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the first Japanese photograph

and the myth of origin


Coimbra University, Portugal

As we focus on the decisive inscriptions that builds the history of Japan, from the 19th to 20th century, we quickly notice the way in which the opening to the West — or, otherwise, the surrendering to the dictates of a radical modernity — is, to a large extent, the product of an ambiguous, paradoxical relationship, riddled with a tearing and creative dialectical disposition, with an overly present, intrusive, dangerous, fascinating, astonishing alterity. We would certainly have to reverse the mirror of disturbed imaginations and celebrations of otherness and difference in order to access the way Japan responded to the inescapable confrontation with the West. My horizon of visibility is, at this point, hampered by a lack of access to sources that clarify this aspect, but we can, eventually, resort to the work of a few researchers who dedicated themselves to the history of modern Japan in order to understand what is at stake.

We might say, with some confidence, that the structure of feeling that presided over Japanese reactions to the intrusion of the West, from that inaugural moment in July 1853 when Commodore Matthew C. Perry was seen in Edo Bay, was translated into a state of astonishment or amazement which is, as anthropologist Alfred Gell taught us, the result of the "enchantment of technology." [1] In his seminal contribution to an anthropology of art, Gell explains the meaning of this enchantment through the example of the Trobriandian prow, writing:

The intention behind the placing of these prow-boards on Kula canoes is to cause the overseas Kula partners of the Trobianders, watching the arrival of the Kula flotilla from the shore, to take leave of their senses and offer more valuable shells or necklaces to the members of the expedition than they would otherwise be inclined to do. The boards are supposed to dazzle the beholder and weaken his grip on himself. [2]

Significantly, in my opinion, we can assume that a similar reaction has taken by assault large sectors of Japanese society against Commodore Perry's armada. In a classical reference of modern Japan’s historiography, it is written that Perry's armada defiantly entered Edo Bay, visible from the city's suburbs, also adding that:

The “Black Ships”, as they were known, created a tremendous sensation on shore. There were, on this first visit in July 1853, four of them – two driven by steam. Most of the Japanese had never seen or imagined such ships. [3]

Although not invited, and albeit expected by the authorities of Edo, it could be said that the Japanese population who witnessed the approach of Perry's armada and its display of strength (with guns aimed at the city of Uraga and shots randomly fired), was a victim of the sortilege of American technology, slackening by the enchantment represented by the ominous «Black Ships».

As argued by Richard Storry, the Japanese had never seen nor imagined such vessels. This moment is decisive to understand how modernity, in Japan, is taken as a shadow of what technology causes in the context of experience and of social and political organisation. Modernity as a technological function or, if we like, as a space inaugurated by an experience of fascination, amazement or wonder which is centred in a relationship with technical objects that denote an ambiguous, and not entirely assimilable, alterity.

The arrival of Perry's ships episode, an inaugural moment of a technological sublime that we have a certain difficulty in perceiving, could be a gateway for further investigating how technology — in its astonishment and prodigy — has become a touchstone for radically rebalancing the perception that Japanese culture had and has of itself, the way in which, within it, the pastoral and the progress, in their unstoppable and generative dialectic, reorganised modern Japan. Yet, in my opinion, this is articulated with another element, a moment that has to do with the introduction of photography in Japanese territory. To think about this moment is to probe the fascination that, since its emergence, photography has produced in those who confronted it with the dawn of a complex history. In this context, it is imperative to speak of what is considered by many to be the first Japanese photograph. [4] Or rather, the first successful daguerreotype developed by a Japanese. I’m referring to the portrait of Shimazu Nariakira (1809-1858) by Ichiki Shirō (1828-1903) dated 1857, measuring 11 by 8 cm, from the collection of the Shoko Shuseikan Museum in Kagoshima (Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyushu).

Fig.1 Shiro Ichiki, Portrait of Nariakira Shimazu, 1857.

