The Old Japan: 50 Fascinating Photos From The Imperial Era

Published May 21, 2017
Updated January 31, 2020

These photographs provide a glimpse into life in Imperial Japan — a tour through the lives of the country's poorest and most glamorous.

Street In Yenoshima
Bamboo Grove In Kyoto
Imperial Japan Fighting Monk
Four Warriors
The Old Japan: 50 Fascinating Photos From The Imperial Era
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Before Japan was an island overflowing with towering metropolises, it was a quieter place, where thatched rooftops covered the homes and great rolling, green forests filled the horizon.

Imperial Japan looked unlike any place in the world today — certainly the country that now stands on the same ground. It is a place that lives on only in stories and photographs.

These photographs are the best glimpses we have of what life was like in Imperial Japan – photographs from the late 19th century, taken during the Meiji Restoration Era.

By then, the early cracks in the old Japan were already starting to form, and Western thought was seeping in. The Empire was being reshaped in the image of Western nations. A constitutional monarchy was formed, the samurai were abolished, and the royal court started to dress in Western clothes.

Yet despite it all, little pieces of Japan's distinct culture still lingered on.

The photographs from this era provide a look at the world that is now a memory, a look into the streets of Imperial Japan, where one-story homes with thatched roofs flanked streets filled with vendors who carried their goods on their backs.

Late 19th-century photographs allow us to tour the old Japan, from the poorest and meanest forms of life to the most glamorous. We can see the lives of the Japanese peasants who covered themselves with straw for protection from the rain while they got down on their hands and their knees to harvest rice and tea leaves. Yet we can also see the lives of the wealthy elite, living in the massive stone palaces that towered over the country, where women dressed in kimonos and painted their faces white before being carried about in baskets held up by peasant workers.

These photographs are our window into Imperial Japan: a world that once was, but will never be again.

Next, check out this glimpse of life in Qing dynasty China, before the country's communist transformation. Then, see these gorgeous vintage photos of the last samurai.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Oliver, Mark. "The Old Japan: 50 Fascinating Photos From The Imperial Era.", May 21, 2017, Accessed May 28, 2024.