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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  • Kjeld Duits

    You’re welcome, and thanks for the nice words!

  • min

    This website has been incredibly helpful and informative for a basic investigation :) I’ve learned …

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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.

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1910s • Woman with Rose

Portrait of a Japanese Woman with Flower

A young woman in kimono and traditional Japanese hairstyle looks at a white rose she holds. This postcard was published sometime between 1907 and 1918. During the early 20th century, picture postcards of bijin (beautiful women) were extremely popular in Japan.

The term bijin has a long history in Japan and is notoriously ambiguous. In a Nov. 6, 2006 UCLA lecture titled “Imperial Beauty: Photographic Truth and the New Spirit of Modern Japanese Aesthetics,” Lippit, a lecturer at the University of Southern California who earned her PhD from Yale, argued that discussions among Japanese artists created an evolution of the word bijin.

Whereas bijin was used to describe either a man or woman during the Edo Period (1603–1867), by the Meiji Period it referred exclusively to beautiful women. A change that paralleled the development of modern Japanese aesthetics.

“The bijin came to characterize modern Japanese aesthetics itself,” said Lippit. “In the latter half of the Meiji, from the 1890’s onward, the figure of the bijin appeared with unprecedented frequency as a graphic representation…in paintings, sculptures, illustrations, posters, postcards, and photographs.”

The word was deeply ambiguous, Lippit argues.

“Bijin [exist] in language, but [are] at the same time inaccessible through language,” Lippit said. “The term bijin underscores a crisis between language and visuality in addition to the issue of the fundamental ambiguity the term manifests—as a term that in the end cannot be defined,” Lippit said.

In her talk, Lippit also described the reaction of Western critics during the Meiji period to Japanese aesthetics.

“Japanese art, while lauded in many regards for its lacquers, ceramics and such,” she said, “did not, or so it appeared, represent women according to the aesthetics standards of the Western tradition.”

Lippit cited remarks by the first British diplomatic representative in Japan Sir Rutherford Alcock to show that Japanese women were viewed as ugly by Westerners because they were “deformed by Japanese aesthetics.”

“To Westerners, Japanese women were, as it would seem, charming or thought of as artwork,” said Lippit. “But not ‘true’ beauties.”1

This view however was certainly not shared by all Westerners. Many described Japanese women as beautiful in private letters and diaries. For example, in his diary of his thirteen year stay in Japan, Dutch Consul Jonkheer Dirk de Graeff van Polsbroek (1833-1916) repeatedly uses words like “beeldschoon” (rare beauty) and “schoonen” (beauties) to describe Japanese women he met or observed.2

Nowadays, Westerners often compliment the beauty of Japanese women. Several years ago, I met a group of Norwegians on the Shinkansen. One of them told me, “Japanese women are so unbelievably beautiful. Even the ugly ones are beautiful…”

The fact that beauty is notoriously subjective only increases the ambiguity of the word bijin. When Riyo Mori was crowned Miss Universe Japan on 15 March 2007, many Japanese complained that she did not represent true Japanese beauty.

At the same time, current bijin displayed in Japan’s myriad weekly magazines certainly do not remind an observer of the bijin of the Meiji and Taisho periods.

Now once again, Japan’s idea of beauty appears to be undertaking an important transformation. On the one hand you have the catering to Western ideas of beauty as witnessed by Riyo Mori, on the other Japanese cosmetics companies are increasingly stressing the beauty of being Japanese.3

Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido Co., which has long championed the beauty of Japanese women, has recently elevated the beauty of Japanese women to a new level with its Tsubaki shampoo. The ads uncharacteristically proclaim that Japanese women are beautiful (日本の女性は美しい). It worked. Tsubaki earned 18 billion yen (USD 155 million or EUR 115 million) in its first year and more companies are now following Shiseido’s lead.4


1 Lim, Vincent, The Aesthetics of ‘Bijin’. Retrieved on 2008-02-16.

2 Moeshart, Herman J. (1987). Journaal van Jonkheer Dirk de Graeff van Polsbroek. Van Gorcum. ISBN 90-232-2257-1

3 Chalfen, Richard, Beauty Up. Retrieved on 2008-02-16.

4 International Herald Tribune, Shampoo ads highlight changing image of women in Japan. Retrieved on 2008-02-16.

5 JAPANESE STREETS, JAPANESE STREETS. Over 10,000 photos of young Japanese people and models wearing contemporary fashion and make-up.

Photographer: Unknown
Publisher: Unknown
Medium: Postcard
Image Number 71129-0004

Quote this number when you contact us about licensing this image.
You can also licence this image online: 71129-0004 @ MeijiShowa.com.

Usage of this image requires a reproduction fee.
Reference for Citations

Duits, K. (2008, March 2). 1910s • Woman with Rose, Old Photos of Japan. Retrieved on 2021, Dec 06 from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/83/woman-with-rose

Posted by • 2008-03-02
Add Comment

This website has been incredibly helpful and informative for a basic investigation :) I’ve learned a lot especially with the added comments on the background information of each photograph. Thank you so much!

#000442 · min · 2010-04-30

You’re welcome, and thanks for the nice words!

#000443 · Kjeld Duits (author) · 2010-04-30

Textile help

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