Hand-Colored Photographs from 19th Century Japan: 110 Images Capture the Waning Days of Traditional Japanese Society

What we euphemisti­cal­ly refer to as the “Open­ing of Japan” cat­alyzed a peri­od of seis­mic upheaval for the proud for­mer­ly closed coun­try. Between the fall of the Toku­gawa shogu­nate in 1853 and the Mei­ji restora­tion in 1868, Japan­ese soci­ety changed rapid­ly due to the sud­den forced influx of for­eign cap­i­tal and influ­ence, much of it destruc­tive. “Unem­ploy­ment rose,” writes his­to­ri­an John W. Dow­er, “Domes­tic prices soared sky high…. Much of Japan was wracked by famine in the mid 1860s…. As if all this were not curse enough, the for­eign­ers also brought cholera with them.” They also brought pho­tog­ra­phy, and both West­ern and Japan­ese pho­tog­ra­phers doc­u­ment­ed not only the country’s pro­found trans­for­ma­tion, but also its tra­di­tion­al dress and cul­ture.

Closed for 200 years, Japan became a source of end­less fas­ci­na­tion for West­ern­ers as arti­facts made their way across the sea. Among them was “an exten­sive pho­to­graph­ic doc­u­men­ta­tion of Japan,” notes the New York Pub­lic Library, and “of inter­ac­tion between the Japan­ese and for­eign­ers” (Com­modore Perry’s expe­di­tion to Tokyo Bay includ­ed a daguerreo­type pho­tog­ra­ph­er.)

“In the broad­est sense, pho­tog­ra­phy entered Asia from Europe and Amer­i­ca as part of the process of colo­nial­ism, but soon took root in those regions with local pho­tog­ra­phers.”

The col­orized images you see here come from the NYPL’s large col­lec­tion of late 19th cen­tu­ry Japan­ese pho­tog­ra­phy, tak­en by pho­tog­ra­phers like the Ital­ian-British Felice Beato and his Japan­ese stu­dent Kim­bei, who “assist­ed Beato in the hand-col­or­ing of pho­tographs until 1863,” then “set up his own large and flour­ish­ing stu­dio in Yoko­hama in 1881.” The archive pro­vides “a rich resource for the under­stand­ing of the polit­i­cal, social, eco­nom­ic, and artis­tic his­to­ry of Asia from the 1870s to the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry.” These images date from between 1890 and 1909, by which time much of Japan had already been exten­sive­ly west­ern­ized in dress, archi­tec­ture, and style of gov­ern­ment.

To many Japan­ese, the old ways, sus­tained through a cou­ple hun­dred years of iso­la­tion, must have seemed in dan­ger of slip­ping away. To many West­ern­ers, how­ev­er, the encounter with Japan offered a kind of cul­tur­al renew­al. As the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art points out, “a tidal wave of for­eign imports” from Asia, includ­ing “wood­cut prints by mas­ters of the ukiyo‑e school… trans­formed Impres­sion­ist and Post-Impres­sion­ist art.” Euro­pean col­lec­tors, traders, and artists dis­cov­ered a mania for all things Japan­ese, even as some of its cul­tur­al forms threat­ened to dis­ap­pear. Enter the NYPL’s dig­i­tal col­lec­tion, Pho­tographs of Japan, here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Behold the Mas­ter­piece by Japan’s Last Great Wood­block Artist: View Online Tsukio­ka Yoshitoshi’s One Hun­dred Aspects of the Moon (1885)

What Hap­pens When a Japan­ese Wood­block Artist Depicts Life in Lon­don in 1866, Despite Nev­er Hav­ing Set Foot There

Japan­ese Kabu­ki Actors Cap­tured in 18th-Cen­tu­ry Wood­block Prints by the Mys­te­ri­ous & Mas­ter­ful Artist Sharaku

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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