Peter Romaskiewicz [Last updated: December 2019]
In the ongoing attempt to identify Japanese picture postcards (ehagaki 絵葉書) in my collection, I’ve decided to publish my working notes on identifying early twentieth century Japanese postcard publishers. Moreover, using Urakawa Kazuya’s 浦川和也 four-period chronology as a foundation, I try to catalog variant designs printed on the reverse (atena-men 宛名面, “address side”) by each publisher as well as different letterpress captioning styles on the obverse (egara [or shashin]-men 絵柄[写真]面, “design [or photograph] side,” or tsūshin-men 通信面, “communication side”). The goal is to help identify cards that do not bear a publisher’s name or trademark (shōhyō 商標, rogumāku ロゴマーク).
The information below is mostly gleaned from Japanese sources (both print and digital) as well as some personal observations. I emphasize that this post represents my “working notes” – I will update it as time allows. Moreover, Japan was among the largest producers of postcards during the early twentieth century, thus the research below is far from exhaustive and directly reflects my personal interests. I am mainly interested in hand-tinted photomechanically reproduced cards from the late Meiji and early Taishō eras (there is, for example, a large collectors market for artist picture postcards [bijutsu ehagaki 美術絵葉書] which I do not cover). Topically, I am interested in landscape scenery (fūkei 風景) – specifically of Japanese religious sites – so my research skews in this direction. There is a list of helpful references at the end of this post.
Please contact me if you can provide any other information or resources about Japanese postcard publishers, or any other oversights and errors: pmr01[at]ucsb[dot]edu.
A Brief History of Publishing Postcards in Meiji and Early Taishō Japan
The commercial market for photography in Japan grew significantly in the 1860s and 1870s with the arrival of globetrotting tourists looking for souvenirs of their exotic travels in Asia. The primary port of entry for travelers entering Japan during the Meiji era was Yokohama, which emerged as the center of this competitive commercial industry. Yokohama shashin 横浜写真, or “Yokohama photography,” came to denote the particular fusion of Western technology and Japanese craftsmanship as monochromatic prints were hand colored by artists to produce vibrant, eye-catching scenes. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s Japanese owned photography studios grew in number and significance, slowly displacing their Western counterparts who had bigger shares of the market in the 1860s and 1870s. Moreover, as travel restrictions were lifted for foreigners and domestic interest increased, Japanese owned photography studios started to successfully populate more diverse urban areas throughout Japan. The aesthetic cultivated by these early photography studios would have a great influence on the first domestic publishers of postcards in Japan.
The Japanese postal delivery service began in March 1871 and soon joined the Union Postale Universelle (bankoku yūbin rengō 萬国郵便聯合) in June 1877, thus permitting the sending and receiving of international mail (although several countries maintained foreign post offices in select Japanese cities earlier). The first postal card (hagaki 端書) in Japan was issued in December 1873, but until the start of the twentieth century all cards were government-issued (kansei 官製). These are identifiable through prepaid franking printed on the address side (i.e. the back) of the card. The obverse remained blank to accommodate a written message. Changes in postal codes on October 1, 1900 allowed private companies to publish picture postcards (ehagaki 絵葉書) where an illustration or design could be included on the obverse (until the adoption of a “divided back” reverse design in April 1907, the sender’s message also had to be written on the obverse side). Two years later, the government started to produce its own commemorative picture postcards. These changes altered the landscape of the postcard market and starting a new cultural phenomenon.
For private-issued (shisei 私製) cards, photographic imagery soon became the favored visual expression and many images from Japanese photography studios were initially used for this new medium. These images were photomechanically reproduced through an inexpensive planographic printing technique known as the collotype (korotaipu コロタイプ), introduced commercially in Japan by Ogawa Kazumasa 小川 一眞 (1860-1929) in 1889. Multi-color collotype printing was very difficult to execute, thus many early twentieth-century postcard publishers employed artists who hand-painted the cards with washes of watercolor (some colors, like red, contained stronger pigmentation). Consequently, the aesthetic of Yokohama shashin that developed in the early Meiji period continued into the early Taishō era through this new visual medium.
The Russo-Japanese War from 1904 to 1905 initiated what is now referred to as a “picture postcard boom” (ehagaki būmu 絵葉書ブーム or ehagaki ryōko 絵葉書流行). Postcards were sold all throughout Japan, especially in urban centers. One could find postcard specialty shops in cities like Yokohama, Tokyo, Kyoto, or Kobe. Moreover, many other businesses became involved in the lucrative postcard market, including photography studios, printing shops, booksellers, souvenir stores, and even temples. The larger publishers would sell their stock wholesale to other stores, thus canvassing the country with inexpensive photographic images of landscapes, city scenes, portraits of geisha, actors, the royal family, daily activities, war scenes, natural disasters, and so forth. At least one publisher, Ueda Photographic Prints Corp., had a retailer directly sell their products in New York City.
