Old Japan Volume 1: Portraits


I like Japanese culture because it’s different in so many ways. Traditional Japanese writing, food, beliefs and community may seem odd or strange but looking at the following pictures they somehow feel close to me. You don’t get it? Me neither. That’s why it’s beautiful. Some things are invisible for the senses. You can only experience them with your heart.

I borrowed these old postcards from a wonderful photo blog called Old photos of Japan where Kjeld Duits provides detailed info about every picture.

Possibly related Artcore Café posts:

The first meal of the year, a ceremonial breakfast. It includes a soup called zoni, which is made of mochi (boiled rice dough). This image is part of The New Year in Japan, a book published by Kobe-based photographer Kozaburo Tamamura in 1906.

A studio shot of a young family. There are quite a few photos of people carrying young children in baskets like this, so this must have been a common method to carry around young kids.

Kakubeijishi (also: Kakubeejishi) are acrobatics performed on the street by young boys who did handstands and somersaults. In this photo, three children perform a combination act. The acrobatics were accompanied by drums, usually played by an adult leader. Kakubeijishi has its roots in the province of Echigo (now in Niigata Prefecture).

Several geisha are relaxing at the Noryo Yuka (summer platform) of a restaurant in Kyoto. This photo appears to have been taken at Shijo Ohashi, on the western side of the Kamogawa. The woman in the light kimono is pouring sake, while the two women on the right are playing Jan-ken-pon (known in English as Rock-paper-scissors). Two Andon lamps have been placed on the matted floor.

Ceremonial Taisho era photo of a family in formal wear for a wedding anniversary.

Japanese school girls in a classroom. This photo comes from a year album for 1935 of a girls’ school in Okayama City, Japan. The 55 photographs show the female students studying, doing traditional Japanese as well Western sports, playing games, posing, at the train station and about town. The album also includes classroom scenes, portraits of teachers as well as administrative personnel and the Showa era wooden school building itself.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, Japanese maps generally did not include the island of Hokkaido, then known as Ezo. Although it now constitutes some 21% of Japan’s total land mass, until the 19th century it was still seen by the Japanese as a mysterious foreign land inhabited by savage people. These people were the Ainu, a distinct race with a unique culture and language. By the 1830s, interaction and exploration had given the Japanese an increasing amount of knowledge about Ezo, which would soon be used to colonize the northern islands and subjugate the Ainu. By the end of the 19th century, the Ainu had become an ethnic minority.

Ceremonial Taisho era photo of a family in formal wear for the fiftieth wedding anniversary (kinkon kinen).

In this wedding portrait, the groom wears a Western suit, while the bride is clad in a decorated wedding kimono.

A photograph of a Shinto priest wearing vestments. Shinto is native to Japan and was originally a strongly local form of worship. It is older than Japan itself and existed before there was a unified nation. Worshipped are kami (deities), which are often ancestors, natural objects (for example Mount Fuji or a particular tree) and natural processes, such as fertility and growth. More than worship, though, it is the tension between purity (kiyome) and impurity (kegare), and the strong emphasis on cleansing impurities from one’s life and space that makes Shinto what it is. Many of the rites and ceremonies in Shinto are specifically performed to cleanse out kegare.

This Buddhist priest holds a begging bowl and a staff. He is wearing a monk’s stole, called kesa made of sumptuous silk brocade. Kesa are draped over one shoulder and under the opposite arm in order to wrap it around the body. They are believed to resemble a garment made for Buddha by his mother. Of a simple rectangular form, they have barely changed since Buddhism was first introduced in Japan during the sixth century.

A studio photo of a woman in kimono getting her paper umbrella ready. She is wearing geta and her hair is done in a traditional manner. The photographer has made sure that nobody can doubt the country: his backdrop shows Mount Fuji.

A woman wearing a kimono is writing a letter with a brush. A box to place brushes and sumi (ink), and an andon lamp are on the tatami (rice mats). In the back hangs a kakejiku (hanging scroll).

A tayuu (high class prostitute) from Shimabara in Kyoto. The area was the licensed prostitution district of Kyoto. Tayuu wore gorgeous costumes that grew ever more ostentatious during the Edo period (1603-1868). The Tayuu hairstyle distinguishes them from Maiko and Geisha. It was called Hyogo and took hours to get done.

A young woman in kimono and traditional Japanese hairstyle looks at a white rose she holds. This postcard was published sometime between 1907 and 1918. During the early 20th century, picture postcards of bijin (beautiful women) were extremely popular in Japan.

Photo of a 1 year old baby girl in ceremonial kimono. During the early 20th century it was a very popular custom in Japan to take photographs of babies around their first birthday.

About Petra

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2 Responses to Old Japan Volume 1: Portraits

  1. Mishil says:

    I’m in love with Japan too! It all started after I read Memoirs of a Geisha. Fantastic country, great food and nice people! I wish I could go back there again

  2. Pingback: Barbara Palvin is the new face of L’Oréal Paris | Artcore Café

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