An Online Archive of Beautiful, Early 20th Century Japanese Postcards

The world thinks of Japan as hav­ing trans­formed itself utter­ly after its defeat in the Sec­ond World War. And indeed it did, into what by the nine­teen-eight­ies looked like a gleam­ing, tech­nol­o­gy-sat­u­rat­ed con­di­tion of ultra-moder­ni­ty. But the stan­dard ver­sion of moder­ni­ty, as con­ceived of in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry with its trains, tele­phones, and elec­tric­i­ty, came to Japan long before the war did. “Between 1900 and 1940, Japan was trans­formed into an inter­na­tion­al, indus­tri­al, and urban soci­ety,” writes Muse­um of Fine Arts Boston cura­tor Anne Nishimu­ra Morse. “Post­cards — both a fresh form of visu­al expres­sion and an impor­tant means of adver­tis­ing — reveal much about the dra­mat­i­cal­ly chang­ing val­ues of Japan­ese soci­ety at the time.”

These words come from the intro­duc­to­ry text to the MFA’s 2004 exhi­bi­tion “Art of the Japan­ese Post­card,” curat­ed from an archive you can vis­it online today. (The MFA has also pub­lished it in book form.) You can browse the vin­tage Japan­ese post­cards in the MFA’s dig­i­tal col­lec­tions in themed sec­tions like archi­tec­ture, women, adver­tis­ing, New Year’s, Art Deco, and Art Nou­veau.

These rep­re­sent only a tiny frac­tion of the post­cards pro­duced in Japan in the first decades of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, when that new medi­um “quick­ly replaced the tra­di­tion­al wood­block print as the favored tableau for con­tem­po­rary Japan­ese images. Hun­dreds of mil­lions of post­cards were pro­duced to meet the demands of a pub­lic eager to acquire pic­tures of their rapid­ly mod­ern­iz­ing nation.”

The ear­li­est Japan­ese post­cards “were dis­trib­uted by the gov­ern­ment in con­nec­tion with the Rus­so-Japan­ese War (1904–5), to pro­mote the war effort. Almost imme­di­ate­ly, how­ev­er, many of Japan’s lead­ing artists — attract­ed by the infor­mal­i­ty and inti­ma­cy of the post­card medi­um — began to cre­ate stun­ning designs.” The work of these artists is col­lect­ed in a ded­i­cat­ed sec­tion of the online archive, where you’ll find post­cards by the com­mer­cial graph­ic-design pio­neer Sug­uira Hisui; the French-edu­cat­ed, high­ly West­ern-influ­enced Asai Chi; the mul­ti­tal­ent­ed Ota Saburo, known as the illus­tra­tor of Kawa­ba­ta Yasunar­i’s The Scar­let Gang of Asakusa; and Nakaza­wa Hiromit­su, cre­ator of the “div­er girl” long well-known among Japan­ese-art col­lec­tors.

Sur­pris­ing­ly, Nakaza­wa’s div­er girl (also known as the “mer­maid,” but most cor­rect­ly as “Hero­ine Mat­suza­ke” of a pop­u­lar play at the time) seems not to have been among the pos­ses­sions of cos­met­ics bil­lion­aire and art col­lec­tor Leonard A. Laud­er, who donat­ed more than 20,000 Japan­ese selec­tions from his vast post­card col­lec­tion to the MFA. “In 1938 or ’39, a boy of five or six, or maybe sev­en, was so enthralled by the beau­ty of a post­card of the Empire State Build­ing that he took his entire five-cent allowance and bought five of them,” writes the New York­er’s Judith H. Dobrzyn­s­ki. The young­ster thrilling to the paper image of a sky­scraper was, of course, Laud­er — who could­n’t have known how much, in that moment, he had in com­mon with the equal­ly moder­ni­ty-intox­i­cat­ed peo­ple on the oth­er side of the world.

via Flash­bak

Relat­ed con­tent:

Adver­tise­ments from Japan’s Gold­en Age of Art Deco

Vin­tage 1930s Japan­ese Posters Artis­ti­cal­ly Mar­ket the Won­ders of Trav­el

Glo­ri­ous Ear­ly 20th-Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Ads for Beer, Smokes & Sake (1902–1954)

An Eye-Pop­ping Col­lec­tion of 400+ Japan­ese Match­box Cov­ers: From 1920 through the 1940s

View 103 Dis­cov­ered Draw­ings by Famed Japan­ese Wood­cut Artist Kat­sushi­ka Hoku­sai

Down­load 2,500 Beau­ti­ful Wood­block Prints and Draw­ings by Japan­ese Mas­ters (1600–1915)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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