Map of Temples in San Francisco’s Chinatown 1850s-1906

Dedicated to Philip Choy (1926-2017)

About this Map and Urban Chinese Temples

This map locates many of the Chinese temples built in San Francisco before the 1906 earthquake and fire. Known generically as miao 廟 (or miu in Cantonese), meaning temple or shrine, most of the non-Chinese American public referred to these structures as “joss houses” in the nineteenth century. A principle function of these temples, from which their American names derived, was to house Chinese religious icons, commonly called “joss.” Rarely, however, did urban temples occupy a whole building; temples were more typically semi-public shrine halls located on the top floor of a multi-story structure. Moreover, these temples were not operated by religious institutions and almost all were owned and operated by various community organizations. Often the largest temples were operated by different district associations (huiguan 會館), while other temples were run by secret fraternal organizations (tang 堂) or various other associations organized around clan lineages or trades. Most temples housed numerous icons that would be worshiped for an array of reasons, but often a temple would be “dedicated” to a single figure who functioned like the patron deity of the association or guild. This icon was typically placed in the central shrine of the main shrine hall. The other floors of the building could have smaller shrines or be used as meeting rooms and work spaces for the organization.

About this Project

Much of the nineteenth and early twentieth photography and illustrations of Chinese religious sites remain unidentified because they are often labeled or captioned as generic “joss houses.” To facilitate identification, I compared contemporary written accounts with items from the visual record of Chinatown and cross referenced them with maps and listed addresses of known temples. The end product was the identification of many images of unknown religious sites and the location of several temples of which we only had a written description. I’m publishing here a basic map of the Chinatown temples I have identified. I used the 1885 San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors’ Map as the basis for the main map (directly below) and the 1887 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map and the 1905 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map to help track changes over time. Ultimately, this is the byproduct of a larger project I am currently working on regarding the material culture of early Asian American religions. If you have any questions or comments about this map or imagery, please contact me! Email: pmr01[AT]ucsb[DOT]edu.

Numbers on the map correspond to the temples listed in the key below. A “[?]” indicates that I have not been able to identify an exact address for the temple and its placement on the map is approximate. The last temple marked with an “X” was located on Pine Street which is not included on this map. I have decided to keep the Romanization for the organizational names as they appear today (even if they no longer operate temples in San Francisco) and provide the Pinyin with Chinese characters in parenthesis. Lastly, this map is syncretic, not all of the temples existed at the same time; please see individual temple descriptions below.

Map of Temples in San Francisco’s Chinatown: 1850s-1906


The oldest temples in Chinatown are thought to be the Sam Yup temple [#7], more popularly known as the Tin How Temple (Tianhou miao 天后廟) and the Kong Chow temple [#X], both believed to have been constructed in the early 1850s. Waverly Place, the two-block road between Sacramento Street and Washington Street, was known among the Chinese as Tin How Temple Street (Tianhou miao jie 天后廟街) and became the home to the greatest density of Chinese temples by the 1890s. The most popular sites for tourists were the two locations of the Ning Yung temple [originally at #21, then at #4], the original Hop Wo headquarters and temple [#20], and the Yeong Wo temple [#19].

Among the temples listed on the map where the central icon can be identified, three were dedicated to the semi-historical figure Guandi 關帝 [#21/#4, #20/#11, #X], two were dedicated to the Empress of Heaven (i.e. Tianhou), also known as the goddess Mazu 媽祖 [#7, #14], and one to the popular Buddhist figure Guanyin Bodhisattva [#10]. Another popular icon was the Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heavens (Xuantian shangdi 玄天上帝), also known as the Emperor of the North (Beidi 北帝), whose icon may have traveled between three different locations [#12, #14, #8], in addition to having his own temple in the 1890s [#5]. Among the numerous fraternal societies that operated temples [including #16, #17, #18], the Chee Kong Society [#9] and Gee Tuck Society [#8] operated two of the most popular.

