Photobooks of Meiji Period Beauties


Book reviews of books showing vintage photos of Japanese women in the Meiji Period.

by Philbert Ono

Beach Beauties of the Meiji Period - 明治期の海水着美人

Reviewed on: Sept. 30, 1997 Last modified: 2005-04-03

Picture collection of over 100 vintage postcards showing Meiji-Period girls in swimsuits.

Published: April 1997 Publisher: Shinchosha ISBN: 410602425X Price in Japan: ¥2,300 Qualities: Soft cover, color photos Size: A5, 151 pp. Language: Japanese Author: ISHIGURO Keisho & TAKI Rentaro 石黒敬章・滝錬太郎

Attractive book showing just about all the Meiji-Period (1868-1904) postcards that were ever made showing swimsuit beauties. The book also includes a few swimsuit postcards/photos made in the Taisho Period (1912-1926) and early Showa Period (1926-1989). You can see how the swimsuit fashion changed over the years.

The author assembled a fine collection for this book. Most pictures are in color, showing the hand-tinted coloring of the cards. Most photos on the postcards were taken in the studio. Only a few were actually taken at the beach. Meiji-Period swimsuits were one-piece outfits with horizontal stripes. The top was a buttoned, collarless shirt and the bottom was a pair of shorts. It looked more like summer pajamas. Sometimes the swimsuit was loose-fitting, and sometimes it looked skin-tight.

The models are usually posed in front of a studio background depicting a beach or ocean. A few of the girls have their hair down, and you can see how long their hair had to be to maintain the traditional hairstyle. Common props include straw hats, a wooden board (used as a floater or surfboard), a paddle, and towel. Early Showa-Period swimsuits show more leg (miniskirt-type swimsuit) and a variety of fabric patterns instead of just stripes.

This is the most complete collection of Japanese swimsuit postcards you'll ever see in a book. It is an excellent guide to any Japanese swimsuit postcards you may have. Each postcard has a short caption in Japanese and the rear portion of the book has some Japanese text explaining the history of Japanese swimsuits, beaches, hairstyles, etc. See two swimsuit photos from my postcard collection (which are also in the book). (Reviewed by Philbert Ono)

Illustrated Book of Bakumatsu-Meiji Era Beauties 幕末・明治の美人図鑑

Reviewed on: 2002-05-20 Last modified: 2005-04-03

Comprehensive introduction to vintage photos of Japanese women.


Published: 2001-10-30 Publisher: Sekai Bunkasha ISBN: 4418012257 Price in Japan: ¥3,990 Qualities: Soft cover, color and sepia photos Size: A4, 231 pp. Language: Japanese Editor: OZAWA Takeshi 小沢健志

This is a marvelous compilation and introduction to 19th-century and early 20th-century photographs of Japanese women. Although nothing is in English, you can still enjoy the many old and precious photographs of women from various segments of society in those days.

First there is a nice pictorial of full-page, color photos of women from yesteryear. Then there are four chapters. Chapter 1 shows the earliest photos taken by foreign photographers (such as Felice Beato and Stillfried) who visited or settled in Japan and by the first crop of Japanese photographers (like UENO Hikoma and SHIMOOKA Renjo) who learned from the foreigners.

Chapter 2, whose title can be translated as "Illustrated Catalog of Meiji Era Beauties," is the bulk of the book. It starts with photos of women in Japan's highest social class (the Imperial family). Then it proceeds to women from former daimyo (feudal lord) families and prominent political and business circles. Toward the end of the chapter are photos of unknown women and geisha. There is also a short section of semi-nude photos. All the photos are captioned.

Chapter 3 shows the popular hairstyles and fashions of the day. And Chapter 4 is only several pages with mostly text explaining the historical background of the photographs.

It's obvious that a lot of time and effort was spent to put this book together. They had to secure the cooperation and permission of museums and collectors to reproduce the photographs. A number of prominent experts on Japanese vintage photography (such as Takio Saito of the Yokohama Archives of History and Keisho Ishiguro) also wrote the text.

Since this book was written for the layman, it is easy to read for most Japanese people. If you are a vintage photograph collector or dealer, it is likely that you will recognize some of the photos in this book. Although it will not help you appraise your vintage Japanese photos, this book will help you find out the background of the photographs you may have. (Reviewed by Philbert Ono)

Surprising Nudes and Funny Porno びっくりヌード・おもしろポルノ―日本裸体写真百年史

Japanese vintage nude photos from late 19th-century Japan up to the 1940s. The book's Japanese title is "Bikkuri Nude, Omoshiro Porno."


