Early photos of northern Japan capture a time of change

by Alice Gordenker

Special To The Japan Times

Although photography entered Japan in the mid-19th century, it took time to spread beyond the few port cities permitted to engage in trade with the West at that time. As a result, it was several decades before this imported Western technology reached outlying districts, and by then the Japanese concept of photography had broadened considerably. This shift can be seen in an important exhibition, “Dawn of Japanese Photography: Hokkaido and Tohoku,” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

“When Japanese first encountered photography, they mainly saw it as a quick means of creating portraits,” according to curator Keishi Mitsui. “This is why nearly all of the very earliest photographic images made in Japan were portraits. But by the time photographers set up for business in Hokkaido and Tohoku, Japanese were coming to understand the wider potential of photography, using it to create records and convey information about places and events.”

The current exhibition is the fourth in a series on early photography around Japan, part of an ambitious project to survey the photographic holdings of regional museums, libraries and other institutions throughout the country. For the current exhibition, questionnaires were sent to 2,384 institutions in Hokkaido and Tohoku, in northwest Japan, and curators inspected 51 collections on-site. They selected more than 500 photographs from nearly 40 institutions to exhibit together, creating an unprecedented overview of early photography in Tohoku and Hokkaido. This is a rare chance to learn about lesser known but nevertheless important early Japanese photographers such as Kenzo Tamoto, Shingaku Kikuchi and Matsuzaburo Yokoyama, as well as an opportunity to see seldom exhibited examples of early Japanese photography.

Highlights include an unusual scroll with photographs of Sapporo in 1872 and the same scene 40 years later; a group portrait with Jules Brunet, the Frenchman whose tenure as military adviser to the shogun was the basis for the movie, “The Last Samurai,” and a puzzling series of photographs of thoroughbred horses that may have been used in buying and selling. The handsome young man who graces the exhibition poster is Toshizo Hijikata (1835-1869), a gifted leader in the resistance against the Meiji Restoration.

The final room of the exhibit comes with a sign warning of the graphic nature of the images inside, photographs of natural disasters that struck northern Japan in the 19th century — the eruption of Mount Bandai (1888), the Shonai earthquake (1894), and the Sanriku tsunami (1896). “Many of these images may be disturbing to modern viewers because they include direct views of victims’ corpses,” Mitsui explained. “But two years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, it seemed very important to consider that Japan has always been subject to natural disasters, and that then as now, photographs of loss and damage can remind future generations that we must be prepared at all times.”

“Yoakemae: Dawn of Japanese Photography” runs at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography till May 6.; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thu. and Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥500. Closed Mon. www.syabi.com The exhibition will then travel to Hakodate (May 18-July 14), Tsuruoka (July 20-Aug. 25), and Koriyama (Nov. 2-Dec 15).