OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN, a photo blog of Japan in the Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods

Old Photos of Japan
shows photos of Japan between the 1860s and 1930s. In 1854, Japan opened its doors to the outside world for the first time in more than 200 years. It set in motion a truly astounding transformation. As fate would have it, photography had just been invented. As the old country vanished and a new one was born, daring photographers took photos. Discover what life was like with their rare and precious photographs of old Japan.
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Kobe 1880s • Houses at Bund

Houses and Boats at the Bund of Kobe
View on Kobe from Meriken Park
click to enlarge

A quiet day on the Bund of Kobe. Fishermen are working in their boats moored on a sandy beach in front of the sea wall. The big building in the middle is the office of Walsh Hall & Co, located at No. 2. Founded in 1868 by American trader John Walsh and his brother, the company owned a paper mill in Sannomiya that would grow into the Mitsubishi Paper Mills. No. 2 was later sold to the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. On the far right are the offices of the tea exporter Smith, Baker & Co., located at No.3. The photo was taken from American Hatoba, the pier through which once all visitors entered Kobe. It is now an invisible part of Meriken Park.

When Kobe, or Hyogo as it was still called in those days, was opened to foreign trade on New Year’s Day 1868, there was nothing but a barren sandy area that was flooded during heavy storms. Difficult to imagine now, as today it is all concrete and asphalt, but fishermen used to haul nets of iwashi (sardines) here on beautiful beaches.

Harold Williams beautifully describes the impression of the first settlers in his Tales of the Foreign Settlements in Japan:

“The merchants aboard their vessels were gazing at the sandy waste that was to be their home, and at the long sandy beach, lined for most of the way with old gnarled pine trees, that stretched towards Osaka. They were contemplating with some misgivings the intense amount of work that would have to be undertaken to raise the level of their settlement, to make it safe from invasion by the sea during typhoons, and to turn a barren sandy waste into a mercantile centre. As the merchants awaited their appointed hour of landing, their thoughts turned to the problem of accommodation.

To the east of their future settlement, towards Osaka, there were mostly fields. To the west the straggling village of Kobe, a few sake breweries and godowns, and some straw-thatched fishing huts. Motomachi was a narrow and odiriferous street inches deep in mud and lined with poor mean buildings. Above the village towards the hills a few temples were seen, each set in its own forest of trees.”1

Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, Kobe
This detail shows the beautiful colonial design of Walsh Hall & Co. Notice the gas lamp between the two trees (right behind the boat).

Because water flowed down from the mountains as well, the area was waterlogged and full of quicksand. On this improbable location, the English civil engineer John William Hart eventually built an elegant European style settlement, with roads, gas lamps, brick sewers and parks.

He, and the foreign community that settled in his town, did a wonderful job. Soon Kobe was referred to as the Model Settlement of the Far East, far more relaxed and safe than Yokohama, where during the first years after it was opened to trade, a long string of fear-inspiring murders took place. One multiple murder, the Namamugi Incident, even resulted in the bombardment of Kagoshima in 1863.

Kobe experienced two scares in 1868. On February 4, samurai from Bizen (today part of Okayama Prefecture) clashed with foreigners. Although nobody was killed, the foreign settlement was in a state of siege for several days. The worst incident happened a month later when 11 French sailors were killed in Sakai, on the other side of Osaka Bay. After that, Kobe quieted down and it remained that way.

When the first land sales were held in Kobe, the most popular lots were the ones along the beach. Gorgeous houses and offices with a fantastic view on the bay were built here. It didn’t take long before the Bund became an attractive promenade where curious Japanese watched Western families in their exotic clothing take walks and listen to the music played by Portuguese amateur bands or bands from visiting warships.2

Many of the Hongs (trading houses) had their compounds on the Bund. From their offices and storehouses wafted smells of tea, spices and silk-waste.3 Japanese, Chinese and Western employees, speaking myriad languages, walked in and out. Goods were delivered by handcars or were taken to tall ships from the West. Countless small Japanese boats maneuvered through the harbor. The views, the smells, the sounds. They all blended together into something unique that could only be found in the foreign concession. It was undoubtedly an exotic place to visit.

During the 1920s, the seawall was torn down, part of the harbor reclaimed and the street widened. Over the years more reclamation and construction followed. The former Bund is now far removed from the sea, and the once beautiful view on the bay is today obstructed by buildings and elevated highways.

Map of "Kobe Former Foreign Settlement", 1920.
Map of the “Kobe Former Foreign Settlement” from Terry’s Guide to the Japanese Empire, 1920. This map shows Kobe more than 20 years after the photo was taken. Although the lay-out remained pretty much the same, there has already been a lot of land-reclamation from the Custom House and the Kobe Club down. The photo was taken from “American Hatoba” and shows the buildings on lots 1, 2 and 3.

1 Williams, Harold S. (1958). Tales of the Foreign Settlements in Japan. Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 65. ISBN 0804810516

2 ibid, 84-91.

3 ibid, 180-183.

Photographer: Unknown
Publisher: Unknown
Medium: Albumen Print
Image Number: 70523-0002

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Posted by • 2008-07-03
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