Japan in Transition

I have always been intrigued by situations where an artist is working to portray one image or idea, but also captures another. The classic example is Cennini’s description of 14th Century housekeeping when he thought he was talking about painting.

Less than three generations after Commodore Perry, at the end of the Meiji Era, Japan was undergoing rapid industrialization and modernization.  In 1908, three years after the Russo-Japanese War, and two years after his famous photos of earthquake-destroyed San Francisco, Arnold Genthe visited Japan and caught some images of this transition to modern life.

These photos are from the Vintage Everyday website (you should really go there, the clickable pictures are much better), and there are more available at the Library of Congress Genthe Collection (the reproductions are not as good).

Most of Genthe’s photos were of people in traditional, everyday garb carrying out their activities on typical streets with typical traditional architecture. But if you look over their shoulders, or at the edges of the photos, you can see the modern creeping in.

Here’s an everyday street scene of a market stall, with what looks like a family collected around it. The man is wearing a yukata (I think, I’m not good on various forms of dress) and wearing geta footwear. Over his shoulder is a sign  [氷] the kanji symbol for ice. This traditional scene has some form of refrigeration.

Ice for sale (also brooms)

Ice for sale
(also brooms)

And of course, they have the refrigeration because they have electricity. You can see the power lines and the pole transformers here.

Power Pole

Power Pole

As long as you are putting up poles, you might as well run telephone lines. Note the possibly military men (judging from their caps). One is in traditional garb, another in full Western dress.

Telephone pole (and Western umbrellas)

Telephone pole
(and Western umbrellas)

And maybe, just maybe, here’s an early version of today’s covered shopping street.

Is this how Hondori got its start?

Is this how Hondori got its start?

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