The Japanese postal delivery service began in 1870 and joined the Universal Postal Union (soon to be known formally worldwide as the Union postale universelle) in 1876, thus permitting the sending and receiving of international mail. Until the start of the twentieth century, however, all postcards were issued by the Japanese government and private companies were prohibited from publishing their own cards. After legal permission was granted in 1900, private companies soon embarked on mass-scale printings of picture postcards (ehagaki 絵はかき). The postcard soon rivaled the traditional woodblock print as the favored medium to present contemporary Japanese images. Furthermore, while many early postcards were illustrated with drawings, photographic images soon dominated the medium and were some of the earliest commodified forms of the photograph. This was spurred by the development of a new printing process using an ink-on paper technique, called the collotype, which allowed for photomechanical printing on a massive scale. Several themes emerged as popular favorites, including ones that may sound odd to modern purchasers of postcards, such as “natural disasters” and “current events.” Not surprisingly, with the advent of the thriving tourism industry, “scenic views” emerged as a favorite visual genre for many Japanese tourists and foreign travelers.
Since a driving force behind the early interest in postcards was the acquisition of inexpensive photographs, its seems only natural that several picture postcards would simply be reprints of old photographic stock. The Yokohama businessman, Tamamura Kōzaburō 玉村康三郎 (b. 1856), who was commissioned to in the 1890’s to produce a reported one-million hand colored albumen prints (though more recent estimate the number of prints to approximately 350,000) for the multi-volume work Japan: Described and Illustrated by the Japanese, was the premier photographer of his time. Yet, he enlisted the help of his competitor, Kusakabe Kimbei 日下部金兵衛 (1841-1934), to finish the product and scholars have recently begun to identify his photographs among the collection. The postcard image of the Great Buddha of Kamakura [Figure 1] is now considered a Kimbei photograph. The original image was scaled down and slightly cropped to fit on a standard size postcard.
- Title/Caption: NA
- Year: 1900-1907
- Photographer: Kusakabe Kimbei 日下部金兵衛 (1841-1934)
- Medium: collotype print on cardstock, hand tinted
- Dimensions: 5.5 in X 3.5 in
- Inscription: Union Postale Universelle. CARTE POSTALE, 萬國郵便聯合端書
There is no caption identifying the statue or location on the postcard, but certainly the Kamakura Daibutsu was well known by the early twentieth century. In the coming years, however, it would become standard printing practice to include letterpress captions, often both in English and Japanese, describing the scene. The fine reticulation pattern and matte card stock identified this image as a photomechanical reproduction using ink, known as a collotype (Jap. korotaipu コロタイプ). As with standard albumen and silver gelatin photography, early postcards were hand tinted with water-color washes.
The small margin at the bottom of the card was left for correspondence. Before 1907, the Union Postale Universelle required the entire reverse of the postcard be used for the address and name of the recipient, thus early publishers would leave blank space for a brief messages on the front of the card. Because of this limitation, the correspondance was typically very short, with foreign travellers often briefly commenting on their sightseeing excursions.
The reverse of this card is bordered by an ornamental filigree-like design in umber brown ink. This card is an example of an “undivided back,” since no line appears separating the spaces on the back where the correspondence and address would later come to be written. This functions now as an easy identifier for dating old postcards, with this exemplar dating between 1900 and 1907. In additon, a small scalloped square appears in the top right corner, indicating the location to affix the necessary postage.
*This is part of a series of posts devoted to exploring the development of a visual literacy for Buddhist imagery in America. All items (except otherwise noted) are part of my personal collection of Buddhist-themed ephemera.
 Katō 2002: 41, O’Conner & Cohen 2001: 56.