LONDON – Historians have expressed their delight at the discovery in London of one of the earliest photographs of a Japanese.
The photograph, taken either in 1851 or 1852 in San Francisco, is a portrait of Sentaro — a Japanese sailor who was shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean in 1850 and taken to the United States.
It is one of only a small number of existing daguerreotype portraits of Japanese taken in America at that time.
The photograph will be auctioned at Christie’s in London on May 11 and is expected to fetch up to 25,000 pounds (about 4.4 million yen).
Much of the photo’s history is outlined in an article in PhotoHistorian by Terry Bennett and Sebastian Dobson titled, “The Sentaro Daguerreotype — A New Episode in Japanese Photo-History Discovered.”
The photograph is thought to have been bought by its current owner in New York in April 1996. At that time, however, the portrait was described as being of a member of a Japanese diplomatic mission sent to America in 1860.
A daguerreotype is a photograph taken by an early process devised by the French inventor Louis Daguerre. Subjects had to sit still for several minutes for the photograph to be taken.
Sentaro was one of 17 crew members on the Japanese vessel Eiriki Maru, which was shipwrecked in the Pacific in October 1850. They were rescued by an American ship two months later and sent to San Francisco, where they stayed for almost a year.
The photograph is believed to be one of a number taken of the crew by the Baltimore photographer Harvey Marks.
Four other portraits of the crew, including another daguerreotype of Sentaro, have found their way to Japan. Two are owned by the Yokohama Museum of Art while the others are in the hands of the Kawasaki City Museum.
From 1639 until the conclusion of the first treaty with the U.S. in 1854, contact between Japan and the rest of the world was forbidden under the Tokugawa shogunate’s policy of national seclusion.
The photo discovery came in June 1996 when a Japanese photo dealer purchased a rare copy of the New York periodical Illustrated News.
The January 1853 issue carried an article on the first daguerreotypes of Japanese ever taken. It was accompanied by woodblock reproductions of 18 portraits of the captain and crew of the Eiriki Maru.
Using the article, the dealer was able to put names to the people appearing in the four photographs in Japan. One of them was Sentaro, the Eiriki Maru’s cook, whom the dealer later concluded was the subject of the London photograph after comparisons with the Kawasaki photo and the woodblock print.
Hanako Hayashi, a photographic specialist at the Kawasaki museum, told Kyodo News the finding marks an important discovery for Japanese photographic history.
Based on copies of the London daguerreotype, Hayashi said she believes it was taken in a different place and time from the four currently in Japan.
The London photo is also smaller than the Kawasaki one, measuring 8 x 10 cm vs. 12.6 x 15.1 cm, and they have different mounts and cases.
Sentaro returned to Japan in 1853 as a crew member of the Susquehana in the expedition led by Commodore Matthew Perry to open ties between the U.S. and Japan.
Sentaro’s nickname was Sam Patch and, having a reasonable grasp of English, he acted as interpreter in the negotiations.
Despite assurances, Sentaro never ventured ashore during the mission out of fear he would be caught by Japanese authorities and killed for breaking a ban on foreign travel.
In 1860, Sentaro finally resettled to Japan, where he worked as a cook and servant for several American missionaries. He died from beriberi in 1874.
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