Japan spent the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as the majority of the 19th, in a state of government-imposed isolation, separating it from the technological advancements of the rest of the world. Once the country was finally opened to the international community, it put great efforts into modernizing as quickly as possible, making photos of the traditional Japan that had existed for generations hard to come by.
Even rarer, though, is film that preserves the sights of old Japan. Brief clips do exist, though, such as this fascinating street scene filmed in Japan in 1897, year 30 of the Meiji era.
The rustic wooden architecture and dirt street may have you thinking this is a look back at one of Japan’s minor villages, but that’s not the case at all. The film, recorded by French filmmaker and visual travelogue pioneer Constant Girel, was filmed on January 9, 1897, in Tokyo, and not in the far-flung outskirts of the capital. The street where Girel set up his camera was in the Nihonbashi district, not far from the Imperial Palace, and to show just how much the neighborhood has changed in the 122 years since, here’s what it looks like today.
Nihonbashi isn’t far from present-day Tokyo Station, where over a dozen train and subway lines, including Shinkansen bullet trains, converge. Girel’s video, though, predates the station’s construction by almost 20 years, and instead shows people getting around by foot, horse-drawn carriage, or rickshaw.
With Girel’s film having been made just 30 years after the end of Japan’s feudal era, a movie camera, as well as a foreigner himself, were still unusual in Japan. Passersby, many of whom are old enough to remember first-hand a time when Japan was still ruled by a shogun, stop and stare at the unfamiliar sight.
At one point, though, a stately looking gentleman rolls up in a rickshaw. As he steps down into the street, we can see that he’s paired his traditional kimono with a Western-style top hat. It’s an early example of Japan’s enthusiasm for adopting eclectic cultural influences, and also a reminder that even the most ordinary snippets of daily life can one day become a fascinating preservation of a moment in history.
Source: YouTube/iconauta via Japaaan, Catalogue Lumiere
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