Book Review – Photography in Japan

Photography in Japan: 1853-1912

Terry Bennet


Although it was published in 2006, I first spotted this book randomly at Kinokuniya in Shinjuku last month and was drawn to the beautiful cover. I’m a sucker for so-called 古写真 koshashin old photos from the Bakumatsu and Meiji Period and I have quite a few coffee table books put out by Japanese publishers. Something about the layout of this book grabbed my attention and I knew I had to own it. It’s rich in color and pays attention to important design elements that photographers pay attention to. That is to say, each page is well composed. My Japanese books tend to be a single black and white photo laid out on a plain white page. This book on the other hand, was made to be a visual delight from start to finish. Even if you’re not interested in the text, it’s still a pleasure to browse.

Quick Review


What I expected

What I got

Overall Impression

A history of photography in Japan up to the Taishō Period with lots of pretty pictures.

A well-researched history of photography in Japan that focused a lot on the photographer’s themselves as well as the techniques and political climate of the time.

Type of Book

An accessible photo-historical account of Japan.

Totally accessible, but the photos definitely supersede the text – I’m sure this is by design. The research is really interesting too.


Easy to read, more pictures than text.

Careful attention is paid to the composition of each page. While the text is meaningful and relevant, the photos steal the show.


I have no idea what sort of bias could be in an art history book for casual readers. They tend to just be descriptive, so I don’t expect any bias.

As expected, there wasn’t any bias in the book that I noticed. It’s honest and objective.


Non-specialists, hobbyists, and fans of art history.

Art fans, Japanophiles, photo-historians, people who like seeing beautiful things and learning about them.



A Rock-Solid 4-Star Book

I wasn’t familiar with the author, but looking into his background a bit, I found that he is a pretty legit researcher of 19th century photography – especially that of Japan, Korea, and China. In fact, there is a companion version of this book specifically for research purposes calle Old Japanese Photographs: Collectors’ Data Guide[i] which serves as a comprehensive index of data related to photographs and photographers of 19th century Japan. However, for all you research and footnote junkies, the edition we’re looking at today does include an appendix of commercial and amateur photographers, extensive endnotes, a glossary of photography terminology[ii], a timeline of photography in Japan, and a few other appendices.


The progression of the narrative is essentially: the first photographic images of Japan, the early dominance of western photographers, the rise of the Japanese photographers, and the eventual incorporation of photography into Japanese culture in much the same way it had become incorporated into the western cultures. Superficially, this may seem like nothing. But keep in mind that Japan was more or less closed off to foreign technology until the 1853. The innovation of this newfangled photography thing coincided with the opening of Japan. It could be said that the history of photography and the history of Bakumatsu and Modern Japan go hand in hand.

As art history books go, this is a pretty fun one. Each page focuses on the art, but backs everything up with substantial history in the text. The book is beautifully laid out so there is a nice balance between text and art. To be honest, I’m more interested in drooling over the pretty pictures than the histories and biographies, but I’m so glad that they’re included. There will definitely be times when I’ll need to refer back to this book because of the text included at the expense of the pretty pictures[iii].

What I keep thinking is that this is actually 2 books in one – something I’ll talk about again later. On the one hand, it’s a picture book, a coffee table book. Anyone can just pick it up and look through it whimsically. On the other hand, there is substantial text that tells the stories of the artists and the photohistory. While the beautiful photos distract from the text, the text does not distract from the photos. That is my favorite thing about this book’s design; they found a sweet spot that balances visual beauty with good history and biography.

My Nitpicking

While I’m familiar with Bakumatsu photography, my knowledge is mainly related to the subject matter of the photos. In particular, I’m interested in the photos of places in Edo-Tōkyō. As for the history of photography in Japan, I can’t make any criticism and I won’t because I don’t know much about the history of photography in Japan. However, there were four things I noticed that rubbed me the wrong way. One is a factual error, the others are editorial decisions. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fantastic book and I love it. So the fact that there are only 4 things that bugged me, is pretty good! lol

The first complaint was the editorial decision to render the place name 出島 as Deshima, rather than Dejima. While Deshima is a possible reading of those kanji, the foreign settlement in Nagasaki is regularly rendered in Modern Japanese as でじま Dejima[vi]. Even in English, I usually see Dejima.

