‘Japan: Described and Illustrated by the Japanese’ is an ambitious Japanese encyclopaedia published between 1897 and 1898.
These books (available to read and browse for free here) are mostly praised for the magnitude of their photographic ambition: more than one million hand-colored albumen prints were produced in order to illustrate the volumes.
[Find more books about the “land of the setting sun” with Wayfarer Books’ reading itinerary about Japan or read on about the ‘School of Yokohama’ photography in ‘Yama no Shashin: Pictures of the Mountain’]
‘Japan: Described and Illustrated by the Japanese’ is more a work of art than a series of books.
For instance, the covers for the 10 volumes were decorated with colored brocade cloth and the inside pages were made of “Imperial Japanese paper… from Tokyo”.
The texts in ‘Japan: Described and Illustrated by the Japanese’ discuss religion, literature, commerce, crime and marital relations in Japan, among other themes.
These volumes acted as an encyclopaedia about Japan at a time when European and American buyers and collectors were madly in love with the island.
And the romanticized Japan presented on the text did not disappoint them.
“[Japan’s islands] rise out of the sea with so many graces of form, and lie bathed in an atmosphere of such sparkling softness, that is is easy to sympathize with the legend adscribing their origin to crystals dropped from the point of the creator’s spear.
That they fell from some heaven of generous gods is a theory more consonant with their aspect than the sober fact that they form part of a great ring welded by volcanic energy in the Pacific Ocean”
The photographs in ‘Japan: Described and Illustrated by the Japanese”
The book notes that the pictures inside “… are made and colored by hand in Japan, over three hundred and fifty native artists having been specially engaged for this purpose.”
Tamamura Kozaburo and his assistants were the ones in charge of this monumental production.
These photographs followed the School of Yokohama style, that emerged when Japan opened its borders and allowed the new invention of photography in.
The photographs depicted city views, historic sites, landscapes and portraits of Japanese people, and were the first images many people from the Western world received from Japan.
Thus, the photographs served to create an image of Japan, where geishas, Shinto temples and Mount Fuji populated an imagery that has lasted until today.
The photographs of geishas in particular served to provide a new fantasy to the Western male gaze.
After Japan opened its borders to foreign trade in the 19th century, Japanese women were often included as part of the “trade deals” between native and foreign men.
The importance of the geisha photographs is analysed by Eleanor M. Hight in her brilliant essay ‘The many lives of Beato’s beauties’ (included in ‘Colonialist Photography: Imag(in)ing Race and Place’)
“Males were often depicted in the noble professions of Buddhist monk, scholar, samurai warrior or the art of the theater.
On the other hand, women were portrayed as servants, entertainers and providers of sex and were thus subjugated to male (both Japanese and Euro/American) sexual fantasies and behaviour.” – Eleanor M. Hight in ‘The many lives of Beato’s beauties’
In sum, according to Hight, “the primary aim of the prints and the photographs was to present sexually available women in an aesthetically pleasing manner.”