A collector of old photos in Tokyo has discovered among his collections 29 pictures that experts say provide “extremely important” information about life in Okinawa during the late 1800s when the Meiji government abolished the Ryukyu Kingdom and seized control of its territory as a new prefecture.
With one of the photos showing armed Japanese soldiers standing at the front gate of Shuri Castle, the kingdom’s palace, the pictures are believed to have been taken between 1879, when the Meiji government sent troops to expel the Ryukyu king, and 1896, when it withdrew them from the castle.
Keisho Ishiguro, 72, who purchased the photos from the owner of a secondhand bookstore, quoted him as saying that they originally belonged to Teiun Yamanouchi, the governor of Kagoshima from 1890 to 1892.
The 29 pictures include 16 showing Ryukyu people, including women with a hairstyle unique to the region.
This is significant because the relatively few photos taken in Okinawa during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) that have been kept by institutions such as the Imperial Household Agency and the Tokyo National Museum are mostly scenic views.
Daisaku Kina, a former attendant at the Naha City Museum of History in the Okinawa capital, was particularly pleased with the discovery.
“I hardly remember seeing photos of people in Okinawa in the Meiji Era” because most pictures taken in that period as well as the Taisho Era (1912-1926) and early Showa Era (1926-1989) were destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II.
The Ryukyu Kingdom had tributary relations with both Japan and China. But the Japanese government reorganized the kingdom as “Ryukyu han” in 1872 and annexed it in 1879 as Okinawa Prefecture. During the events known as “Ryukyu shobun,” the kingdom resisted Japan’s attempts, prompting the Meiji government to send in troops and police officers, eventually expelling King Sho Tai.
The 29 photos were “undoubtedly” taken between 1879 and 1896, a period during which Shuri Castle was used as a base for an army division sent from Kumamoto Prefecture, according to Masayuki Dana, a professor at Okinawa International University.
The 16 photos showing people are probably the oldest portraits of Okinawa residents, Dana said.
Commodore Matthew Perry, who played a leading role in the opening of Japan to the world in 1854, also visited Ryukyu that year and signed a treaty of friendship with the kingdom on behalf of the U.S. government.
As Perry was accompanied by a photographer, “there should be photos taken in Ryukyu then,” said Hiroshi Yano, an executive at the Camera Museum in Tokyo.
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