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160201-0020 - Japanese Goldfish Vendor, 1910s

Have Fish, Will Travel

Artist Nobukuni Enami
Publisher Nobukuni Enami
Medium Glass Slide
Period Meiji
Location Outside
Image No. 160201-0020
Purchase Digital File

Children admiring the merchandise of a goldfish vendor. From the Edo period (1603–1867) on, street vendors were essential in daily life in Japan. They sold everything from vegetables to gold fish, fireflies and crickets. Even massages and medicine.

In old Japan, the streets were swarming with street vendors, known as botefuri (棒手振), each with a distinctive call that could be recognized from afar. Blind masseurs used a whistle.

In Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan, Greek-Japanese author Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904), who made Japan his home from 1890 (Meiji 23), wrote how he was awakened by the sounds of a rice cleaner using a “colossal wooden mallet,” followed by the bells of Buddhist temples, and then vendors starting their rounds:1

Then the boom of the great bell of Tokoji, the Zen-shū temple, shakes over the town; then come melancholy echoes of drumming from the tiny little temple of Jizo in the street Zaimokucho, near my house, signaling the Buddhist hour of morning prayer. And finally the cries of the earliest itinerant venders [sic] begin, — “Daikoyai! kahuya-kahu !’‘ — the sellers of daikon and other strange vegetables. ‘‘Moyaya-moya !” — the plaintive call of the women who sell little thin slips of kindling-wood for the lighting of charcoal fires.

140301-0031 - Japanese Vegetable Vendor, 1890s
A street vendor with baskets of vegetables meets a customer on the street. Unattributed, hand colored albumen print, 1890s.
70122-0003 - Japanese vegetable vendor, 1880s
A studio photo of a vegetable vendor wearing a mino (蓑, straw raincoat) and a sugegasa (笠菅, conical hat). Unattributed, hand colored albumen print, 1880s.
91204-0004 - Japanese Woman Carrying Firewood, 1910s
A young woman from Ohara in Kyoto Prefecture, known as Oharame (大原女), is carrying firewood. Oharame walked to Kyoto city to sell firewood, flowers, and agricultural products, usually carried on their head. The clothing they wore was specific to their area. Unattributed, collotype print on card stock, 1910s.

Unique System

When licenses were issued in 1659, Edo alone counted some 5,900 official vendors. This figure was almost certainly substantially higher, as there must have been countless unlicensed vendors trying to avoid paying taxes.

It was an easy job to get. It required no skill, knowledge, land or guild membership. Potential botefuri just needed to go to a company that would lend them the pole, baskets, and money to buy the merchandise. They received brief instructions and a territory, and off they went.

At the end of the day, the botefuri repaid the loan with an interest rate of 2–3%. What was left over was their profit. Many botefuri managed to save up enough money to eventually set up their own business.

An especially innovative marketing system was used by companies selling medicine. Known as Toyama okigusuri, a vendor would leave a chest of over-the-counter medicine at a customer’s home on a use first, pay later basis. First started some 300 years ago, the system is still in use today.

70601-0018 - Japanese Basket & Broom Vendor, 1890s
A basket and broom peddler. Among his merchandise are sieve baskets, crate baskets, noodle-draining baskets, woven bamboo baskets, brooms, feather dusters and small utensils made of bamboo. Nobukuni Enami, hand colored albumen print, 1890s.
80129-0019 - Japanese Broom Vendor, 1890s
A peddler of brushes and brooms wearing a haori coat and a sugegasa conical hat. Unattributed, hand colored albumen print, 1890s.
80115-0010 - Japanese Flower Peddler, 1890s
A flower peddler wearing a short coat pulls a boat-shaped cart filled with flowering branches. Unattributed, hand colored albumen print, 1890s.
161215-0038 - Japanese Gardener with Plants
A Japanese gardener carrying plants, 1890s. Kimbei Kusakabe, hand colored albumen print.

The botefuri and tradesmen didn’t just walk the streets. Vendors would generally go to a back entrance, or enter the kitchen to ask for orders. It was pretty common to find an unexpected visitor in the kitchen.

In Home life in Tokyo (1910), Japanese author Jukichi Inouye described how often the vendors would visit:2

Those whose bills are settled at the end of the month are usually the dealers in rice, sake, and faggot and charcoal, the fishmonger, and the greengrocer. The rice-dealer does not call every day; he brings a bag of rice when required and knows pretty well when it will be exhausted. The sake-dealer comes every day; he sells, besides sake, soy, mirin, and miso; and in many cases he deals in faggot and charcoal as well. The fish-monger and the greengrocer call every morning ; the former will cook to order simple dishes of fish. Besides these regular tradesmen, there are street-vendors who bring bean-curd, boiled or steamed beans, and other food which will not keep long. We have no grocers properly-speaking in Japan; the nearest approach to them is the dealer in “dried vegetables.” Tea and sugar have, like rice, special dealers.

160201-0021 - Japanese Fishmonger, 1910s
A fishmonger cuts fish in front of an entrance while a customer watches. Nobukuni Enami, hand colored glass slide, 1910s.
140301-0026 - Japanese Tofu Vendor, 1890s
A tofu (bean curd) vendor hands a customer a block of tofu. Unattributed, hand colored albumen print, 1890s.
81003-0018 - Japanese Amazake Vendor, 1880s
A studio photo of an amazake (sweet Japanese rice wine) vendor, 1880s. He is carrying two boxes balanced with a carrying pole. One of the boxes contains an iron pot kept warm by a heating device. Kimbei Kusakabe, hand colored albumen print.
110607-0015 - Japanese Food Vendor, 1870s
Food vendor with mobile stall. Baron Raimund von Stillfried, hand colored albumen print, 1870s.
170605-0032 - Maiko with Insect Vendor, 1890s
A studio photo of three maiko posing with a vendor of insects. Vendors sold a variety of insects changing with each season. Reiji Esaki, hand colored albumen print, 1890s.
190102-0028-PP - Japanese Travelling Pipe Mender
A travelling pipe mender works on a kiseru pipe (煙管) while a customer looks on, 1860s. Felice Beato, hand colored albumen print, Pump Park Collection.
160202-0016 - Japanese Clam Vendor, 1940s
Female street peddler selling clams, 1947 (Showa 22). Unattributed, gelatin silver print.

Although, street vendors mostly vanished after modern transportation took over Japan’s streets, every so often one can still hear the cry of a peddler today. Like the vendor of sweet potatoes with a recording screaming ishi-yaaaaki-imoooo, yaki-imoooo, yakitatestone baked sweet potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, freshly baked!

Japanese Sweet Potato Vendor, 2017
Japanese sweet potato vendor in Tokyo, 2017. Tom Mills, via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), modified by the author.


1 Hearn, Lafcadio (1894). Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 139–140.

2 Inouye, Jukichi (1911). Home Life in Tokyo. The Tokyo Printing Company, Ltd., 141–141.


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Reference for Citations

Duits, Kjeld (). 1910s: Have Fish, Will Travel, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on October 1, 2022 (GMT) from

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