The Old Japan: 50 Fascinating Photos From The Imperial Era

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Before Japan was an island overflowing with towering metropolises, it was a quieter place, where thatched rooftops covered the homes and great rolling, green forests filled the horizon.

Imperial Japan looked unlike any place in the world today — certainly the country that now stands on the same ground. It is a place that lives on only in stories and photographs.

These photographs are the best glimpses we have of what life was like in Imperial Japan – photographs from the late 19th century, taken during the Meiji Restoration Era.

By then, the early cracks in the old Japan were already starting to form, and Western thought was seeping in. The Empire was being reshaped in the image of Western nations. A constitutional monarchy was formed, the samurai were abolished, and the royal court started to dress in Western clothes.

Yet despite it all, little pieces of Japan’s distinct culture still lingered on.

The photographs from this era provide a look at the world that is now a memory, a look into the streets of Imperial Japan, where one-story homes with thatched roofs flanked streets filled with vendors who carried their goods on their backs.

Late 19th-century photographs allow us to tour the old Japan, from the poorest and meanest forms of life to the most glamorous. We can see the lives of the Japanese peasants who covered themselves with straw for protection from the rain while they got down on their hands and their knees to harvest rice and tea leaves. Yet we can also see the lives of the wealthy elite, living in the massive stone palaces that towered over the country, where women dressed in kimonos and painted their faces white before being carried about in baskets held up by peasant workers.

These photographs are our window into Imperial Japan: a world that once was, but will never be again.

A torii gate stands over the streets of Yenoshima.

Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

1

A thick bamboo grove towers above the heads of a band of travelers.

Kyoto. Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

2

A Buddhist warrior monk, wearing his clerical robes over his armor.

Tokyo. 1895.
Wikimedia Commons

3

Four samurai warriors, showing off the diversity of weapons they used.

Circa 1880s.
Wikimedia Commons

4

A farmer in a mino, a straw cape meant to protect him from the rain.

Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

5

Peasants work picking tea, while a temple looms behind them.

Yuzi. Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

6

A Japanese man shows off the tattoos that cover his body.

Yokohama. Circa 1890s.
Wikimedia Commons

7

An old Japanese village, photographed from above.

Arima. Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

8

A vendor sells his goods on the street.

Tokyo. Circa 1890s.
Flickr/Museum of Photographic Arts

9

The Nagoya Castle.

Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

10

A man watches the sea from inside a rock formation.

Matsushima. Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

11

A traveling candy seller.

Circa 1890s.
Flickr/Museum of Photographic Arts

12

A child stands in a clothing shop.

Circa 1890s.
Flickr/Museum of Photographic Arts

13

Men at work making a tub.

Circa 1890s.
Flickr/Museum of Photographic Arts

14

An old vegetable peddler shows off his selection to a customer.

Circa 1880s.
Wikimedia Commons

15

A tea house in Nakasendo.

Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

16

Four peasants carry a wealthy woman in a traveling chair, called a kago.

Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

17

The Metaki Waterfall.

Kobe. Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

18

A tea house sits near a canal.

Tokyo. Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

19

Two monks stand before a Buddhist statue.

Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

20

An empty street in an old Japanese town.

Ikaho. Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

21

A woman puts on makeup and gets ready for her day.

Yokohama. Circa 1890s.
Wikimedia Commons

22

One woman helps another braid her hair.

Circa 1880s.
Nationaal Archief

23

Two upper-class women bend down to feed some chickens.

Circa 1890s.
Flickr/Museum of Photographic Arts

24

The workers in a kitchen prepare dinner.

Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

25

Porters carry a woman in a kago.

Circa 1863-1877.
Wikimedia Commons

26

Several people prepare to set sail.

Kyoto. Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

27

A boat full of people travels down the Sumida River.

Tokyo. Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

28

Workers draw water from a well.

Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

29

An elderly couple seated before a painted background, acting out a scene of sitting by the roadside to rest.

Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

30

Peasants at work threshing rice.

Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

31

A samurai warrior with his hair in a «chonmage» topknot.

Circa 1890s.
Wikimedia Commons

32

A bridge sits over a calm river.

Nagasaki. Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

33

A fireman sets up a letter by a tea house as part of a drill.

Nakasendo. Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

34

Members of the fire brigade compete, performing stunts on ladders extended to the sky.

Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

35

A craftsman builds samisens, a traditional Japanese lute.

Circa 1880-1890.
Flickr/Museum of Photographic Arts

36

Young boys play a game in the courtyard.

Circa 1880-1890.
Flickr/Museum of Photographic Arts

37

A street full of theaters, filled with banners advertising the shows inside.

Yokohama. Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

38

A crowd lines up outside a theater, eager to see the performance within.

Osaka. Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

39

Four kabuki actors dressed as samurai.

1880.
Wikimedia Commons

40

Some incredibly flexible boys perform a rope dance.

Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

41

Three dancers pose for the camera.

Circa 1880-1890.
Wikimedia Commons

42

A man gets down on his knees in prayer at the steps of a temple.

Tokyo. Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

43

Four young pilgrims stand before a shrine.

Circa 1880-1890.
Flickr/Museum of Photographic Arts

44

A lone man sits on a rock, overlooking the running water.

Nikko. Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

45

Women enjoy the flowers in a peony garden.

Circa 1880-1890.
Flickr/Museum of Photographic Arts

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A game of Go.

Circa 1880-1890.
Flickr/Museum of Photographic Arts

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Two kago bearers carry a wealthy woman around.

Circa 1890s.
Flickr/Museum of Photographic Arts

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A man walks along the Kisogawa River.

Nakasendo. Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

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A man walks along a road that winds up a mountainside.

Ashio. Circa 1880-1890.
New York Public Library

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