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
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.
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
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, yakitate — stone baked sweet potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, freshly baked!
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.
Reference for Citations
Duits, Kjeld (). 1910s: Have Fish, Will Travel, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on May 26, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/879/japanese-street-vendors-vintage-photographs
I have a small favor to ask
Old Photos of Japan aims to be your personal museum for Japan's visual heritage to increase our understanding of Japanese culture and society.
Finding, acquiring, scanning, restoring, researching and conserving these vintage images, and making the imagery and research freely available online, takes serious time, money and effort.
I do this without charging for access, selling user data, or running ads.
Your support helps to make this possible, and ensures that this important visual heritage of Japan will not be lost and forgotten.
If you can, please consider supporting Old Photos of Japan with a regular amount each month. Or become a volunteer.