VOne speaks of Japan differently than of, say, Portugal. Although it is closer to us and offers the connoisseur many exquisite things. Enthusiasm for Japan is currently not just a status symbol, a cipher that has been detached from the subject for a refined, valuable taste. It has become an easy-to-use, intellectual accessory among people who consider themselves citizens of the world and who like to talk about them. With a weakness for Japan one adorns oneself as in the past with everything that fell under French “savoir vivre”. Anyone who talks about Japan today (sushi, manga, tea, Tokyo) often secretly hopes that the person they are speaking to cannot follow them into this expensive, supposedly foreign niche full of unheard-of pleasures and thoughts. You sunbathe in the shine of Nippon and greet the sushi master as enthusiastically as you once did the host of the noble Italian restaurant that you haven’t been to for ages.
The good news: The pocket book “Japan 1900”, which was published for the opening of the Olympic Games at the end of July, is tailored to this type of Japan lover, but also offers views and insights that are a little behind the dazzling facade the powerful marketing ideology of “Cool Japan”. The volume brings together more than 700 “vintage” photographs on 536 pages. The worn word “vintage” in the publisher’s announcement means that the pictures come from the Meiji period (1869 to 1912) – perhaps one of the most interesting epochs in the country, which opens up to the west under the Meiji-Tenno Mutsohito all the terrible consequences – to maintain as an imperial great power in the international power structure.
This opening of the restored empire goes hand in hand with the development of new shipping routes and what the illustrated book calls the “golden age of travel”. At this point in time, the island kingdom can be reached relatively easily by sea within a few weeks: the ships of the “Pacific Mail Steamship Company” bring travelers from San Francisco via Hong Kong to Yokohama, Kobe and Nagasaki. From Bremerhaven, a North German Lloyd ship takes around forty days to Yokohama. Before that, if you wanted to travel to India, China or Japan, you could travel by land and water for up to a year.
One learns a little of these world-shaking upheavals in the introduction, which does not dwell on the difficulties of transformation. It comes from co-author Sebastian Dobson, who researches the history of photography in Japan and East Asia and, together with picture editor and author Sabine Arqué, selected the mostly colored black and white photos. The selection is supplemented and decorated with details such as menus, woodcuts, postcards, luggage labels or map material.
While the look in the selection of images on the first pages still looks very masculine – the pictures are magnificently costumed women, their oiled hair shimmering like obsidian glass – it opens up at the beginning of the chapters, which are divided into regions, into nature and urban life in those places that are already touristy were developed. He remains masculine because the photographs of this time (with exceptions such as the photographer Ryu Shima) are primarily made by men who, thanks to the onset of industrialization and new technologies, are doing profitable business with the medium of photography. In addition to the emigrated Italian Felix Beato, they also include the Japanese Kimbei Kusakabe, who works in his photo studio “K. Kimbei ”at the Honcho-Dori in Yokohama had a proud offer of souvenir photographs. Beato, Kusakabe and also Kajima Seibei are part of the school that is later referred to as Yokohama Shashin (Yokohama photos). In his pictures, Kusakabe mainly shows women who, in front of an artificial background, devote themselves to Japanese handicrafts and local customs with props.
We see firefly catchers in kimono and clam hunters. Portraits of women are simply a big hit at this time. The problem: Back then, “decent” women rarely allowed themselves to be photographed. On the one hand it was considered improper, on the other hand there was a widespread belief in Japan that the act of photographing the person being photographed deprived part of their vitality. So Kusakabe has to fall back on women from his family or those who already earned their bread with their physical charms.