From ‘shashin’ to snapshots

by Rob Gilhooly

Shashin, the Japanese word that came to mean “photograph,” was used quite differently when it first entered everyday language here. Derived from the two characters for “reflect” and “true,” it arrived in the early Edo Period from China, where it was used to refer to portraits that were thought to express in some way the nature of the people they portrayed.

In Japan this sense was adapted, somewhat strangely, to refer to landscape paintings featuring flowers and birds. So when the first cameras and photography equipment arrived in Japan from Holland in 1848, the association of the word “shashin” and the object “photograph” was never even considered, said Fuminori Yokoe, chief curator at Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum and an expert on the history of photography in Japan.

” ‘Shashin’ paintings were supposed to include an expression of the internal aspect of a scene, while photographs were seen as something that was external, superficial,” commented Yokoe, formerly chief curator at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. “It was seen as something that simply expressed a form, not anything within.”

Shimazu Nariakira is widely recognized as the father of photography in Japan. Daimyo of the Satsuma domain in present-day Kagoshima Prefecture, Shimazu acquired Japan’s first daguerreotype equipment from Ueno Shunnojo, an official purveyor to the Shogunate, who had imported it from the Netherlands.

A keen innovator, Shimazu set about researching the photographic process, and 10 years later succeeded in creating a similar daguerreotype image on a plate of chemically treated metal. The first successful photo taken by a Japanese was a portrait of Shimazu, dated 1857. The picture, found in 1975 in an old Shimazu family storehouse, is now in a museum in Kagoshima.

Meanwhile, the wet-collodion process (which enabled multiple prints to be made) arrived in Japan in about 1860, and perhaps one of its most successful Japanese exponents was Ueno Hikoma, the son of Ueno Shunnojo. Hikoma went on to open Japan’s first photography studio, in Nagasaki in 1862.

A major contributor to the development of photography outside of Kyushu was Eliphalet Brown Jr., a photographer aboard Commodore Perry’s fleet when it came to Japan in 1854. A number of top Japanese photographers of the era in Tokyo, Yokohama and Hokkaido learned their trade from Brown.

The early 1900s saw the arrival of amateur photographers and various magazines and societies catering to them. As equipment was expensive, the vast majority of these enthusiasts were top executives and company presidents, according to Yokoe.

This was also the period when a number of optical makers set up in business. Nippon Kogaku K.K. (forerunner of Nikon) began in Tokyo in 1917 and Asahi Kogaku Goshi Kaisha (makers of Pentax) in 1919.

By the middle of the Taisho Era (1912-26), photography was spreading among the masses as film replaced glass plates and cameras became more compact. Huge shipments of Kodak’s reasonably priced Vest Pocket camera came in from the United States, bringing photography to the middle classes for the first time.

Japan’s first 35mm rangefinder camera was produced by Seiki Kogaku Kenkyusho (forerunner of Canon), in 1936, but soon after World War II single-lens reflex cameras began to take their place. The rest, as they say, is history.