My second complaint is also editorial – and I’ve complained about this before with other writers. Bennet renders the Japanese word 酒 sake alcohol as saké. In English, the character é is generally used for words imported from French and it usually means “yo, put the stress accent here.” In this case, Bennett[vii] uses this diacritic mark to tell the readers that this e isn’t silent. However, instead it looks like a French word; rather than SAH-ke, it looks like sah-KEI[viii]. That weird French-looking spelling is misleading to non-Japanese readers and annoying to people who can actually read Japanese and understand the conventions for Romanization. I’ve complained about this in other books I’ve reviewed. Seems like a problem that could easily be remedied with italics and/or a footnote.

Which brings me to my last complaint: endnotes. I’m happy they’re there, don’t get me wrong. I want that sweet, sweet extra explanation, but I’m just a much bigger fan of footnotes. This is just my person preference, but I think it’s easier to glance down at the bottoms of the page to quickly get additional information – if I want it – than to slip in a bookmark and search around the back of the book for a single note among pages of unrelated notes.

Things the Book got Right

Well, pretty much everything. This book has a great balance of properly researched history and jaw dropping eye candy. Because the book is in color, it’s seems like colorized versions of the photos are given preference over black and white. This is what drew my attention to the book in the first place. The book is a large coffee table book with real emphasis on being visually appealing. There is a good balance between text and images. Most Japanese photography books are just black and white photos printed on a white background – maybe a small blurb and attribution. This book is laid out with loving detail and the pictures correspond with the biographies of the respective artists. The chronology is easy to follow, both visually and textually.

Earlier, I complained about some editorial decisions, but there’s one really important thing they got right – something every book, website, TV show, etc. must get right in my opinion: the order of Japanese names. This book does it correctly: family name first, given name[ix] second. It seems like a little thing, but it’s really, really important to use a person’s name correctly and I was happy there was no pandering to western convention on this matter.

The book does present some pretty legit history. There are a lot of details about things that were considered common knowledge for years, but have been overturned by recent discoveries and scholarship. For example, some photos from the Bakumatsu and early Meiji Period have been commonly attributed incorrectly because prior to the introduction of photographic copyright, photos from individuals were sold to studios that reprinted and sold them under their own names. Another interesting thing I learned was that author Jack London[x] went to Japan in 1904 as a war correspondent covering the Russo-Japanese War and was actually arrested for taking pix of sensitive military locations. I had no idea.

Fave Photos

In conclusion, I’d like to mention a few of my favorite photos in the book. The first is a shot of the shōgunate officials and translator taken after the signing of the first treaty with the Americans.  From a historical perspective, this is truly a priceless photograph. I’m pretty sure no one present at the signing of that first of the so-called “unequal treaties” had any idea of the insane Pandora’s Box they had just opened. Just looking at their faces begs so many questions. It was just a casual photo to mark a diplomatically momentous occasion, but the ramifications of that day sent shockwaves throughout the country and the culture.

There were about 3 photos of Zenpuku-ji, the home of the American Legation – essentially the first American Embassy in present day Tōkyō. One is a widely reprinted shot; the other 2 were first timers for me. Granted all three shots are of the 中門 nakamon middle gate which leads to the 本殿 honden main hall, but each give little unique details of the buildings that sat in front of the gate. I’ve spent a lot of time pouring over those pictures trying to pick out little differences. It’s a lot of fun for me cuz… that’s the kind of nerd I am.

