Map of Japan (1666) by Nakabayashi KichibeiOriginal Source: Wikipedia
Long ago, in the Far East, a nation dwelt in isolation on an archipelago of thousands of islands.
"Cape of the Moon" (Edo period, 1857) by Utagawa (Andō) HiroshigeOriginal Source: Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
From time to time, Dutch merchants told of pink cherry blossoms, doll-like women with delicate laughs, fierce warriors…
"Cape of the Moon" (Detail) (Edo period, 1857) by Utagawa (Andō) HiroshigeOriginal Source: Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
"American warship" (1854) by Unknown artistOriginal Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Visualizing Cultures
Was it a paradise on Earth? Could Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun, offer the Western powers wealth and rare treasures? Whether Russia, England, or the Netherlands, the western powers yearned to dock their ships in Japan’s harbors. The first to meet with this success was the United States. Suddenly, in July of 1853, a flotilla of "black ships" cruised in front of the universally coveted coastline, cannons visible from afar. Within a period of just eight months, the Americans succeeded in extracting a treaty of friendship. Russia, England, France, and Prussia quickly followed suit. Merchants, manufacturers, tourists, and photographers arrived in their wake.
"The Japanese envoys in London" (1862) by Unknown artist / photographerOriginal Source: Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
In Japan, these transformations unleashed belligerent power struggles and political upheavals. Gaining the upper hand, finally, were clever politicians and strategists, who proclaimed an era of wise rule under the slogan "civilization and enlightenment"– The Meiji Era. The country would avoid becoming the plaything of foreign powers. Instead, they ushered in an era of modernization guided by fundamental reforms that reshaped Japan’s administrative, military, legal, and educational systems in accordance with Western models. And this meant an end to the feudal system of the Edo Period – the military rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate which had lasted nearly 270 years.
Empress Meiji (Ichijō Haruko) (1873) by Uchida KuichiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The symbolic figure of these political upheavals was the Emperor Mutsuhito, who reigned from 1868 until 1912 as the Emperor Meiji. Adopted now eagerly was photography, which joined the steam engine, gas lighting, and the hot-air balloon as the standard tools of the country’s unconditional Europeanization. Accordingly, the Emperor presented himself in a Western-style uniform as the enlightened sovereign of a modern country.
Ōmura Sumihiru, 12th Daimyō of the Ōmura clan, with his family in front of his residence in Nagasaki (c. 1872) by Ueno HikomaKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
But for the country’s other prominent dignitaries as well, the situation had changed. The feudal lords (daimyō) were compelled to transfer their landed properties (back) to the imperial regime. In 1871, the country was subdivided into prefectures. In exchange, the lords received government pensions, while their retinues – whether high or low ranking samurai – were often deprived of income. The special privilege of the samurai, the right to wear two swords, was abolished. Their characteristic hairstyle too was compelled to yield to the Emperor’s example.
A photograph of the 12th daimyō of the Ōmura Clan and his family dating from 1872 allows us to contemplate the few remaining representatives of the ancient feudal order – in this case, extending all the way back to the 10th century.
"A 'dear burden'?" - Group of European travellers with their Japanese carriers (1902) by Unknown photographerOriginal Source: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
And the tourists? They could hardly wait to see this "topsy-turvy world," where – as the British Japanologist Basil Hall Chamberlain had reported – books were read from back to front, and the number 13 was considered lucky…
Album with 50 photographs from Japan (1800/1891) by unknownOriginal Source: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Having barely arrived in the country, they hurried to the nearest photo studio to view images and marvelous lacquered albums, picking up ideas for this or that excursion, as well as submitting orders.
Japanese painter Kanō Tomonobu (1843–1912) (1901) by Emil OrlikKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Today, you take out your cell phone. In those days, photographic mementos were not procured so readily (nor so cheaply). Time was required, especially when it was a question of hand-colored prints. Until the end of the Meiji Era, these remained the trademark of Japanese souvenir photography. They benefited from the skill of numerous experienced masters of the colored woodcut.
Cherry blossom along the River Edo in Tōkyō (1885/1913) by Unknown photographerOriginal Source: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The colorists were particularly fond of soft pink and pale blue – the colors of the cherry blossoms, of the broad sky, and of the luminous medium of photography itself.
"Temple Sensōji in Asakusa, Edo" (Asakusa Kinryūzan Kanzeonkeidai no zu) (Edo period, c. 1781–1789) by Katsushika HokusaiOriginal Source: Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Essential to the canon of Japanese views were the celebrated temples and shrines of Kyōto, Nara, Tōkyō, Nikkō, Kōbe, and Ōsaka. Together with landscape points of interest, they filled the photographic albums of tourists as "views."