First, it might be substantial to say that the emergence of photography dates from the daguerreotype’s announcement by Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) in 1839. As noted by Terry Bennett, [5] there is no appreciable consensus on the precise historical moment when photography began to be practiced in Japan, but it is argued that the first daguerreotype camera was imported through the Dutch commercial warehouse on the island of Deshima (Nagasaki) in 1848. The importer was said to be the Japanese merchant Ueno Shunnojo, father of Ueno Hikoma (1838-1904), one of the first Japanese professional photographers. A year later, the camera, the chemists and the rest of the equipment were sold to Satsuma's lord, Shimazu Nariakira, and this daimyo dedicated himself to photographic experiments with great determination. Shimazu closely followed the experiments carried out by the clan's scientists, promoting Western scientific culture, with particular emphasis on photography. It could be said that, in his flirt with Western science, the lord of Satsuma's clan represented the most progressive sectors of Japanese society in the 19th century, at a time of generalised political and social crisis that would lead to the fall of Tokugawa's military government which dominated the country since 1604.

As prominent Japanese photography historian, Takesi Osawa, writes: “It is believed that Lord Satsuma used photography as a way of persuading other leading families that Japan should end its 300 years of seclusion and join the modern world.” [6] It was precisely Takesi Osawa who, in October 1975, located what is considered to be the first Japanese daguerreotype next to the archives of Shimazu family in Kagoshima. It is, as we have seen, the clan’s leader portrait, Mr. Nariakira. [7] Three portraits of Shimazu were made on September 17, 1857. Shimazu, wearing formal robes, posed especially for this purpose in the gardens of his castle. The daguerreotype found in 1975 is one of three that were taken that day. [8] Of these three, only one has survived, the one that Takesi Osawa located. However, a copy of Nariakira's daguerreotype was made through collodion process, becoming an object of worship at the Terukuni temple in Kagoshima, later destroyed during the bombings of World War II. [9] In 1999, the daguerreotype was designated as Important Cultural Property by the government of Japan, assuming that it was the first photograph taken by a Japanese.

The daguerreotype of the lord of Satsuma is an artifact with valences that, given its fluidity, we could describe as mercurial. Its historical importance is decisive for the way in which it enables to access the oscillations and disturbances on the history of modern Japan. It demands a close inspection on the implications that Western scientific and technical culture had in the construction of Japanese modernity, which is also a function of an enchantment through technology. It is an object of power. Political power, religious power; in short, symbolic power. In this sense, perhaps it is necessary to say that the circulation of such artifact, its trajectory and the vicissitudes that have shaped and reframed it, its cultural journey, is, to a large extent, within the dimension of astonishment. If we prefer, and in a rather vague way in its magical dimension. In modern Japan, the daguerreotype symbolises a profound irresolution that will guide its entire cultural path, between progress and the opening of society to the West, as well as the prerogatives that the arrival of Commodore Perry made inexorable, and its symbolic possibility, related with the way in which political leaders, where Nariakira stands out, knew how to use photography for their interests and to modulate a family or clan ascendant. This can clearly be understood when we think about the religious uses of the photographic image such as the worship of a colloded copy of the daguerreotype at the Terukuni Shinto temple in Kagoshima, which is the home of the kami of Shimazu Nariakira.

I would like to argue that photography was received as an enchanted technology in Japan at the dawn of the 20th century. If we prefer, photography was received as a device of power, that is, with magical valences that are undoubtedly dangerous. It is not possible to measure the dimension of the astonishment, but we can guess from the following: if Commodore Perry's Black Ships were received with astonishment, as historian Richard Storry suggests, what impact did the work of Eliphalet Brown Junior (1816-1886), photographer of Perry's armada, had on the Japanese? We can say that it had a significant impact which translated into astonishment and "consternation", considering Takesi Osawa remarks about the arrival of Perry's armada in Hakodate, a port city located north, in Hokkaido:

In May of the same year [1854], the fleet moved to Hakodate. According to Wilhelm Heine (1817-1885), who accompanied the Perry fleet, and kept a Hakodate Journal, Brown set himself up in a small temple called Jikkuji, which was said to have lost its congregation as a result. The merchant Matajiro Kojima reported that the camera caused consternation among the people, this being their first encounter with it. [10]

Takesi further notes that:

Williams [Samuel Wells Williams, the first interpreter of Perry's expedition and author of his report] noted in the oficial report that women and children were not to be seen in the crowds. This was in response to an edit issued by the Matsumae Clan, forbidding them to step out of doors. Nonetheless, one or two women braved the ban to be photographed. [11]

In turn, and as Marie-Loup Sougez also points out, it was only with the establishment of the Meiji Empire, in 1868, that photographers were allowed to make portraits of their countrymen. Until then, the Japanese could only photograph foreigners, given local beliefs that photography could bring disease or death. [12]