Infrequently, publishers would inconspicuously print their name and address on the card. It slowly became common, though far from standard, for larger publishers to print their signature trademark or logo on the card, most commonly in the stamp box (kitte ichi 切手位置) on the reverse side. While this would aesthetically frame the trademark, once a stamp was affixed it would also render the publisher anonymous. It is also possible to locate a publisher’s name or insignia elsewhere on the card, for example as part of the dividing line or in the letterpress caption. Some publishers would also inconspicuously hide their insignia, such as Ueda or Tonboya, as discussed below.
In too many cases, however, there is little identifying evidence to ascertain the publisher of a card. (In this industry of mass-production, it goes without saying that identifying the original photographer or individual colorist is, sadly, impossible.) Elsewhere I have described a method to help determine otherwise anonymous publishers, and I consider this entry a further exploration of this endless, though enjoyable, quest. Unfortunately, I would not claim attributions here to be assured, only my best guesses.
Ueda Photographic Prints Corp.
Born in Tokyo, Ueda Yoshizō 上田義三 (1865-?) found employment after college in the oldest German export trading company in the capital, Aherns & Co. (Ārensu shōkai アーレンス商会), founded by Heinrich Aherns in 1869. In the mid-1890’s, after Ueda toured Europe and America, he returned to Japan to open his first business venture in 1897 (Meiji 30), the Yokohama Photographic Printing Co. 横浜写真版印刷所 first located on Yatozaka Slope 谷戶坂. In 1905 (Meiji 38) the business moved to Okina-chō 3-chōme (No. 131) 翁町3丁目(131番) and around 1913 (Taishō 2) the business was renamed Ueda Photographic Prints Corp. 上田写真版合資会社 (the name “Uyeda” can be found printed on some postcards).
Ueda was highly successful in selling photographs and producing government-issued postcards on his own collotype printing equipment. Importantly, Ueda’s success in printing early landscape and figural picture postcards presaged the Japanese postcard boom after the Russo-Japanese War, thus he became recognized as the “Japanese Pioneer of Picture Postcard Manufacturing” 日本元祖絵葉書製造元. Īkura Tōmei 飯倉東明 (1884-?) worked as Udea’s director of photography in the first decade of the twentieth century. My analysis of Ueda postcards from 1907-1918 can be found here.
Around 1905 (Meiji 38), Yoshimura Kiyoshi 吉村清, the proprietor of the well-known Tokyo-based publisher Kamigataya 上方屋 (in Ginza), started a new venture in Yokohama, called Tonboya トンボヤ, or “Dragonfly Studio.”  Along with Ueda, Tonboya was the most prolific hand-painted postcard publisher in late Meiji/early Taishō Japan, also opening offices in Tokyo, Kawasaki, and Yokosuka. The original shop was located on Isezaki-chō 2-chōme (No. 16) 伊勢佐木町2丁目(16番), a famous area known among foreigners as Theatre Street (see post frontispiece above). The storefront can easily be located in period photographs due to its distinctive Japanese-style red cylindrical postal box (yūbin posuto 郵便ポスト) sign painted with ehakaki エハカキ [sic], or “Picture Postcards.” The left-hand column of words on the white storefront sign says “photographic collotype printing.”
The postal box was also the trademark printed in the stamp box for Kamigataya issued cards. The precise business relationship between Kamigataya and Tonboya remains obscure.
Kamigataya appears to have had an office in the Motomachi district (Motomachi-dori 2-chōme [No. 85]) which also appears in period photographs, here saying “postal cards” (in some photographs, Kamigataya is visible on the front of the sign). In the early Showa Period after the Great Kantō earthquake, Tonboya moved to Izezaki-chō 1-chōme (No. 36) 1丁目(36番). Cards were initially hand-colored, but Tonboya used a multicolored collotype process starting in the early Taisho. Tonboya remained in operation after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923.
Tonboya Reverse Designs and Obverse Captions
Period I (October 1900-March 1907) – Undivided Back
Period II (March 1907-March 1918)
Period III (March 1918-February 1933)
Yoshioka Chōjirō 吉岡長次郎 arrived in Yokohama in 1904 (Meiji 37) with postcards purchased in Tokyo, hoping to turn a profit by reselling them to foreigners. After receiving numerous orders and making several trips back to Tokyo to restock, Yoshioka opened a shop in Yokohama at Onoe-chō 4-chōme, No. 61 尾上町4丁目(61番).
By the end of the Russo-Japanese War in the fall of 1905, he had collected many collotype plates of native landscapes and was very successful marketing to both foreigners and Japanese. Hoshinoya emerged as one of the most well-known postcard shops in the port of Yokohama.
