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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Geisha: Women of Japan's Flower & Willow World • Tina Skinner, Mary L. Martin
Geisha: Women of Japan's Flower & Willow World

Over 500 beautiful photographs and postcards, mostly of between 1900 and 1940, take you back to Japan’s now-extinct licensed pleasure districts. You will keep opening up this book again and again. A beauty!

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Unbeaten Tracks in Japan

by Isabella L. Bird — Travelers' Tales
Unbeaten Tracks in Japan

In 1878, just 19 years after Japan opened it first ports to the world, and a mere ten years after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, an adventurous 47-year old woman from the UK set out to explore the interior of Japan. The country was virtually unknown to Westerners, and a woman traveling only with a guide seemed outrageous. Everybody advised her not to, but she went anyway and wrote this unique and vivid journal of what she saw and experienced.

Right from the moment that Bird lands at the port of Yokohama, she shows her superior powers of observation. Often, these observations are recorded without interference from cultural baggage. But many times, her Victorian values do interfere. This creates descriptions which say as much about Bird and her background, as the Japan that she saw. Consider this short passage:

The first thing that impressed me on landing was that there were no loafers, and that all the small, ugly, kindly-looking, shrivelled, bandy-legged, round-shouldered, concave-chested, poor-looking beings in the streets had some affairs of their own to mind. At the top of the landing-steps there was a portable restaurant, a neat and most compact thing, with charcoal stove, cooking and eating utensils complete; but it looked as if it were made by and for dolls, and the mannikin who kept it was not five feet high. At the custom-house we were attended to by minute officials in blue uniforms of European pattern and leather boots; very civil creatures, who opened and examined our trunks carefully, and strapped them up again, contrasting pleasingly with the insolent and rapacious officials who perform the same duties at New York.

Bird soon checks into a hotel, makes her acquaintance with some Westerners and goes out to find a guide. Her descriptions of the people who interview for the job are hilarious:

Several of my kind new acquaintances interested themselves about the (to me) vital matter of a servant interpreter, and many Japanese came to “see after the place.” The speaking of intelligible English is a sine qua non, and it was wonderful to find the few words badly pronounced and worse put together, which were regarded by the candidates as a sufficient qualification. Can you speak English? “Yes.” What wages do you ask? “Twelve dollars a month.” This was always said glibly, and in each case sounded hopeful. Whom have you lived with? A foreign name distorted out of all recognition, as was natural, was then given. Where have you travelled? This question usually had to be translated into Japanese, and the usual answer was, “The Tokaido, the Nakasendo, to Kiyoto, to Nikko,” naming the beaten tracks of countless tourists. Do you know anything of Northern Japan and the Hokkaido? “No,” with a blank wondering look. At this stage in every case Dr. Hepburn compassionately stepped in as interpreter, for their stock of English was exhausted. Three were regarded as promising. One was a sprightly youth who came in a well-made European suit of light-coloured tweed, a laid-down collar, a tie with a diamond (?) pin, and a white shirt, so stiffly starched, that he could hardly bend low enough for a bow even of European profundity. He wore a gilt watch-chain with a locket, the corner of a very white cambric pocket-handkerchief dangled from his breast pocket, and he held a cane and a felt hat in his hand. He was a Japanese dandy of the first water. I looked at him ruefully. To me starched collars are to be an unknown luxury for the next three months. His fine foreign clothes would enhance prices everywhere in the interior, and besides that, I should feel a perpetual difficulty in asking menial services from an exquisite. I was therefore quite relieved when his English broke down at the second question.

As she finally finds a servant who speaks good English and appears reliable, she prepares for the long trip and soon thereafter embarks.

She describes the scenery and the people she encounters and her great surprise about the poverty in the interior of Japan. This was something that was barely mentioned in books about Japan of the time and she therefore was not prepared for what she saw:

I write the truth as I see it, and if my accounts conflict with those of tourists who write of the Tokaido and Nakasendo, of Lake Biwa and Hakone, it does not follow that either is inaccurate. But truly this is a new Japan to me, of which no books have given me any idea, and it is not fairyland. The men may be said to wear nothing. Few of the women wear anything but a short petticoat wound tightly round them, or blue cotton trousers very tight in the legs and baggy at the top, with a blue cotton garment open to the waist tucked into the band, and a blue cotton handkerchief knotted round the head. From the dress no notion of the sex of the wearer could be gained, nor from the faces, if it were not for the shaven eyebrows and black teeth. The short petticoat is truly barbarous- looking, and when a woman has a nude baby on her back or in her arms, and stands staring vacantly at the foreigner, I can hardly believe myself in “civilised” Japan. A good-sized child, strong enough to hold up his head, sees the world right cheerfully looking over his mother’s shoulders, but it is a constant distress to me to see small children of six and seven years old lugging on their backs gristly babies, whose shorn heads are frizzling in the sun and “wobbling” about as though they must drop off, their eyes, as nurses say, “looking over their heads.” A number of silk-worms are kept in this region, and in the open barns groups of men in nature’s costume, and women unclothed to their waists, were busy stripping mulberry branches. The houses were all poor, and the people dirty both in their clothing and persons. Some of the younger women might possibly have been comely, if soap and water had been plentifully applied to their faces; but soap is not used, and such washing as the garments get is only the rubbing them a little with sand in a running stream.

I find two aspects of Unbeaten Tracks especially rewarding. One is the detailed descriptions of customs, people, clothing, housing and so on. They describe a Japan that has long since vanished completely.

The other is Bird’s relation with her servant, guide and interpreter Tsurukichi Ito (1857 – 1913). In the way that Bird talks about him, she reveals a lot about Western attitudes towards Japanese people at the time. It is intriguing to see how she manages to notice his clearly excellent qualities, but at the same time dismisses him as “a creature.”

Having worked as a journalist in unfamiliar cultures, where I was just as dependent on my guide and interpreter as Bird, I know from my own experience how important a role such people play. They make all the difference between great and mediocre coverage. That Unbeaten Tracks gives such a lively and accurate picture of Japan in the 1870s is in no great measure to the great interpretation and dedication of Tsurukichi Ito. I wonder how deeply Bird understood his importance.

By the time Bird returns to Yokohama, she has—thanks to Ito—a better understanding of the real Japan of the common people than probably any Westerner alive at that time.

What especially makes this book such an enormous joy to read is that unlike many travel accounts of Japan by Westerners of this period, and in spite of the occasional cultural interference that Bird displays, she is generally open, honest, and respectful of the Japanese culture. Unbeaten Tracks in Japan gives you a real understanding of Japan, away from the Westernizing cities, during the late 1870s. This book comes highly recommended.

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Posted by • 2008-10-08

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