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

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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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Early Japanese Railways 1853-1914: Engineering Triumphs That Transformed Meiji-era Japan • Dan Free

Early Japanese Railways 1853-1914 is a cultural and engineering history of railway building in Japan during the Meiji era. The 19th century was the first age of sustained, comprehensive contact between Asia and the West. This book describes the history of Japanese social adaptation to railway development, with many details never-before-published in English.


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1890s • Flower Peddler

Japanese Flower Peddler

A flower peddler wearing a happi coat pulls a boat-shaped cart filled with flowering branches. A woman carrying a child on her back is carefully examining his wares. In the back two people can be seen observing the scene from inside what appears to be a shop.

Flower peddlers were very common on the streets of Japan. Some sold potted plants, others branches, and others again cut flowers. The flowers they sold changed each season, bringing the charm of the seasons to the people’s homes.

Flowers played an important role in the lives of people. They were generously used during funerals and on graves, but were also a major part of daily life. Fresh flowers were used in the tokonoma, a small raised alcove that was the center point of a Japanese home, and occasionally even on the kamidana, a miniature Shinto shrine inside the house, while ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) was practiced by both men and women.

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), the unequaled interpreter of Meiji Japan, felt great admiration for ikebana. Compared to Japanese flower arrangement, “all flower displays you have ever seen abroad,” he wrote, “were only monstrosities.”1

I cannot think now of what we Occidentals call a bouquet” as anything but a vulgar murdering of flowers, an outrage upon the colour-sense, a brutality, an abomination.2

He would probably be deeply shocked to discover that the European “vulgarities” have made great inroads into modern Japan.

Flower sellers announced themselves by a call that reverberated through the streets. Edward S. Morse (1838-1925), who lived in Japan for some three years and published his remarkable observations, likened the call of the Japanese flower peddler to “the terminal cluck of a hen.” They usually also quickly clicked their scissors as they walked the streets, making a sound that was uniquely theirs.

Flowers were not the only product sold by street peddlers. There were peddlers of, to name just a few, vegetables, seaweed, amazake (sweet sake), fish, insects, pipes, baskets, toys, tsukemono (pickles), soy sauce, tofu, suika (watermelons), takenoko (bamboo shoots), soba (buckwheat), medicine, newspapers and even ladders. There were pipe-repairmen, shoemenders, barbers and so on, and so on.

All of them employed different street cries that added live and flavor to the sounds of the streets. Quite different from the monotonous noise of motorized traffic that we have grown used to in our modern cities. Thankfully, street cries have not completely vanished from Japanese streets, so we can still imagine how it was when the streets were filled with such calls.

Hearn marvelously described the voices of the street in Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan, thereby keeping them alive for us to imagine:

I listen to the voices of the city awhile. I hear the great bell of Tokoji rolling its soft Buddhist thunder across the dark, and the songs of the night-walkers whose hearts have been made merry with wine, and the long sonorous chanting of the night-peddlers.

“U-mu-don-yai-soba-yai!” It is the seller of hot soba, Japanese buckwheat, making his last round.

“Umai handan, machibito endan, usemono ninso kaso kichikyo no urainai!” The cry of the itinerant fortune-teller.

“Ame-yu!” The musical cry of the seller of midzu-ame, the sweet amber syrup which children love.

“Amai!” The shrilling call of the seller of ama-zaké, sweet rice-wine.

“Kawachi-no-kuni-hiotan-yama-koi-no-tsuji-ura!” The peddler of love-papers, of divining-papers, pretty tinted things with little shadowy pictures upon them. When held near a fire or a lamp, words written upon them with invisible ink begin to appear. These are always about sweethearts, and sometimes tell one what he does not wish to know. The fortunate ones who read them believe them-selves still more fortunate; the unlucky abandon all hope; the jealous become even more jealous than they were before.3

Although the peddlers themselves lead hard and difficult lives, Hearn’s description nonetheless sounds quite wonderful. Who wouldn’t wish to be able to walk such streets once again?

1 Hearn , Lafcadio (1910). Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan. Bernhard Tauchnitz: 136.

2 ibid.: 150.

3 ibid.: 138-139.

4 Far Side Music sells a CD featuring 30 tracks of street selling songs and storytelling.

Photographer: Unknown
Publisher: Unknown
Medium: Albumen Print
Image Number 80115-0010

Quote this number when you contact us about licensing this image.
You can also licence this image online: 80115-0010 @ MeijiShowa.com.

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Posted by • 2008-05-04
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