawa.

The famous Keeling’s Guide to Japan, published in 1890—likely just a few years after this photo was taken, writes a grand total of 103 words about Shinagawa:

Numerous fishermen reside at this place, who carry large quantities of fish to Tokyo every day. A view of the bay is obtained here, with the forts in the distance. They were built by Japanese, under the direction of French engineers, and were intended for the defense of Tokyo, but are now dismantled. Excursionists sometimes go there to gather oysters and other shell-fish, which are found in great abundance. Ships belonging to the Imperial Navy are seen at anchor beyond. At the end of November this town ought to be visited as at that time the maple trees are at their prettiest.2

120411-0011 - Boat for collecting seaweed at Shinagawa, ca 1895 (Meiji 28)

Boat for collecting seaweed at Shinagawa, ca 1895 (Meiji 28).

Although guidebooks paid Shinagawa scant attention, it is not surprising that the planners of Japan’s early railways decided to place a station on this spot. For centuries, Shinagawa had been the most important entry and exit point of Tokyo, then still known as Edo. The post station (shuku) here was the first one for travellers starting upon the famed Tokaido highway after they left the zero point at Nihonbashi, in the center of Edo. For those traveling the Tokaido towards Edo, it was the last station they encountered before entering the city.

There were four other highways connecting Edo with the rest of the country, but the Tokaido was the busiest. Shinagawa bustled with activity day and night.

During the Edo Period (1603-1868), Shinagawa Shuku provided around a hundred men and a hundred horses to traveling officials every single day. If more were needed, they were conscripted from nearby government-assigned villages.2

In addition to these officials, there were countless regular travelers, as well as the Japanese feudal lords, or daimyo, who regularly passed through with their large retinues.

Some years after the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1600, the so called Sankin-kotai (参勤交代, alternate attendance) policy was established. It required that daimyo move periodically between Edo and their fief, usually accompanied by a hundred and fifty to three hundred retainers. These processions were an almost daily occurrence in Edo.

Sankin-Kotai Procession along Edo Bay

Procession of soldiers along Edo Bay (頼朝公行烈之図)

Thanks to the huge numbers of people passing through, Shinagawa boasted large numbers of tea houses, inns and brothels. By 1843 (Tenpo 14), there were no less than 93 accommodations with female prostitutes.4 Shinagawa offered essentially the same services and pleasures as the larger entertainment area in Tokyo’s legendary Yoshiwara red-light district.

Although exposed to travellers daily, the inhabitants of Shinagawa were a conservative bunch. They had little to no interest in all the changes that were rapidly washing over Japan in the late 19th century. There actually was strong opposition to the railroad passing by so close. As it turned out, the railway took a turn inland close to the station and avoided the coastal town completely.

Because of this, it took a little effort to reach the post station from the station. Increasingly fewer people bothered. The area near the station prospered, the old post station became isolated. Although it managed to survive as a pleasure quarter for a while, old Shinagawa had become essentially irrelevant within years after the opening of the railroad, as the guidebooks attest. It would take many decades before Shinagawa once again started to play a major role. By that time, the brothels in the old post station had mostly vanished…

During the twentieth century much of Tokyo Bay was reclaimed. Few people these days even know that Shinagawa Station used to be right on the shore of the bay, with one of the most beautiful views in the Tokyo area.

Final Note

The covered footbridge visible in this photo was most likely built sometime around 1882 (Meiji 15), dating this photo to after that date.5 This photograph, one of the clearest photos of Shinagawa Station in its early days, is exceptionally rare. I am extremely lucky to have it in my private collection.

Shinagawa Hinode on the Tokaido by Utagawa Hiroshige

Shinagawa Hinode (品川日の出, Sunrise, Shinagawa) from the Tokaido Gojusan no Tsugi (東海道五十三次, The fifty-three stations of the Tokaido Road) series by Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川 広重, 1797–1858)

1 East Japan Railway Company. Transportation // Tokyo Metropolitan Area Network, Intercity Network, and Shinkansen (pdf), Annual Report 2017, 50. Retrieved on 2018-9-24.

2 Farsari, A. (1890). Keeling’s Guide to Japan. Yokohama, Tokio, Hakone, Fujiyama, Kamakura, Yokoska, Kanozan, Narita, Nikko, Kioto, Osaka, Kobe, &c. &c. Kelly & Walsh, Limited: 53.

3 Shinagawa Historical Museum (品川区立品川歴史館). Shinagawa-shuku (pdf), Shinagawa Historical Museum Commentary Sheet. Retrieved on 2018-9-24.

4 ibid.

5 Ayako Miura, Shigeru Onoda (June 2009). Historical Study on Railway Foot Bridge in the Meiji Era (pdf), AIJ J. Technol. Des. Vol. 15, No.30, 577-580.

Photographer: Kuichi Uchida
Publisher: Kuichi Uchida
Medium: Albumen Print
Image Number 160301-0026

Quote this number when you contact us about licensing this image.
You can also licence this image online: 160301-0026 @ MeijiShowa.com.

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Posted by • 2018-09-24
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