Selected Temples (With selected Information and Imagery)

1. Lung Kong Association (Longgang gongsuo 龍岡公所)[9 Brooklyn Place]: the central icons were five glorified cultural heroes, Liu Bei 劉備 (center), Guan Yu 關羽 (center right), Zhang Fei 張飛 (center left), Zhao Yun 趙雲 (far right), and Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 (far left)[for more on the image below, see here]

Main shrine of temple, from Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine, April 1888, photograph by Iasiah Taber

2. Temple of Golden Flower (Jinhua 金花)[4 Brooklyn Place]: the central icon was Lady Golden Flower (Jinhua niangniang 金花娘娘), a figure known to protect the health of women and children

Interior of the Temple of Golden Flower, illustration from Masters’ “Our Pagan Temples” (1892)

3. Lord Tam Temple (Tamgong miao 譚公廟)[Oneida Place]: the central icon was Lord Tam, often considered a patron saint of seafarers, this temple was in existence in 1892

4. Ning Yung Association (Ningyang huiguan 寧陽會館)[25 Waverly Place]: constructed around 1890, the central icon was Guandi [see also #21]

Illustration of the second story balcony of the temple, from Masters’ “Our Pagan Temples” (1892)

7. Sam Yup Association (Sanyi huiguan 三邑會館)[33 Waverly Place]: also known as Tin How Temple, the central icon was Tin How (the Empress of Heaven, also known as Mazu); the temple is believed to have opened in 1852 and was operated by the Sam Yup Association until at least 1899 before changing hands

Photo of front steps of temple, photo by Arthur Genthe, from his Old Chinatown (1912)

8. Gee Tuck Society (Zhide tang 至德堂)[35 Waverly Place]: a central icon was the Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heavens; this temple was in existence by the mid 1880s

Fritz Muller postcard of Tin How Temple with the Gee Tuck temple on top floor of taller building on right (publication c. 1905)

9. Chee Kong Society (Zhigong tang 致公堂)[32 (or 69) Spofford Street]: the central icon remains unknown

Photograph of second and third stories of the Chee Kong building by Adolph Wittemann, from his Chinese Customs (1892) [4/2021 Update: Chuimei Ho has kindly informed me this is a photograph of the Chee Kong lodge in Portland, not San Francisco; indeed the brick work is different on the two buildings.]

10. Guanyin Temple (Guanyin miao 觀音廟)[60 Spofford Street]: the central icon was Guanyin

11. Hop Wo Association (Hehe huiguan 合和會館)[840 Washington Street] the location of the Hop Wo Association headquarters in the mid-1880s, I am unsure if they had a temple at this address as well [see also #20]

12. Eastern Glory Temple (Donghua miao 東華廟)[possibly 929 Dupont Street]: opened in 1871, a central icon was the Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heavens

Central shrine of Eastern Glory Temple, stereoview photograph by Eadweard Muybridge (c. 1871)
Likely illustration of Eastern Glory Temple, Harper’s Weekly, 25 March 1871

13. Yan Wo Association (Renhe huiguan 和會館)[St. Louis Alley/933 Dupont Street]: the central icon was possibly the Buddhist heavenly king Virūpākṣa (Guangmu tianwang 廣目天王) [4/2021 update: some sources claim it was Guandi]

14. Jackson Street Temple/Temple of Li Po Tai [730 Jackson Street]: a central icon was the Empress of Heaven or possibly at one time the Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heavens; the famed Chinatown physician Li Po Tai (Li Putai 黎普泰) may have owned this temple, thus tracing its opening to the early 1870s

Possible illustration of Jackson Street Temple or Eastern Glory Temple [#12], from Shearer, The Pacific Tourist (1876)

19. Yeong Wo Association (Yanghe huiguan 陽和會館)[approx. 728 Sacramento Street]: the central icon was the semi-historical figure Houwang 侯王

Image of Houwang, photograph from “Cymbals Crash…,” San Francisco Call, 22 September 1903

