Samurai were fascinated by the chemistry of photography, which was seen as a symbol of Western progress.
When photography was first brought to Japan by Dutch traders in 1843, few envisioned that the medium would be used to spread exoticised images of the country to a foreign audience.
Back then, Japan was still locked into a self-imposed isolationist period (1641-1853) where it had barred contact with all nations except the Dutch. At the time, Japanese fascination with photography centered first and foremost on its role as a technology and symbol of Western progress. And then the tourists arrived.
"When photography was first introduced to Japan, it was perceived as a technology and a science. The samurai (warrior class) who studied it in Nagasaki were interested in its chemistry and mechanisms," David Odo, an expert on early Japanese photography and research curator at Harvard Art Museums, told me. Odo explained how the samurai would get hold of Dutch manuals, meticulously translating them into Japanese to grasp how exactly photography worked.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, as Japan's isolationist period ended, Japanese society underwent large-scale change. Headed up by Emperor Mutsuhito (Meiji), the government pushed to modernize the country and emulate European values, and intellectuals such as the Meiji Six Society promoted "civilization and enlightenment."
The government abolished the feudal system of the Edo period (1603-1868), and Western inventions such as gas lights, the steam engine, and photography were lauded as symbols of progress and technological advancement.
In the 1860s and 1870s, Western photographers like Felice Beato and Adolfo Farsai, interested in capturing exotic images of a newly opened country, flocked to Japan. They set up studios, hiring Japanese apprentices, and selling their prints to tourists who visited the country.
Currently on show at the Museum for Photography in Berlin are 200 largely unpublished images, taken from several German collections, from some of the most prominent commercial-photography centers based out in Japan in the nineteenth century. They provide a portal onto landscapes, architectures, and people of this era. But there's a hitch. As all of these were taken in commercial photographic studios, they provide a portal into a country captured for a predominantly foreign audience, who came as tourists to Japan.
Take, for example, the stereotypical view of a cherry blossom-filled cityscape, an anonymous courtesan decked out in traditional Japanese garb, or a landscape dotted with old-school temple architecture. Oddly, though the Meiji government pushed to innovate the country and make up for centuries of non-contact with the rest of the world, there are few images of steam engines or Western-style buildings and paraphernalia in the commercial shots from this period.
"Most of the photographs coming out of Japan in the 1850s and the 60s were souvenir photographs," Christine Kuhn, the curator of the exhibition at Berlin's Museum of Photography, told me. "They show stereotypical images that were common about Japan in Western countries. You see geisha, samurai, kendo fighters of the Edo period, and not the real Japan of railroads and industrialization of the Meiji era."
Eager tourists, explained Kuhn, often stopped over at photo studios near their hotels before they had seen anything to make sure they had their customized bundle of made-for-tourist photographs ready before they headed back home.
According to Odo, there was a correlation between the increasing number of Westerners visiting Japan's port cities, and the demand for photography.
"A dual market developed as the Japanese elite wanted their own photography connected to ideas of modernization, and the tourist production geared their imagery towards foreigners," said Odo.
While commercial photography in Japan was dominated by Europeans at the beginning, local photographers started taking over towards the turn of the century.
"Japanese photographers started to open their own studios by the end of the nineteenth century, and soon there were no successful Western photographers left," explained Odo. "The market completely changed as processes became less expensive. The domestic market became broader as Japanese citizens began buying photographs."
Photography in Japan eventually changed to encapsulate more Japanese ways of taking images. For instance, images made for the domestic market were characterized by personalized portraits of individuals and families, and not devoid of signs of modernization. Odo said, however, that despite the strong interest from certain factions of the elite and commercial photographers, the tech was mistrusted by others during its inception in the country.
"In an interesting way, people were right to be suspicious because a lot of photography that we have in Western museums are very stereotypical. They conform to Western desires," said Odo. "The Japanese had no control over the way the image would look, and what meaning viewers would take away from them."
Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.