Tōkyō, Asakusa. Sensō-ji (c. 1910) by Unknown photographerKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
In retrospect, these views offered a kind of visual tour of places visited. They served as aides-mémoire: Wasn’t that where we admired the splendor of the curving roof construction, and incidentally, became pleasantly acquainted with some fellow travelers? Isn’t that where we drank some refreshing tea? Or purchased a fan?
"The steam train at Takanawa" (Takanawa tetsudō jōkisha no zenzu) (Meiji period, 1872) by Utagawa (Shōsai) IkkeiOriginal Source: Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Yet these photographs preserved the image of a country that had long ceased to exist: beginning in 1872, the first railway line linked Yokohama and Shinbashi (Tōkyō). Lanterns and telegraph poles lined city streets, high wheel bicycles were replaced by horse trams. The textile, chemistry, and glass industries flourished. Via elevator, people stormed the first Japanese high-rise, the 12-story Ryōunkaku in Tōkyō. Some visitors may have sampled chocolate bars, produced in Japan only beginning in 1909. Such traces of modernity, however, must be searched for in the commercial photography of the Meiji Era.
View from Tōkaidō Military Street to Mount Fuji (c. 1885) by Enami T. (Enami Nobukuni), Adolfo Farsari, Kajima Seibei or Kusakabe Kimbei ?Original Source: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
In fact, it was the notion of Japan as a kind of counter-world that drew travelers from their homelands, repelled by industrialization and the speed of modern life.
"Japanese Studies" collotyped by Ogawa Kazumasa (1906) by Herbert George PontingKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
And the photo studios simply masked out anything regarded as undesirable. Mount Fuji and the Kirifuri Waterfall – what landscape beauties were offered by this paradise of cherry blossoms!
Stroller with umbrella in front of a landscape with Mount Fuji (c. 1875) by Unknown photographerKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Beginning in the 1860s, portraits for the souvenir market were advertised as "costumes." A stroller shuffles on wooden sandals past the grandiose backdrop of Mount Fuji...
Mealtime "on the road" (c. 1880) by Kajima SeibeiOriginal Source: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
...an elderly couple devours their victuals at the same location. Two views of the famous, sacred mountain – two painted mockups. And anyone could pose before them.
Group portrait in front of a landscape with Mount Fuji (c. 1875) by Raimund Stillfried von RathenitzKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The renowned studio of Raimund Stillfried von Rathenitz too had his "Fuji" at the ready, or might instead stage an entire nighttime interior. Like the Mount Fuji backdrop, fans, umbrellas, and swords are little more than deceptive accessories.
"Sleeping girls" (c. 1875) by Raimund Stillfried von RathenitzKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Rarely did the seemingly idyllic scenery correspond to lived reality. Instead, many anonymous people earned their subsistence as extras posing before commercial cameras.
Cooper (c. 1885) by Unknown photographerKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The photo studios also staged everyday and occupational life on location. Whether basket makers, coopers, vegetable sellers, or lantern decorators, most of these images featured the world of preindustrial labor, a way of life remote from Meiji Era modernization.
Actor Nakamura Shikan (Edo period, c. 1830–1835) by Utagawa KuniharuOriginal Source: Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
As enterprises oriented toward export and tourism, the photographic studios adopted the themes and pictorial idioms featured in the Japanese woodcuts so coveted in the West.
Geisha writing a letter (c. 1885) by Kusakabe KimbeiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Beginning in the 17th century, artists such as Hishikawa Moronobu, Isoda Koryūsai, Kitagawa Utamaro, and Utagawa Kuniyoshi, with their pictures of beautiful women, focused on geishas, courtesans, and teahouse girls, stimulating the fantasies of Western travelers. These figures dominated the photographic scenarios of the Meiji Era as well.
Playing the koto (c. 1880) by Unknown photographerKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
In most of these photographs of women dancing or playing the shamisen or koto, it is difficult to tell today whether the model was a geisha – a professional artist trained from the earliest childhood and music, dance, and cultivated conversation, including the art of the tea ceremony – or instead simply a prostitute.
Courtesan, accompanied by two "kamuro" and a servant (c. 1880) by Ogawa KazumasaOriginal Source: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
As icons of Japan, the geishas and kabuki actors emblematized aesthetic refinement and cultivation. And it was these traits that enterprising photographers such as Kusakabe Kimbei or Ogawa Kazumasa strove for as pictorial qualities.
