How Tourism Shaped Photography in 19th Century Japan

Westerners were obsessed with geisha, samurai and cherry blossoms

japan photos
Michael Maslan Historic Photographs/CORBIS

A photograph can reveal a lot about people and the places where they live. But, as Emiko Jozuka writes for Motherboard, it can also deceive. Photographs from 19th-century Japan portray an "exoticised" version of the country, Jozuka writes, filled with geisha, samurai and cherry blossoms. The reality of the era was very different: these photos were staged, then sold as souvenirs for European tourists.

In 1843, Dutch traders first brought photography to Japan. Though they weren't the first Europeans to visit, the Netherlands was one of the country's few trading partners. At the time of their arrival, photography was a new innovation; English chemist John Herschel had only invented the term a few years earlier. "When photography was first introduced to Japan, it was perceived as a technology and a science," David Odo, a Japanese historian, tells Jozuka.

During the same period, Japanese society went through a radical transition known as the Meiji Restoration. When Emperor Meiji rose to power in 1868—effectively abolishing the feudal system—Japan entered the industrial age. Photography, the steam engine and gas lighting became symbols of modern culture. But, as Jozuka explains, many of the era's photos romanticize feudal life, depicting traditional Japanese garb, samurai posing with armor and geishas framed by cherry blossoms.

As Julia Friedman writes for Hyperallergic:

This choice of subject in a society that was so self-consciously concerned with modernization is best understood by the simple rationale of commercial success...many of the images were produced for foreigners — students on a Grand Tour or tourists seeking a kitsch souvenir. Technology here worked in the service not of self-reflection but of industry, which is actually perhaps a particularly modern use of the image.

While Japan raced toward industrialization, though, European and American tourists wanted to buy souvenirs of the bygone feudal society. European photographers set up studios near popular hotels to photograph actors posing in "traditional" scenes as courtesans and kendo fighters. When Japanese photographers began setting up their own studios, they focused on scenes of modernization. The kitschy pictures were for tourists.

This created a "dual market" of photos, Odo tells Jozuka: one depicting the real, modernized Japan, and the other catering to tourists infatuated by the country's feudal past. Even today, that's a valuable lesson. Photographs can document truth, but only when audiences actually want to see it.

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