Hoshinoya Reverse Designs and Obverse Captions
Period I (October 1900-March 1907) – Undivided Back
I have not yet confidently identified undivided back Hoshinoya cards.
Period II (March 1907-March 1918)
Period III (March 1918-February 1933)
Sakaeya & Co.
A Kobe based company with a shop in Motomachi, Kobe. A majority of this publisher’s cards are of Kobe and its environs, but there are other images among its portfolio. Curiously, I have seen Sakaeya’s lion insignia in the caption of images that were printed on cards bearing both Ueda’s and Tonboya’s seals on the reverse. I’d speculate that Sakaeya purchased Ueda and Tonboya cardstock and used it to print their own cards. It seems likely they mainly sold them in Kobe with the lion insignia imprinted on the front. Period III cards also bare the insignia of Taisho Hato (see below), a dove with is wings spread open.
Sakaeya Reverse Designs and Obverse Captions
Period II (March 1907-March 1918)
Period III (March 1918-February 1933)
Other Publishers [also see here]
- Akanishi (Kobe 神戸)
- Asahidō (Kyoto 京都)
- Benrido 便利堂 (Kyoto 京都)[no trademark, but uses distinctive font – one of the last collotype studios still in operation; some cards bearing this font seem to have been printed by (or for?) Buddhist temples)
- Hōeidō 保永堂 (Kamakura 鎌倉?)
- Naniwaya Co. 浪華屋 (Kanda, Tokyo 東京神田) – [later became Tokyo Design Printing Co. 東京図按(vl. 案)印刷社; Kuroda Hisayoshi 黒田久吉]
- Nassen & Co. (Yoshioka-chō, Yokohama) – interlaced N and S atop floral design
- Nisshinsha (Tokyo 東京)
- S.N. Banshiudo 長島萬集堂 [Nagashima banshūdō](Shiba, Tokyo 東京芝)
- Taisho Hato Brand 大正鳩ブランド (Wakayama 和歌山)
- Tōdai-ji 東大寺 (Nara 奈良)
 The nomenclature for the sides of the postcard derived from their original design where one side was reserved solely for the address, while the other was reserved for the written message, and eventually, a printed image. These are also known as the reverse (rimen 裏面) and obverse (hyōmen 表面).
 Some sources name the proprietor as Maeda Tokutarō 前田徳太郎, but I have not seen this name in printed Japanese sources. Some sources note 1907 (Meiji 40) as the date for the founding of Tonboya. A Kamigataya sign and display of postcards can also be found in the Motomachi district of Yokohama.
- Japan Picture Postcard Society [Nihon ehagaki kai 日本絵葉書会]
- Kinoya Postcard Collection [Kinōya きのう屋]
- Japan Archives [ジャパンアーカイブズ]
- The Society for Taisho Imagery Studies [Taishō imajuryi gakkai 大正イマジュリィ学会]
- http://taisho-imagery.org/g.shtml#t13 (search 絵葉書)
- Yokohama Postcard Club [Yokohama tesaishoku shashin ehagaki zukan 横浜手彩色写真絵葉書図鑑]
- Yokohama Archives of History [Yokohama kaikō shiryōkan 横浜開港資料館]
- Postal Museum Japan [Yūsei hakubutsukan 郵政博物館]
- https://www.postalmuseum.jp/publication/ [Yūsei hakubutsukan kenkyū kiyō 郵政博物館研究紀要]
- Postal Card history (Government Issued)
- Japanese Auctions
- List of Historical Publications on Japanese Picture Postcards
- https://kanazawa-bumpo-kaku.jimdo.com [postcard classics reprinted]
- 開港五十年紀念横浜成功名誉鑑 1910
- 横浜近代史辞典: 改題横浜社会辞彙 1918/1986
- Sites for Japanese Postal History
- [Paul D. Barclay/dating Japanese cards] https://sites.lafayette.edu/eastasia/2014/09/04/how-to-ascertain-the-date-or-time-period-of-a-japanese-postcard/
- [Dating Japanese cards] https://tanken.com/ehagaki.html
- [Dating/postmarks] https://photoguide.jp/pix/thumbnails.php?album=89
- [Dating/postmarks/stamps] https://www.ehagaki.org/history/ [click on third tab “推定方法”]
- Old Tokyo Website [illustrated with postcards]
- Print Resources [selected]
- Barclay, Paul D. 2010. “Peddling Postcards and Selling Empire: Image-Making in Taiwan under Japanese Colonial Rule.” Japanese Studies, Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 81-110.
- Geary, Christraud & Webb, Virginia-Lee, eds. 1998. Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution.
- Kamakura Board of Education 鎌倉市教育委員会. 2011. Ehagaki de miru Kamakura hyakkei 絵葉書で見る鎌倉百景 [One Hundred View of Kamakura through Postcards].[photos]
- Maclachlan, Patricia L. 2011. The People’s Post Office: The History and Politics of the Japanese Postal System, 1871-2010. Harvard University Asia Center.
