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70621-0005 - Dotonbori Theater Street, Osaka, 1890s

Osaka 1890s
Dotonbori Theater Street

Artist Kozaburo Tamamura
Publisher Kozaburo Tamamura
Medium Albumen Print
Period Meiji
Location Osaka
Image No. 70621-0005
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Dotonbori (also: Dotombori) seen towards the east. The crowded and lively street was filled with teahouses (shibai-jaya), restaurants and theaters.

During the Meiji Period, the five main theaters were called the Dotonbori Goza. One of them was Asahiza, the building in the background with the yagura wooden stage. This photo is thought to have been taken shortly after Asahiza was renovated in 1890 (Meiji 23).

Dotonbori was designated as the theater and entertainment district of Osaka in 1621. By 1662, it counted no less than six Kabuki theaters, five Bunraku theaters and a Karakuri (mechanical puppet) theater.1

During the early Edo Period it was popular for actors and visitors to visit Dotonbori by boat using the Dotonbori canal, built in 1615.

The Tenpo (also: Tempo) Reform during the early 1840s had disastrous results for Dotonbori’s entertainment. The reform’s motto was “prohibition of luxury,” and theaters were faced with rigid prohibitions. As a result, the number of theaters was drastically reduced. The five main theaters of the ones that survived were soon known as the Dotonbori Goza.2

Seki Sanjoro II
Japanese kabuki actor Seki Sanjuro II (二代目関三十郎, 1786–1839) on the stage of the Kadoza theater in December 1826 (Bunsei 9). Ukiyoe by Gigado Ashiyuki (戯画堂 芦幸).

The major theaters on South Dotonbori from west to east were Naniwaza (formerly Ebisu-za of Chikugo Shibai), Nakaza (Nakano Shibai), Kadoza (formerly Kadono Shibai), Asahiza (formerly Kadomaru Shibai), and Bentenza (formerly Takeda Shibai).3

The theaters attracted enormous crowds that made this area Osaka’s busiest. Dotonbori reverberated with the shouts of people, the karan-koron clacking sound of thousands of geta, and the music of shamisen and drums.

During intermissions, people would take a break in the many teahouses and restaurants that were strategically located between the theaters as well as in Soemon-cho, on the other side of the Dotonbori canal. Bento (boxed lunches) were sold for people to take into the theaters.

Awaokoshi (millet seed cake)
Awaokoshi, a traditional Japanese sweet made from millet. Mugu-shisai, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

A popular snack to buy for theatergoers was awaokoshi (粟おこし), millet-seed cake solidified with sugar and malt syrup. The first floor of the three-story building in the front of this photo is an awaokoshi shop. Awaokoshi played the same role that popcorn and potato chips play in today’s movie theaters. It was also a popular omiyage (souvenir) for people visiting Osaka.4

After Japan opened itself to foreigners in the second half of the 19th century, Dotonbori became a very popular destination for foreign tourists. Terry’s Guide to the Japanese Empire, published in 1920, carries a charming description of the street5:

Dotombori-gawa, in Minami-ku, is very gay after nightfall, and is to Osaka what Isezakicho is to Yokohama. In the yards of some of its tea-houses are huge cages filled in summer with fireflies, which are liberated for the pleasure of the guests, or put into tiny bamboo cages for them to take home. The river on summer nights is strikingly Venetian in aspect, with its pleasure-boats thronged with joyous merry-makers and illuminated by swinging lanterns.

Fireflies played such an important role in Japan, that the guide carried an extensive description of this custom6:

At the firefly-shops the captured insects are sorted as soon as possible according to the brilliancy of their light (hotarubi) — which Japanese observers have described as cha-iro (tea-colored), because of its likeness to the clear, greenish-yellow tint of the infusion of Japanese tea of good quality…

They are then put into gauze-covered boxes or cages (hotarukago) of one or two hundred each (according to grade) along with a quantity of moistened grass. Great numbers are ordered for display at evening parties in the summer season…

In certain of the well-known tea-houses of Kyōto, Ōsaka and Tōkyō, a myriad of the delicate insects are kept in garden plots enclosed by mosquito-netting; customers of the houses are permitted to enter the inclosure and capture a certain number of fireflies to take home with them.

US firebombing in 1945 destroyed or badly damaged the remaining theaters. Changing interests finished the job. By 2002, only two theaters were left, Nakaza and Shochikuza, built in 1923 (Taisho 12) and restored in 1997. However, Nakaza was torn down in September of that year. The work caused a disastrous fire that burned down a great part of Hozenji Yokocho, one of the only areas in Osaka that had managed to maintain some of its old Edo Period atmosphere. Thankfully, the citizens of Osaka were able to rebuild it.

The fireflies and theaters are long gone, and the flags and banners have been replaced by bright neon lights, but Dotonbori is still a major entertainment district today. The entertainment, however, has greatly changed. In 2007, Dotonbori even saw the opening of a Pro Wrestling arena. It was closed in 2014.7

1893 (Meiji 26) Map of Osaka
1893 (Meiji 26) Map of Osaka: 1. Dotonbori Canal; 2. Shinsaibashi Bridge; 3. Ebisubashi Bridge; 4. Namba Station; 5. Naniwaza Theater; 6. Nakaza Theater; 7. Hozenji; 8. Kadoza Theater; 9. Asahiza Theater; 10. Bentenza Theater; 11. Nipponbashi Bridge.

see current map


1 Wikipedia, Dōtonbori. Retrieved on 2008-03-26.

2 Cary, Ann et al (1990). Catch Osaka. Osaka International House Foundation, 18.

3 Metadata Database of Japanese Old Photographs in Bakumatsu-Meiji Period, Dotombori Street (6). Retrieved on 2008-03-26.

4 Metadata Database of Japanese Old Photographs in Bakumatsu-Meiji Period, Dotonbori. Retrieved on 2008-03-26.

5 Terry, T. Philip (1920). Terry’s Guide to the Japanese Empire Including Korea and Formosa. Houghton Mifflin Company, 609.

6 Terry, T. Philip (1920). Terry’s Guide to the Japanese Empire Including Korea and Formosa. Houghton Mifflin Company, 554.

7 Wikipedia, 道頓堀アリーナ. Retrieved on 2021-08-13.

8 Some information about the effect of the Tenpo Reforms on entertainment can be found at Ukiyoe Caricatures on the site of the University of Vienna.


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Reference for Citations

Duits, Kjeld (). Osaka 1890s: Dotonbori Theater Street, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on March 22, 2023 (GMT) from

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