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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Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People • William W. Fitzhugh et al
Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People

Japan’s indigenous people, the Ainu, inhabited Hokkaido, the Kurile Islands, southern Sakhalin Island, and a portion of northern Honshu. They had a unique culture and language, completely separate from that of the Japanese. By the middle of the 19th century, the destruction of this ancient culture was set in motion by Japan’s national government.

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1920s • Ainu Carving Wood


An Ainu man is carving a piece of wood next to what appears to be a hut. Wood carving has long been an important part of Ainu culture. It has survived to this day because political developments in the late 19th and early 20th century forced the Ainu to find new ways of making a living. Eventually an Ainu wood and craft industry wood evolve. The history behind this development is extremely painful.

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1920s • Ainu Woman Carrying Wood


A postcard showing an Ainu woman carrying wood. Although most postcards of Ainu look more like souvenir cards from Disneyland, this photo still features some reality. The spread out toes of the woman shows that she is used to walking barefoot. Most probably she doesn’t even own shoes. Her clothes are simple and well-worn, and the houses in the background are representative of Ainu housing at the start of the 20th century. For other cards of Ainu culture, click on Ainu under Themes in the right column.

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1920s • Ainu with Boat


Until the mid-nineteenth century, Japanese maps generally did not include the island of Hokkaido, then known as Ezo. Although it now constitutes some 21% of Japan’s total land mass, until the 19th century it was still seen by the Japanese as a mysterious foreign land inhabited by a savage people. These people were the Ainu, a distinct race with a unique culture and language. By the 1830s, interaction and exploration had given the Japanese an increasing amount of knowledge about Ezo, which would soon be used to colonize the northern islands and subjugate the Ainu. By the end of the 19th century, the Ainu had become an ethnic minority—often discriminated against—in the Japanese state.

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1890s • Doctor Taking Pulse

Japanese Doctor in Meiji Period

A bald-headed doctor is taking a patient’s pulse. During the Edo (1603-1868) and early Meiji Period (1868-1912), Japanese physicians shaved heir heads. This studio re-enactment of a doctor’s visit shows him sitting next to his medicine case and a sword. Apparently, doctors carried wooden swords to accentuate their high status in society. They shaved their heads because medicine were originally administered by Buddhist priests. The image appears to have stuck. His young female patient sits next to a hakohibachi (箱火鉢), a brazier encased in a wooden box. In front of the box lies what appears to be a kiseru pipe and a tray of tea cups.

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