signature seal (hanko) impression for KURI-SU CHRIS'S JAPAN PAGE title bar amulet for one born in a Monkey year, from Tadou Taisha shrine, Mie Prefecture

Early 20th-Century Views of Japan

Introduction | Postcards || ALBUMS |

This page presents a first selection from a small collection of views of Japan, circa 1905-1920. Most of the pictures are taken from postcards, but one is a Christmas greeting card. It probably was made with a photo pulled from a kameraya shop's stock of negatives used for postcards. In size, format, and paper stock, it does not meet postcard criteria.
This page displays various cards that fall within the period 1905--1933. All are reproductions of photographs (not of paintings or drawings) and are horizontal in format. As time as server space allow, the arrangement can become more formal, with organization by theme--for example, bijinga ("pictures of ladies") and temples or shrines.
select for: Address side page The picture is the main thing, but some context seems desirable as an aid to dating the card. So a description of the address side of the postcards (technically the obverse side) is included. For an explanation of the terms used in the card description, select the button on the left.
I am especially grateful to the websites given below (See: References) for the valuable chronological details.


By the turn of the 20th century, the pastime and business of photography was as well established in Japan as in the West. If anything was different in Japan, it was the orientation toward export and marketing of photos to visiting foreigners. Hence the "Japanese vision of photography" (of which Clark Worswick writes) could be shaped both by an appreciation of traditional aesthetics, as seen, e.g., in ukiyo-e prints and kabuki theater, and by a practical awareness of European tastes and expectations.
During the 1890s the business of photography found a promising new outlet. Great Britain (in 1894) and then the United States (in 1898) fell into line with the continent and responded to the growing enthusiasm for picture postcards. They authorized private firms to print cards which would qualify for the same postcard rate and regulations as cards printed by the postal service. In 1900 Japan joined the consensus of the member-nations of the Universal Postal Union. (It would be quicker than the United States to take the next step, to allow a message on the address side of the card.) Japan now was ready to participate in the "golden age" of postcard production of use that faded with the coming of World War I.
For this period of late Meiji and early Taisho, the printing of the address side of picture cards of Japan shows much consistency, in spite of stylistic differences. Most cards probably were "Made in Japan": Some are so marked explictly; others include a publisher's name (for example, cards printed by or for the Kyoto retail store Asahidou ( kanji WA here means: Japanese language ) and a "Kawase Book Store" in Kobe). But, since postcards had become a collectible worldwide, series of Japan scenes also were printed abroad. Since these cards lack the term hakaki, they must have been intended for collecting and use outside Japan. I have one from Hong Kong and some issued by the major American publisher and marketer of series, The Rotograph Company. (Rotograph like many other U.S. companies, used printing firms in Germany.) The government of Japan itself encouraged collecting, since it marketed some series of its own (see Naomy Suzuki's site).


The following key dates in the history of Japanese postcards are presented in the pages of Philbert Ono (PhotoGuide Japan) and of Naomy Suzuki.
  • September 17, 1900 - Privately printed postcards were authorized. As in the United States, the postal service had been issuing postcards since 1873. Also as in the United States, no message wrting was allowed on the address side of the card.
  • December 17, 1903 - The first official rules regulating privately printed postcards were issued. The specifics are unknown; perhaps there was a clarification of required wording, size, etc.?
  • July 22, 1905 - Private postcards were allowed to carry a foreign-language term on the address side in addition to the Japanese term yuubin hakaki. See the page Address Side (select it above)for discussion of the formats used.
  • March 28, 1907 - The sender now was permitted to write a message on the address side. Therefore a vertical dividing line was printed to define the left-hand one-third of the card as a message area.
  • 1911 - Machine cancelation replaced hand cancels.
  • March 1, 1918 - The vertical dividing line on the address side was relocated to the center of the card.
  • February 15, 1933 - The term hakaki was modified to hagaki. Private publishers sometimes had used hagaki before this; e.g., I have one such card with a postmark of November 19, 1920.


  • PhotoGuide Japan - Philbert Ono provides a chronology of the history of photography in Japan, as well as one of postcards, as well as a picture gallery.
  • Naomy Suzuki's site - ( kanji WA here means: Japanese language ). See her interesting postcards and also travel photos.
  • The Internet Go Server - If we try to categorize the subjects illustrated by the postcards, one catalog entry certainly will be: "PASTIMES: go." This site arranges a nice collection of Meiji-period photographs which depict people playing go. They illustrate various possibilities for the presentation of this one particular theme.
  • Clark Worswick, ed., Japan. Photographs 1854-1905. New York: Pennwick/Alfred A. Knopf, 1979. A mine of information and illustration of early photography in Japan.
  • Rainer Fabian, Hans-Christian Adam, Masters of Early Travel Photography. New York/Paris: The Vendome Press, 1981. Some large reproductions of important photos by several key figures--Beato, von Stillfried, and Kimbei.
  • Thomas E. Range, The Book of Postcard Collecting. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1980. A useful reference, especially for collectors of U.S. postcards.
  • William Crawford, The keepers of light: a history and working guide to early photographic processes. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Morgan & Morgan, ca. 1979. Includes an explanation of the technical and chemical details of collotype printing, which was the technology used to produce the early picture postcards.

Copyright © 2003 C.J. Brunner TOP: Moonlight ride: detail, sketch by Hiroshige (1797-1858) BACK: Sumida River ferry: detail, sketch by Hiroshige (1797-1858) HOME: on a lake in springtime: detail, sketch by Hiroshige (1797-1858) Comments or questions? Contact: