A Japanese flower peddler wearing a happi coat pulls a boat-shaped cart filled with flowering branches.
A woman carrying a child on her back is carefully examining his wares. In the back two people can be seen observing the scene from inside what appears to be a shop.
Flower peddlers were very common on the streets of Japan. Some sold potted plants, others branches, and others again cut flowers. The flowers they sold changed each season, bringing the charm of the seasons to the people’s homes.
Flowers played an important role in the lives of people. They were generously used during funerals and on graves, but were also a major part of daily life. Fresh flowers were used in the tokonoma, a small raised alcove that was the center point of a Japanese home, and occasionally even on the kamidana, a miniature Shinto shrine inside the house, while ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) was practiced by both men and women.
Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), the unequaled interpreter of Meiji Japan, felt great admiration for ikebana. Compared to Japanese flower arrangement, “all flower displays you have ever seen abroad,” he wrote, “were only monstrosities.”12
He would probably be deeply shocked to discover that the European “vulgarities” have made great inroads into modern Japan.
Flower sellers announced themselves by a call that reverberated through the streets. Edward S. Morse (1838-1925), who lived in Japan for some three years and published his remarkable observations, likened the call of the Japanese flower peddler to “the terminal cluck of a hen.” They usually also quickly clicked their scissors as they walked the streets, making a sound that was uniquely theirs.
Flowers were not the only product sold by street peddlers. There were peddlers of, to name just a few, vegetables, seaweed, amazake (sweet sake), fish, insects, pipes, baskets, toys, tsukemono (pickles), soy sauce, tofu, suika (watermelons), takenoko (bamboo shoots), soba (buckwheat), medicine, newspapers and even ladders. There were pipe-repairmen, shoemenders, barbers and so on, and so on.
All of them employed different street cries that added live and flavor to the sounds of the streets. Quite different from the monotonous noise of motorized traffic that we have grown used to in our modern cities. Thankfully, street cries have not completely vanished from Japanese streets, so we can still imagine how it was when the streets were filled with such calls.
Hearn marvelously described the voices of the street in Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan, thereby keeping them alive for us to imagine3:
Although the peddlers themselves lead hard and difficult lives, Hearn’s description nonetheless sounds quite wonderful. Who wouldn’t wish to be able to walk such streets once again?
1 Hearn , Lafcadio (1910). Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan. Bernhard Tauchnitz: 136.
2 ibid.: 150.
3 ibid.: 138-139.
4 Far Side Music sells a CD featuring 30 tracks of street selling songs and storytelling.
Reference for Citations
Duits, Kjeld (). 1890s: Flower Peddler, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on May 27, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/128/flower-peddler
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