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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A brief introduction to Meiji-era photographs and to the world in which they flourished. Three essays and dozens of images explore the social function of these photos, their remarkable artistry, and the personal stories of those who collected and preserved these images.

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1890s • Oxcart with Rice Bags

Bull Cart Load with Rice

A man stands next to an oxcart loaded with tawara (俵, straw rice bags). Tawara (also: hyo) were used for holding rice, charcoal or grain. A rice field of 1,000 square meters (10 ares) would normally yield about seven tawara. Until the Meiji Period (1868-1912), rice was not just food, but also currency. Taxes were paid in bushels of rice and daimyo (feudal lords) were rated by the amount of their annual rice harvest. This was measured in koku, 1 koku being approximately 180 liters. A tawara contained about half a koku.1

Koku was part of a traditional system of weights and measures called shakkanho (尺貫法), from shaku, a unit of length, and kan, a unit of weight.

In this system, volume was measured as follows:

1 shaku (勺) – approx. 18 ml
1 go (合) – approx. 18 cl
1 sho (升) – approx. 1.8 liters
1 to (斗) – approx. 18 liters
1 koku (石) – approx. 180 liters

10 shaku = 1 go.
10 go = 1 sho.
10 sho = 1 to.
10 to = 1 koku.

As Japan, during the Meiji Period, embarked on an ambitious program to acquire industrial technologies from the West, it soon realized that these were all interrelated and in fact constituted an entire system. It was therefore of utmost importance to have a system of weights and measurements that were both universal and applicable to these new technologies.

Japan had originally tried to adapt the Western system of measurements to the Japanese system, but scientists and leaders in government and industry soon realized this didn’t work. The Japanese clock, for example, differed according to season and whether it was light or dark. It was virtually impossible to set regular train and factory schedules with it.

The country therefore adopted a completely new system of measuring everything from time to months to weight. In 1873, the new calendar and a standardized 24-hour day were introduced. In 1886, Japan joined the metric convention. It became the first Asian country to accept the system nationwide when a law for its use was introduced in 1890.

In spite of the introduction of the metric system, the shakkanho never really disappeared and was even modified several times to adjust to modern needs. It would actually take until the middle of the 20th century before these new measures were in widespread use.2

Finally in 1966, the shakkanho was officially banned for use in certification and contracts. However, the shakkanho managed to survive even this ban and to this very day peacefully coexists with the metric system. Real estate agents for example still use tsubo (3.3 square meters) and jo (equal to the size of a standard rice mat) to measure area.


1 Griffis, William Elliot (1876). The Mikado’s Empire. Harper and Brothers, 610.

2 Morris-Suzuki, Tessa (1994). The Technological Transformation of Japan: From the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge University Press, 84. ISBN 0521424925

3 A good language resource for counting and measurements in Japanese is Japanese Numeral Counters.

Photographer: Unknown
Publisher: Unknown
Medium: Albumen Print
Image Number 70523-0008

Quote this number when you contact us about licensing this image.
You can also licence this image online: 70523-0008 @ MeijiShowa.com.

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Reference for Citations

Duits, K. (2008, July 2). 1890s • Oxcart with Rice Bags, Old Photos of Japan. Retrieved on 2021, Sep 28 from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/292/oxcart-with-rice-bags

Posted by • 2008-07-02
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