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Get a Glimpse of Life in ‘Fair Japan’

The Asakusa Park Tokyo.

The Asakusa Park Tokyo (1922). Image source: Digital Public Library of America, public domain.

At the start of January, the New York Public Library (NYPL) released more than 180,000 digitized materials into the public domain. The images are for anyone to use, and include photos of just about any place on earth over the past century or so.

For Japanophiles, the NYPL's public domain collection is a treasure trove of thousands of images.

Sometimes the collection reproduces entire books. For example, the digital collection features the photobook “Sights and Scenes in Fair Japan”. Produced around 1910 for Japan's Imperial Government Railways, the book features hand-colored images taken by Japanese photography pioneer Ogawa Kazumasa.

The photobook was likely intended to introduce the then-relatively newly opened country to various travelers from other countries who were either passing through or working in Japan at the time.

General map of the Government Railways in Japan

General Map of the Government Railways in Japan. Image source: Digital Public Library of America, public domain.

Ogawa's photos can adopt the typically exotic tone that was used to capture life in Japan in the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Enjoying the Cool of a Summer Evening on the Kamogawa in Kyôto.

Enjoying the Cool of a Summer Evening on the Kamogawa in Kyôto. Image source: Digital Public Library of America, public domain.

However, many of the photographs published in “Sights and Scenes in Fair Japan” provide an objective and fascinating glimpse into life in Japan at the start of the 20th Century.

Interior of a Modern Departnent Store in Tokyo.

Interior of a Modern Departnent Store in Tokyo. Image source: Digital Public Library of America, public domain.

In some ways, the Japan of 1910 is still preserved more than one hundred years later. The beach resort area of Enoshima, for instance, which lies just to the south of Tokyo and Yokohama, is still recognizable in 2016.

Enoshima, a Popular Island Excursion Resort near Tokyo.

Enoshima, a Popular Island Excursion Resort near Tokyo. Image source: Digital Public Library of America, public domain.

Here's the same scene looking southwest toward Mount Fuji:

七里ガ浜から見た江ノ島と富士山

“七里ガ浜から見た江ノ島と富士山” (Mount Fuji and Enoshima view from Shirigahama). Image source: Flickr user Kazuhiro Tsugita, CC BY-SA 2.

The New York Public Library's public domain digital archives feature historical images of Japan from other sources as well — here is a colored postcard from an unknown photographer (at least thus far) of Tokyo's Nihonbashi area, taken around 1922.

Nihonbashi dori Tokyo. Image source: Digital Public Library of America, public domain.

Nihonbashi dori Tokyo. Image source: Digital Public Library of America, public domain.

A year later, this area and much of the rest of urban Tokyo and Yokohama would be leveled and burned to the ground by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

However, the stone bridge at the center of the colored postcard still remains in use, although mostly obscured by an overhead expressway.

Nihonbashi Bridge, with the Shuto Expressway pictured overhead, 2007. Image from Wikipedia, public domain.

Nihonbashi Bridge, with the Shuto Expressway pictured overhead, 2007. Image from Wikipedia, public domain.

Photographer Ogawa Kazumasa traveled the length and breadth of Japan for his series of photos for Japan's Imperial Government Railways — here is a panorama of the town of Onomichi, located on Japan's Inland Sea just outside of Hiroshima.

A Peep of the Inland Sea, near Onomichi.

A Peep of the Inland Sea, near Onomichi. Image source: Digital Public Library of America, public domain.

This is a similar view of the city as it appeared in 2015.

尾道 おのみち (Onomichi, Hiroshima). Image source: Flickr user Toomore Chiang.

尾道 おのみち (Onomichi, Hiroshima). Image source: Flickr user Toomore Chiang. Image used under CC BY 2.0.

Another photographer traveled to Nagasaki in Japan's far western reaches to take photographs of the heart of the Meiji Industrial Revolution.

This is an image of the Mitsubishi Shipyard in Nagasaki from early in the 20th century.

Mitsubishi shipyard, Nagasaki Harbor. Source: Digital Public Library of America, public domain.

Mitsubishi shipyard, Nagasaki Harbor. Source: Digital Public Library of America, public domain.

The iconic hammerhead crane still stands today, although it has been moved from its original location.

Mitsubishi Nagasaki Hammerhead Crane

Mitsubishi Nagasaki Hammerhead Crane. Image source: Wikipedia user Marine-Blue.

These images, as captivating as they are, only scratch the surface of the NYPL's digital image archive. If you make any discoveries, please leave a note in the comments!

Japan, population, showing the relative amount of population from light, lowest, to dark, highest.

Japan, population, showing the relative amount of population (circa 1880) from light, lowest, to dark, highest. Source: Digital Public Library of America, public domain.

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