Reviewed on: 2002-05-21 Last modified: 2005-04-03 Published: 2002-02-06 Publisher: Heibonsha ISBN: 4582633935 Price in Japan: ¥1,890 Qualities: Soft cover, color, B/W, and sepia photos Size: B5, 142 pp. Language: Japanese Author: ISHIGURO Keisho 石黒敬章

The author of the book is a serious collector of Japanese vintage photographs. Vintage nudes have been one of his major collecting interests since 1991. He has published quite a few books on vintage Japanese photography. His first book devoted to vintage nudes (Pornography in the Meiji Era) was published six years ago in 1996 (see review below).

That's a respectable interval before publishing another similar book of vintage nudes. This new book's title can be roughly translated as "Surprising Nudes and Funny Porno." However, much of this new book is a rehash of his previous book. It includes many of same nudes. But since the previous book is out of print and the new book does have some photos not in the previous book, this new book is still worth getting.

The book divides the nudes into three chapters. Chapter 1 features nude photos produced as travel souvenirs for foreign tourists visiting Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chapter 2 is called "Porno Nudes" showing a lot of pubic hair and split legs. Maybe only two or three photos show lovemaking. It is the longest chapter. And Chapter 3 shows a small collection of artistic nudes produced as recently as the late 1940s.

The book also gives a good historical background of nude photography in Japan. It even tries to answer the question of who was the first to photograph a nude in Japan. Early Japanese photographers often imitated the subjects and compositions used by ukiyoe woodblock print artists (like Hokusai). A classic example is of a woman in kimono holding up an umbrella amid a rainstorm. It was inevitable that photographers would imitate the woodblock prints of nude or pornographic themes. (The only difference was that the woodblock artists could greatly exaggerate the male organ, while the photographers had to make do with the real thing (or size).

Ishiguro surmises that Felice Beato or UENO Hikoma could have been the first to photograph a nude in Japan (Hikoma, of his favorite geisha). However, there is no known physical evidence. The earliest known Japanese nude photographs were apparently taken by SHIMOOKA Renjo around 1867-69. The two nude photos were discovered in 1998 by Maruzen (bookstore in Nihonbashi, Tokyo) from among a collection of 148 business card-size photographs found in the UK and Holland. At any rate, no one knows for sure who was Japan's first nude photographer.

The moral of the story: Always write the date on the back of your photographs. One-hundred years from now, your great-great grandchildren and other people will really appreciate it. (Reviewed by Philbert Ono)

Pornography in the Meiji Era - 明治期のポルノグラフィ

Female nude photos from late 19th-century Japan.

Reviewed on: Sept. 17, 1997 Last modified: 2002-05-21 Published: 1996-02-25 Publisher: Shinchosha ISBN: 4106024195 Price in Japan: ¥2,400 Qualities: Soft cover, color, B/W, sepia photos Size: A5, 117 pp. Language: Japanese

The title of this book is somewhat misleading. The book has no real porno pictures. Just nudes of women standing, lying down, taking a bath, or sitting. There are no lovemaking scenes or coitus.

This book is another one made possible only after the lifting of the pubic hair ban in Japan. There is a lot of pubic hair photos. In the preface of the book, the author says that books on the history of Japanese nude photography have always started with the Taisho Period (1912-1926) and the Meiji Period was largely ignored.

He gives two reasons for this: There were very few surviving Meiji-Period nude photos and they were not really artistic. However, he claims that there are in fact artistic nude photos from the Meiji Period and he compiled this book to prove it. He also points out that Meiji-Period nude photos published in magazines always had the pubic hair brushed out, decreasing the aesthetic value of the pictures. So now he presents a non-censored version and perhaps the most complete collection ever of nude photos from late 19th-century and early 20th-century Japan.

Most of the photos are in color. You can see the characteristic sepia tone and the hand-coloring. The photos are captioned in Japanese. Almost all the photos were taken in the privacy of a studio. You cannot help but notice the short, stubby legs of the full-length, frontal nude women standing. It is a stark contrast with the slender, long-legged women shown in Akira Gomi's Yellows 2.0. The book is a fine introduction Meiji-Period nude photography. Too bad there's no English. (Reviewed by Philbert Ono)