Lastly, one photo that immediately grabbed my attention was a picture by an Austrian photographer casually labeled “Shiba.” Instantly, I recognized it as one of the destroyed Tokugawa mausolea at Zōjō-ji. The photo is taken from an odd angle, outside of the shrine and clearly shows the wall that marks the perimeter. I’d never seen the photo before so long time readers will know why I was so excited to see this particular pic[xi]. I will probably try to contact the author in the near future to get a little more info about the picture because I think there’s a good chance it may be Daitoku-in, the funerary temple of the 2nd shōgun, Hidetada.

My Closing Thoughts

In conclusion, this book is awesome because of its dual nature. On one level, you can just appreciate it as a beautifully designed picture book with stunning photographs of a Japan lost to time. On the other hand, the biographies of the photographers and all the research presented in each chapter are easy to read and filled with interesting anecdotes to keep the reader entertained. I want to emphasize that the book really does seem dual purposed and the design reflects that. You can peruse the beautiful photographs – and honestly, that’s probably what you’ll do first. But you’ll be glad all that non-distracting text is there when you get more and more curious about the provenance of the photographs, the stories behind them and the artists, and advances in technology that came along the way.

I came away from this book with a real sense of respect for the difficulties early photographers faced – especially in a place as remote as 19th century Japan. As an amateur photographer myself – emphasis on amateur – I’ve found myself inspired to take more photos. If any of these photographers could imagine the ease with which we can just point and click with our digital cameras today – hell, most of our phones take better throw away pix than they could – I think they’d be mind-blown and humbled. But it really should be the other way around. They were the pioneers lugging huge amounts of gear, portable darkroom tents, and glass plates for exposures. They didn’t really get any “do overs.” They had to get the shot right the first time. The notion of “editing a photo” didn’t even exist outside of the darkroom. They had to fix things in the chemical printing process or the hand colorization process. I got a sense of awe about the art of photography that I didn’t really have before. And any book that leaves me humbled, awestruck, and inspired is a good book in my mind. This book achieved all that for me.

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[i] I haven’t seen or read the book. I’m just going by the description in this edition. But apparently that data was going to be included in Photography in Japan, but increased in scope and warranted being a book of its own, rather than an expansive appendix at the end of this book.
[ii] In the age of point and click digital cameras with no chemical processes, this is really useful for anyone born after the death of pure analog photography.
[iii] And then I’ll probably get distracted for another 20-20 minutes by the pretty pictures. This always happens.
[vi] The Deshima rendering is probably result of dialects, non-locals, or non-native speakers who were only conversant in pidgin Japanese. Another possibility is that the local dialect did, in fact, call the area Deshima, but when Tōkyō became the capital of the Japanese Empire and Standard Japanese became the norm nationwide, that Dejima became the new standard reading. I don’t know. All I know is that current Japanese sources overwhelmingly use Dejima.
[vii] And I don’t know if this was Bennett’s decision or his editor’s decision…
[viii] I forwent all the IPA conventions because this is a book review.
[ix] Yes, yes, yes, I know. Japanese people changed their names all the time, so “given name” isn’t an accurate term. Sue me.
[x] Yes, the same Jack London who wrote The Call of the Wild.
[xi] As you should all know by now, I’m obsessed with the Tokugawa Funerary Temples.

5 thoughts on “Book Review – Photography in Japan

  1. Thanks for the review! I’ve had this book for a few years (though the dust cover is different, mine showing two sumo going at it, must be an earlier print run.) This is one of those books that you can keep discovering new little details every time you pick it up. The Author is pretty accessible as well, he sent me a signed copy of one of his earlier books ”Early Japanese Images, Bennett (1996)”, but I must say this later book is better in every way.

  2. Thanks for the kind words! Glad you liked the review.

    I hadn’t bought any art books in a long time, but recently I’ve been on a bender. Books like this are treasures you can hold on to for a lifetime.

  3. I have the first edition massive hard cover version of this book. It is fantastic and complements my other books on Bakumatsu/Meiji photography. A great source to have, regardless of a few editorial quibbles.

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