In focus: 150 years of Japanese photography

by Alice Gordenker

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the oldest-known photograph taken by a Japanese person. Yet it is only in recent years that Japanese have started to take a serious interest in the history of early photography in this country, according to Terry Bennett, a London-based photo-historian.

Just like ukiyo-e woodblock prints were a generation or two ago, old Japanese photographs are more highly valued overseas than in Japan. And just as the best examples of woodblock prints were once outside of Japan, much of the surviving stock of early Japanese photographs is still in Europe and the United States. This is because a large proportion of the earliest photographs of Japan were intended for export, while many of those that remained in Japan were lost to natural disasters, fire and war.

“Japanese are taking a fresh look at the early history of photography in their country,” Bennett said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “Until Japanese museums and collectors started buying back photographs during the economic boom years in the 1980s, few Japanese researchers had the opportunity to study them. And, at the same time, the photograph has only recently become an accepted tool for historians, to be used hand-in-hand with text sources.”

Japan had been closed to the world for nearly 200 years when, in 1839, Frenchman Louis Daguerre announced his invention of the daguerreotype, and practical photography was born. Information on the new technology seeped through Japan’s self-imposed isolation, via the Dutch trading post of Dejima, near Nagasaski. Serious experimentation began in 1849, when at least one set of daguerreotype equipment was imported, but it apparently took the Japanese several years to master what was then a difficult and technically demanding art.

The oldest known photograph made by a Japanese is an 1857 daguerreotype portrait of Nariakira Shimazu, the daimyo of Satsuma, taken by his retainers. It is now designated as a national treasure.

Castaway sailors

In the meantime, some of the few Japanese to leave the country — shipwrecked sailors picked up by foreign vessels — were photographed outside of Japan. The oldest surviving photogra- phic images of Japanese people are from a group of daguerreotypes taken in San Francisco in 1851 (two years before Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan, and eight years before Japan was opened to the West) of castaway sailors from a ship called the Eiriki Maru. In the following decades, in the late Edo and early Meiji periods, foreign photogra- phers, both amateur and professional, came to Japan; many taught photography to interested Japanese, and some passed on equipment to local photographers. Much of the output from both foreign and Japanese photographers was intended for souvenir photograph albums sold to foreigners.

“The typical souvenir album contains a lot of ‘kitsch’ images, such as portraits of geisha and pretty girls in rickshaws that simply aren’t very interesting to Japanese people,” Bennett explained. “This is one reason that Japanese scholars have tended to dismiss the albums as unimportant. But souvenir albums also often contain landscape photographs, and now that we know more about who took the photographs, and when, Japanese scholars have come to realize that these photographs record important information about village life and architecture, for example.”

Recognizing research

At the time of his interview with The Japan Times, Bennett was in Tokyo to receive an award from the Photographic Society of Japan in recognition of his contributions to the field of Japanese photo-history, including two recently published books: “Photography in Japan 1853-1912,” released by Tuttle Publishing and reviewed in this paper late last year (The Asian Bookshelf, Donald Richie, Dec. 17, 2006), and “Old Japanese Photographs: Collectors’ Data Guide” (London, Quaritch 2006).

“The truth is that foreign researchers can contribute a great deal, because so much of the primary source material related to the early history of photography is located outside of Japan and in languages other than Japanese,” Bennett said of the award.

In a speech at the PSJ award ceremony, held June 1 in Tokyo, Bennett described how just months earlier he had used an old German newspaper (itself recently discovered by another English researcher) to identify a series of images as the work of John Wilson, an American who was in Japan from 1859 to 1861. Although Wilson was known from written records to have taken photographs in Edo (present-day Tokyo), none of his work was thought to have survived. Bennett discovered that anonymous photographs in his collection were, in fact, perfect matches with engravings in the newspaper stated as based on photographs taken by Wilson. Shortly thereafter, Bennett learned that a larger group of photographs by Wilson has been discovered in Berlin.

Bennett also announced new findings that may help establish who was the first Japanese commercial photographer. Although most scholars currently believe that title belongs to Gyokusen Ukai, who opened a portrait studio in Edo in 1860 or 1861, Bennett has found new information indicating that an already famous castaway named Manjiro Nakahama may have been the first Japanese to take photographs as a business.

Manjiro, as he was usually known, was shipwrecked on an island off the coast of Japan in 1841 and picked up by an American whaler that took him to the United States. He returned to Japan in 1851 and was immediately imprisoned for having left the country, but he was rehabilitated for his knowledge of English and foreign customs and accompanied the 1860 Japanese Embassy to America. It was previously known that he brought back daguerreotype equipment with him and took portraits in Edo before losing interest and passing the apparatus to someone else. But Bennett recently uncovered two books, published in the U.S. in 1956, that suggest that Manjiro may have opened a commercial photographic studio before Ukai.

“My hope, in presenting these findings in Japan, is that Japanese researchers will look more deeply at Japanese-language sources, such as Manjiro’s diaries, and hopefully find corroborating evidence,” Bennett said.

“Fortunately, interest in Japanese photography has increased tremendously in recent years, particularly within Japan,” Bennett stated. “There have been some very exciting discoveries in Japan, especially in the last few years. We’re now at a ‘tipping point’ and more of the dots are being joined. And as China and Korea follow suit, we’ll eventually have a far more complete picture of early photography in East Asia.”