When talking about photography, its invention and its appropriation by Japanese culture, we are faced with a territory of danger and enchantment, where technology and magic, as Alfred Gell taught us, are mutually constitutive terms. A two-fold territory for capturing forces of improbable dominance whose inner brilliance seems, today, buried under the rubble of a catastrophe of images —propitiated by photography — in which the modern world has unfolded. Therefore, it seems reliable to affirm that the appearance of photography constitutes a moment of confrontation with something prodigious that has caused a kind of displacement in its bystanders. And certainly, this has been transversal, despite the fact that we are no longer able to fully access that experience due to the popularisation and the insensorialisation associated with the photographic image during the 20th century, a popularisation and insensorialisation that became endemic in our societies through the massive phenomenon of digitisation and consumption of images on a global scale. This inaugural astonishment, that the present forgets or nuances, was the subject of reflection by the Portuguese philosopher Pedro Miguel Frade, a pioneer of photography studies in his country. In a book with several notable themes, although quite forgotten today, the author writes:

Much of what has been said regarding — and stigmatised in — the nineteenth-century photography thinking fails to apprehend the profound conceptual disturbances that this once brand-new image could raise: or, to present another aspect of a movement of thoughts which are unable to notice their own stumbles, the past is frequented, in its images and its words, so that we don’t see in the former what they had most fascinating, and to listen to nothing more in the latter than the echoes of murmurs that are only ours. [13]

We could say that this inaugural moment seems unreliable through nearly two centuries in photography’s history. However, we may probably access its historical significance through two aspects which, in my opinion, are co-related, and gain a particular meaning in Japan: first, the one that tells us that photography, before its massification, was a technology of power with notorious political (and religious) meanings; secondly, that its power, in its constitutive ambiguity, is riddled with a magical dimension that emerges from a not plain manifest awareness of its indexicality, that is, as if in the beginning, photography was not so much a representation but a fragment of reality.

This hypothesis continues to challenge us in this 21st century, in which images are committed to a process of dilution of referents; or, if we will, to a collapse of reality. The mythology of our present is perhaps the mythology of the origin: before the collapse of reality we continue to claim the possibility that images — a few images, in a cultural and patrimonial economy whose intelligibility seems to escape us — still touch the heart of the world as if its power was only dormant or latent, waiting for a revealing event, a revealing bath.


[1] GELL, Alfred (1999) The art of anthropology: essays and diagrams. Edited by Eric Hirsch. Londres, Athlone, p.163.

[2] Id., pp.164-165.

[3] STORRY, Richard (1960) A history of modern Japan, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Penguin, p.87. «Os “Navios Negros”, tal como eram conhecidos, criaram uma sensação tremenda na praia. Havia, nesta primeira visita em Julho de 1853, quatro deles – dois movidos a vapor. A maior parte dos japoneses nunca viram ou imaginaram tais navios.»

[4] See, v.g., BENNETT, Terry (2006) Photography in Japan 1853-1912, Tóquio, Tuttle; Takesi Ozawa (1981) The history of early photography in Japan, History of photography, 5: 4, pp. 285-303; Tucker, Anne et al (org.) (2003) The history of Japanese photography, New Haven, Yale University Press.

[5] BENNETT, Terry (2006) Photography in Japan 1853-1912, Tóquio, Tuttle, p.24.

[6] OZAWA, Takesi (1981) The history of early photography in Japan, History of photography, 5: 4, p.287.

[7] Id., p.290.

[8] Id., p.291

[9] Id., ibid.

[10] Id., ibid.

[11] Id., p.292.

[12] SOUGEZ, Marie-Loup (2011 [1981]) Historia de la fotografía, Madrid, Cátedra, p. 509.

[13] FRADE, Pedro Miguel (1992) Figuras do espanto: a fotografia antes da sua cultura, Porto, Edições Asa, p.61. Italics by the author. “Grande parte do que se tem dito do – e estigmatizado no – pensamento oitocentista sobre a fotografia falha em apreender as profundas perturbações conceptuais que essa imagem, então novíssima, pôde suscitar: ou, para apresentar um outro aspecto do movimento de pensamentos incapazes de repararem nos seus tropeços, frequenta-se o passado, nas suas imagens e nas suas palavras que dele nos chegam, para não ver nas primeiras o que elas tiveram de mais fascinante e para nada mais escutar nas últimas que os ecos de murmúrios que são apenas nossos.”


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