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.
Recent Comments  
  • Kjeld Duits

    Oops, Thomas, a typo. Thanks a lot. Fixed it right away!

  • Thomas

    Meiji: 1868, not 1968 ;-)

Good Book Tip
Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road • Anne Lacoste, Fred Ritchin

Felice Beato (1832–1909) lived and worked in Japan from 1863 through 1884, just as the country opened its doors to the world. He was extremely active in Japan, and portrayed the Japanese with dignity and as equals of Westerners. He was the first photographer in Japan to sell albums of his works. Most likely, it was Beato that introduced the later so diligently followed concept of “views” and “types” to photography of Japan.

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1890s • Woman Carrying Charcoal

Woman Delivering Charcoal

A very cheerful woman, with one of her breasts exposed, is carrying three huge packs of charcoal on what appears to be a country road. During the summer, women in the countryside often had much of their body exposed when they worked. Many men wore only a loincloth. Even in the city. This was especially the case for laborers and poor farmers.

Prudish Western visitors, used to Victorian morality, generally were greatly shocked by all this nudity and frequently wrote about it in their diaries and letters.

Nineteenth-century English travel-writer Isabella Lucy Bird (1831-1904), who in 1887 (Meiji 20) travelled deep into Japan’s heartland, described in her book Unbeaten Tracks her surprise upon seeing the scarce clothing of the people:

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.1

Isabella Lucy BirdThis is one of the few times in her book that she was critical of what she saw. Unbeaten Tracks shows Bird as an amazingly open-minded person who was not easily fazed. At a time when foreigners were still extremely rare, she travelled from Tokyo to Nikko, then north through Aomori and the interior of Hokkaido, only accompanied by a Japanese guide.

No western woman had ever traveled alone to the interior of Japan, in many of the places that she visited she was actually the very first foreigner. Often, roads were virtually non-existent and accommodations infested with flees and curious people who would open up the sliding doors of her room to see her change clothes or sleep.

But in spite of her deprivations, she managed to make a very honest account of Japan as it was during the early Meiji Period (1868-1912). Especially her descriptions of the daily life of women and children, and the husband’s deep and warm involvement with their children, are very vivid and give a rare —male observers rarely wrote about this— and valuable insight into Japanese family life during the Meiji Period.


1 Bird, Isabella L. (1911). Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: An account of travels in the interior including visits to the aborigines of Yezo and the shrine of Nikko. John Murray.

Photographer: Unknown
Publisher: Unknown
Medium: Albumen Print
Image Number 80129-0009

Quote this number when you contact us about licensing this image.
You can also licence this image online: 80129-0009 @ MeijiShowa.com.

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Reference for Citations

Duits, K. (2008, April 18). 1890s • Woman Carrying Charcoal, Old Photos of Japan. Retrieved on 2021, May 07 from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/219/woman-carrying-charcoal

Posted by • 2008-04-18
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Meiji: 1868, not 1968 ;-)

#000036 · Thomas · 2008-04-22

Oops, Thomas, a typo. Thanks a lot. Fixed it right away!

#000037 · Kjeld Duits (author) · 2008-04-23

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