- Morse, Anne Nishimura; Rimer, J. Thoma & Brown, Kendall H. 2004. Art of the Japanese Postcard. Boston: MFA Publications a Division of the Museum of Fine Arts.
- O’Connor, Peter & Cohen, Aaron M. 2001. “Thoughts on the Precipice: Japanese Postcards, c.1903–39,” Japan Forum, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 55-62.
- Pai, Hyung Il. 2013. “Staging ‘Koreana’ for the Tourist Gaze: Imperialist Nostalgia and the Circulation of Picture Postcards,” History of Photography, Vol. 37, No. 3, pp. 301-311.
- Prochaska, David. 2001. “Thinking Postcards,” Visual Resources, Vol. 17, No. 4, pp. 383-399.
- Satō Kenji. 2002. “Postcards in Japan: A Historical Sociology of a Forgotten Culture.” International Journal of Japanese Sociology, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 35-55.
- Schor, Naomi. 1992. “Cartes Postales”: Representing Paris 1900,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 188-244
- Urakawa Kazuya 浦川和也. 2006. “Ehagaki de Chōsen sōtokufu o miru: ‘Chōsen hantō ehagaki’ no shiryōteki kachi to naihōsareta ‘mezashi.'” Shuka 朱夏, Vol. 21., pp. 39-52.
- Digital Collections:
- Museum of Fine Arts Boston: Art of the Japanese Postcard
- Lafayette College
- [Japanese Postcards] http://digital.lafayette.edu/islandora/search/:?f%5B0%5D=cdm.Relation.IsPartOf%3A%22East+Asia+Image+Collection%22&f%5B1%5D=eastasia.Format.Medium%3A%22Picture+postcard%22&f%5B2%5D=eastasia.Coverage.Location.Country%3A%22Japan%22
- [Resources] https://dss.lafayette.edu/collections/east-asia-image-collection/supporting-material/
- Elizabeth Ridout Collection [Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives]
- Japanese Missionary Postcards [Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives]
- Joanne Bernardi’s Re-Envisioning Japan – Postcards [University of Rochester]
7 thoughts on “Working Notes on Japanese Postcard Publishers”
So I think I have an earlier than 1900 cepia tone Japanese postcard of two Geisha ladies. It says Postcard in Japanese on the back and the rest is blank. Its real photo cepia toned as mentioned and no hand colouring. All the ones I have seen seince 1900 are not like the one I have. I would be interested to show you an image of it for your opinion. I wonder if its possible to date it?
Hi Duncan, according to the best of my current understanding, the *government did issue photograph/picture postcards before 1900 – *private companies were not allowed to do so until the end of 1900. You can tell by the pre-paid franking (pre-paid postage) that is printed on the back of the card. I give some analysis here on a card in my collection: https://peterromaskiewicz.com/2020/01/04/government-halftone-postcard-of-the-daibutsu/
Happy to think through more questions if you have them. Cheers!
Hi Peter I have it up on eBay if you could take a look it does feel pre 1800 to me but I maybe wrong. if you could have a quick look you can tell me if I am wrong. Here is the link https://www.ebay.com.au/itm/373097412472?ViewItem=&item=373097412472
Hi Duncan, thanks for the link. I, too, have not seen a card like this before. There are a few things that make me suspicious of a 19th century date, however. For starters, the “郵便はがき” mark was made by a hand stamp and the photo is bleed to the edge – printers would leave space for the message on front. Its most likly a collotype print (as most Japanese photo cards are), a technique that wasn’t introduced until 1889 and not widely used for postcards until the 20th c. Lastly, the photo has a very modern feel that used a good lens. There is a field of depth (i.e. the background is blurred) that I just haven’t seen in 19th Japanese photography – though I am no expert on this. I would guess the cards is from the 1930s. Regardless it is a wonderful photograph, best of luck on furter research. Cheers!
Hi! Sorry if bothersome, I have stumbled upon a postcard with symbol clearly resembling the Naniwaya logo in your post, but at the corner there is printed 淡美會出版部 (something like Tamami Society Publishing Department?) and a symbol resembling a small bell. Could you please tell me what’s up with this postcard? The front depicts ocean waves, there is no additional writing in case it’s important.
I wish I could be of more help, but I don’t have any insight here. One of the Naniwaya cards I own has an art nouveau design style on the back in dark blue ink. The Naniwaya logo is along the top edge and the stamp box has a design of two birds in a lake (not a bell). It is cancelled Meiji 42/1909. It is possible it merged with another company, but I can’t say for certain. As far as I can tell, there is no easily accessible source which describes in detail the history of these printing/postcard companies. I would love to know if you find out any more information. Best of luck and happy sleuthing!