20. Hop Wo Association (Hehe huiguan 合和會館)[751 Clay Street]: in existence by 1876 if not much earlier, the central icon was Guandi [see also #11]

Shrine of Guandi, from Masters’ “Our Pagan Temples” (1892), photograph by Iasiah Taber

21. Ning Yung Association (Ningyang huiguan 寧陽會館)[517 Broadway Street]: constructed in 1864 and used until around 1890, the central icon was Guandi [see #4]

Illustration of temple interior, from unknown periodical [here]

X. Kong Chow Association (Gangzhou huiguan 岡州會館)[512 Pine Street]: constructed in 1853, the central icon was Guandi

Illustration of temple interior, from Loomis’ “The Heathen at Our Doors” (1870)

Online Resources:

Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee ( This group published an initial map of Chinatown organizations in 2018 [here], upon which I have expanded and fine-tuned. I owe the initial impetus of creating a temple map to the outstanding editors of that website.

Illustrated Government Issue Postal Card of the Daibutsu

The Japanese word for postcard, hagaki はがき, was derived from hashigaki はしがき (or 端書き), or “forward,” referencing the writing at the beginning of a document. Hagaki came to denote a short piece of writing or a note that was sent through the mail. The first postal card 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 readily identifiable through pre-paid franking printed on the address side of the card. Changes in postal codes on October 1, 1900 afforded private companies the opportunity to publish picture postcards (ehagaki 絵葉書) where an illustration or design could be included on the obverse. These changes altered the landscape of the postcard market and starting a new cultural phenomenon.

Figure 1

Figure 1 Gov Issued Illus.jpg

  • Title/Caption: DAIBUTSU, KAMAKURA
  • Year: 1897 (postally used)
  • Publisher: Printing Bureau, Ministry of Finance
  • Medium: woodblock print on paper
  • Dimensions: 5.5 in X 3.5 in
  • Reverse Imprint: 大日本郵便, JAPANESE POST, 郵便はがき

The government-issued postal card here, postally canceled in 1897 (Meiji 30[1]), bears a four-color woodblock print of the Kamakura Daibutsu on the obverse [Fig. 1].[2] More commonly, this side was left blank so a message could be written; the reverse was saved for the name and address of the recipient. Illustrated picture postcards (sashie ehagaki 挿絵絵はがき) from this period, however, are far less common and show that the government was playing with designs before the postal code changes in 1900. The image of the Daibutsu is reminiscent of similar period photographs taken of the bronze statue head-on. Furthermore, the print is cropped where the card was cut from its sheet.

The unknown artist depicted a realistic scene with two Japanese travelers gazing upward, in awe, of the colossal image. It casts a gentle sign of reverence towards the Buddhist image without overt signs of deep religious piety. The overall scene is calm and peaceful, reflecting the beneficent gaze of the Daibutsu. With the exception of the steeply banking hillside and tall flight of steps leading to the top landing, the illustration depicts the location faithfully circa the 1880s, inclusive of the step ladder to sit atop the statue for photographs. The only curious element in the depiction of the statue is the inclusion of earrings, a detail often reserved for other Buddhist deities, but not for buddhas. In contrast, the original bronze work has long, pierced ear-lobes which one might easily confuse for earrings, especially from frontal photographs.[3]

Figure 2

Figure 2 Gov Issued Illus.jpg

The reverse bears a simple filigree border and 1 sen oval-shaped frank printed in light blue [Fig. 2]. The pre-paid 1 sen rate covered domestic postage until 1899 when the rate was increased. The franking design incorporated the three-leafed paulownia seal (kirimon 桐紋), the official insignia of the Japanese government, in its center. Examining the border design we can also find the government agency responsible for printing the card, namely the Printing Bureau in the Ministry of Finance.[4] Instructions in Japanese explain this side is reserved for the name and address of the recipient only. The paper is thinner than the card stock used by private publishers a few years later.


