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For Fascinating Photos of 20th-Century Japan, Look to 21st-Century Twitter

Tokyo University Students in 1968

Female members of the Democratic Youth League of Japan carrying wooden staves. Image from Twitter user @oldpicture1900.

Twitter user @oldpicture1900 posts photos that offer a fascinating and often nostalgic glimpse of Japan in the early and mid-20 century.

The account describes itself as “retro photos of Japan, from before until after World War II” (戦前~戦後のレトロ写真). The photos do not appear in any particular chronological order, and are accompanied by a short description.

The Showa Period, a slice of Japanese history that lasted from 1926 until 1989, was a time that saw great turmoil and change in Japan, from participation in a disastrous war that led to utter ruin and defeat, and then on to a miraculous recovery that experienced its own social upheaval.

(1971) Shareholders protesting against Mitsubishi arms production. Members the Citizens League for Peach in Vietnam purchase shares and join the annual shareholders meeting. When it was learned that Sony would launch production in South Vietnam, there were also demonstrations organized with the rallying cry, “We will never allow Japan to become an aggressor ever again!”

Many of the wartime photos featured on the Twitter account show what life was like for soldiers in all kinds of situations.

(1941) During the war with China, among the sick and injured were those who suffered from psychological trauma. While these troops were treated in separated facilities than the regular wounded, they were still permitted to be visited by the army's female support workers (Kokuhofujin, members of an all-women professional organization devoted to providing emotional and practical support to troops, including returning their cremated remains to family members back in Japan). Here these troops and female support staff are enjoying a day out together in a park in Nara.

This period of Japanese history was not always dominated by war, and the photos feature a look back at celebrities who once dominated pop culture.

Yamaji Fumiko (1912-2004), the epitome of traditional Japanese beauty. After becoming a popular actress, she turned to a career in business. The Yamaji Fumiko Prize is named in her honor. Also appearing in this photo are the actress Katsura Tamako (standing on the right in the third image in this set) and the folk singer Shoji Taro (standing on the left in the third image).

Some of the photos go far back before the war, showing how Japanese children lived at the turn of the century.

Sometime in the Taisho Era (1912-1926). Children dressed in hand-made clothes play “Chinese jump rope.”

Japanese school life is also represented.

(1935) Probably students enrolled at a Normal School (high school). As you can see, there are a number of students sporting grown-out hair (rather than shaved heads or crew cuts), typical of Normal School students at this time.

Many of the photos are nostalgic.

(Around 1959) A traveling Kamishibai entertainer performs for children. The girl at left likely cannot afford to pay to watch and so sneaks a peek at the show.

While many photos curated by the account remind us of how turbulent Japan's postwar society could be.

(January 1969) Female members of the Democratic Youth League of Japan carrying wooden staves. It's likely they are at student protests at Tokyo University in 1969.

(1958) Children peer over a fence at teachers engaging in large-scale protests against changes to working conditions.

The Twitter account pays special attention to documenting the lives of women in Japan at mid-century.

(1943) A female youth organization meets in Tengachaya, Osaka. (Left) The young women are giving their condolences to the war dead. Taking advantage of the confusion of a wartime blackout, the leader of the group has allowed the young women to put on makeup and more attractive clothes [both forbidden under Japan's strict wartime rules for public morals] to pose for a photograph.

There are some truly amazing finds among the daily posts made on this Twitter account

(1929) Female athletes from Japan participate in Pan-Pacific Games in Hawaii. Second from left is Maehata Hideko, the first Japanese woman to earn a gold medal in the Olympics.

Twitter user @oldpicture1900 makes regular photos posts here.

  • ElectRadioactivEine

    I’m sorry to disturb, but didn’t Showa last until ’89? Or is there some special meaning to the Showa period mentioned in the article?

    • Nevin Thompson

      Thanks for mentioning that. I have updated the article.

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