Samurai in full gear (c. 1880) by Unknown photographerOriginal Source: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Photographers resorted to stereotypes in the depiction and marketing of masculine Japanese types as well. In the travel literature, the fearlessness of the samurai is legendary.
"Betto" – Japanese with back tattoos (c. 1885) by Kusakabe KimbeiOriginal Source: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Also found among the canon of motifs were religious dignitaries, along with the richly tattooed bodies of sedan bearers, postman, or carpenters. As emblems of diverse occupations, and with their value for warding off evil, tattoos came increasingly to be regarded as old-fashioned in the context of Japan’s modernization. All the same, they were soon imitated and reinterpreted by well-situated globetrotters.
Hiroshima, Miyajima. Itsukushima Shrine (September 1896 or earlier) by Y. IsawaKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The Emperor Meiji functioned not just as a figurehead for Japan’s modernization. In his name, Shintoism – with its cult of nature and of spirits, its ancestor worship and mythological notions – was defined as a "national cult," and the veneration of the Tennō (heavenly sovereign) as its "high priest" became a civic duty.
Although Buddhism and Shintoism had existed side-by-side and been intertwined with one another for centuries, the institutional separation of the kami (the Shinto spirits) and Buddhism was now decreed by the policy known as shinbutsu bunri.
Buddhist procession at Ikegami Honmon-ji Temple near Tōkyō (c. 1880) by Kusakabe KimbeiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
This complex religious formation was rarely penetrated by travelers to Japan. Nor were visitors more than dimly aware of the influence of Confucianism on the Japanese history of ideas. Instead, they delighted in exotic priestly robes and colorful processions. While these high-spirited pageants strove to procure the benevolence of the gods, travelers remained spectators, purchasing stylized photographs of stereotypical characters or folkloristic displays.
Mask of a female spirit (1911) by Unknown photographerKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The strangers also appeared in the theater. In the eyes of the Meiji Era reformers, however, art forms such as the formerly favored Nō Theater had ceased to appear up to date: "To be sure, Nō is noble and elegant," wrote Tsubouchi Shōyō in 1904, "but it was produced by the taste of bygone times […] Although it appears splendid, Nō is incapable of enlightening, it cannot encourage deeds that aim toward the future. And while foreigners often praise Nō, then only as an exotic literary product, as an antiquated object, perhaps as a source of edification. One delights in it as in an exquisite jewel."
"A Damsel" – Maiko in the cherry blossom season (c. 1890) by Ogawa KazumasaOriginal Source: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Souvenir photography remained essentially unchanged well into the 20th century. Evidently, it was not just Western visitors who held fast to a nostalgic image of the quaint Japan of the Edo period. And of course, there were financial interests at stake as well: an album by Kusakabe Kimbei, for example, would have cost a high official a month’s earnings. Tourists, however, paid uncomplainingly.
22 stereo photographs from the series "Russo-Japanese War" (1904/1905) by James RicaltonKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Manifest despite the persistent staging of traditional subjects is a new nationalist sentiment. Meanwhile, the paradisiac "wonderland" began focusing its military ambitions on China and Russia. Photojournalists from abroad, among them James Ricalton and Herbert Ponting, showcased the expansionist side of the "New Japan." In 1904 and 1905, Ricalton supplied more than 300 images of the Russo-Japanese War for stereoscopic views manufactured by Underwood & Underwood. The Emperor Meiji valued his contribution: he awarded Ricalton a gold medal for bravery on the field of battle.
Interior (detail) (c. 1890) by Unknown photographerOriginal Source: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
"The heaven of modern humanity is indeed shattered in the Cyclopean struggle for wealth and power. The world is groping in the shadow of egotism and vulgarity. Knowledge is bought through a bad conscience, benevolence practiced for the sake of utility. The East and the West, like two dragons tossed in a sea of ferment, in vain strive to regain the jewel of life. We need a Niuka again to repair the grand devastation; we await the great Avatar. Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things."
Okakura Kakuzō, The Book of Tea, 1906
Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Concept and Text: Christine Kühn
Translation: Ian Pepper
Realisation: Justine Tutmann
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Christine Kühn (ed.): Zartrosa und Lichtblau. Japanische Fotografie der Meiji-Zeit (1868–1912), Bielefeld / Berlin 2015
Like the exhibition of the Kunstibliothek in the Museum für Fotografie, the catalog and this online exhibition were created in cooperation with the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.