The photographs offer a rare glance at the "lost" past of Japan


Written by Stella Ko, CNN

In a collection of photographs that have never been published since 19th century Japan, we see two men making traditional Edo-period tubes called "kiseru". Another scene shows a group of geishas apprentices performing popular dances, their colorful kimono tied to help their streams.

The pictures were taken by Italian Felice Beato, one of the first Western photographers to have been allowed in the once-isolated state after opening the world in the 1850s. Traveling to the country to document his people, customs and landscapes, Beatos was inspired by Japanese wood prints and collaborated with local aquarelle artists to develop a unique style that saw him apply color paint to black and white prints.

Now a new book brings some of Beato's photos to light for the first time. Introducing beauty ideals and traditions, from samurai covered by tattoos to ancient tea ceremonies, "Lost Japan" offers a glimpse into a rarely visible period of the past.

"By the 1900s, Yokohama (where Beato was based) was one of the most international cities in the world, while Japan was still a country entirely discoverer," writes author Rossella Manegazzo, "and in this way photography played a decisive role.

Female beauty was one of the most common issues in Beato's photos, which include impressive images such as a woman on a night out with white makeup and an umbrella. Both Western and Japanese photographers would use new Japanese women as models to recreate everyday life in the so-called "pleasure areas" of the country.

This photo, enclosed in Beato's oval signature box, shows a woman applying white makeup on her face leaving a shoulder uncovered.

This photo, enclosed in Beato's oval signature box, shows a woman applying white makeup on her face leaving a shoulder uncovered. Credit: Felice Beato

"What was exotic was searched for and the white skin of Japanese women – along with their strange hairdos, chimonos and their everyday objects – represented what was most desirable," wrote Manegazzo.

Featuring a style of art known as "fuzokuga", or "painting of the genre", which portrays the extinct crafts and traditions of Japan's Edo-period, Beato's photographs portray household scenes, including weaving and pipe smoking. His portraits of everyday figures, such as the rickshaw guides and letters, show the different layers of Japanese society at the time.

"The photos represent a true classification of customs and traditions," writes Manegazzo, "as well as the types of people who lived in pre-modern Japan."