*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. I have also published my working notes on identifying publishers of Meiji and early Taishō postcards and establishing a sequential chronology for Kamakura Daibutsu photographs.

[1] The cancellation stamp is not clear, but Meiji 30 seems appropriate. The bisected cancellation date stamp (maruichi-gata hiduke in 丸一型日付印) was adopted in 1888 and the date reads year-month-day from right to left. Sanjū nen 三十年 (“year 30”) is barely legible and is equivalent to 1897. This dating also aligns with other evidence placing the cancellation between 1888 (signaling by the inclusion of the Printing Bureau 印刷局 instead of the Bureau of Paper Currency 紙幣寮 on the border inscription) and 1899, when the 1 sen oval frank was replaced by the 1½ sen chrysanthemum frank. These details are noted below.

[2] The colors are black, grey, green, and a brownish-yellow.

[3] According to Buddhist lore, as a sign of his renunciation of princely life, the Buddha removed his earrings, thus leaving his pierced earlobes empty.

[4] The full inscription reads, “issued by the Printing Bureau in the Ministry of Finance of the Empire of Japan” (Dainipponteikoku seifu Ōkurashō insatsu-kyoku seizō 大日本帝国政府大蔵省印刷局製造). The Ministry of Finance was also responsible for printing paper currency.

The Eight Postcard Views of Kamakura


The September 1, 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake changed Japan. Striking at just before noon, the 7.9 magnitude earthquake razed the capital of Tokyo and the port of Yokohama and caused severe destruction around the entire Kantō region. The resulting fire and tsunami triggered by the earthquake claimed many more casualties. The resulting reconstruction efforts, involving the rebuilding of homes, government buildings, factories, shops, roads, canals, and bridges was a monumental effort. After seven years of toil, the rebirth of the capital and the symbolic renewal of Japan was marked by a week-long series of celebratory events held in March 1930.

Among the many structures decimated by the disaster also included historic temples and shrines, several of which were in Kamakura, part of what is now considered the Greater Tokyo Area. The ancient capital of Kamakura, after which the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) is named, was the home to the shogunate (bakufu 幕府, “tent government”), a hereditary military dictatorship that ruled over Japan and which granted only nominal authority to the imperial court. While the institution of the shogunate persisted until 1867, the capital was moved at the end of the Kamakura period back to the cultural center of Kyoto. After centuries of gradual decline, significant domestic and international interest was thrust back on to Kamakura in the Meiji period (1868-1912), when its proximity to the newly created international port of Yokohama increased its exposure to travelers and businesses.

When the 1923 earthquake hit the region, one of the early storylines that spread through American newspapers concerned the survival of the Kamakura Daibutsu, a destination known worldwide among globetrotting tourists. While the 93 metric tonne bronze statue had shifted 30 centimeters forward, warping its back and neck, it survived relatively unharmed. Because of the shift in weight, a portion of the stone pedestal was pushed into the ground. The pedestal itself, however, received extensive structural damage requiring significant repair, which occurred early in 1925.

Sometime after the 1923 earthquake, an unknown publisher issued a set of eight postcards memorializing the scenic views of Kamakura. Thematic sets of postcards had long been manufactured by Japanese publishers, both by private printers and the government. When the government first printed its own picture postcards (ehagaki 絵葉書) in 1902 (private companies were allowed two years earlier), it issued a set of six cards commemorating the Japanese–Korea Treaty of Amity (Nitchō-shūkōjōki 日朝修好条規). Regardless of this precedent for publishing a set of six cards, issuing a set of eight cards soon became standard for postcard publishers.

Why issue a set of eight cards? On theory traces the origin to the artistic preferences of Song Dynasty China. A set of eight scenic vistas has its historical origins in the brush paintings of Chinese artist and government bureaucrat Song Di 宋迪 (c. 1067 – c. 1080) who is attributed with created the visual genre of the Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers (Xiāoxiāng Bājǐng瀟湘八景)[Song Di’s paintings are now lost]. The notion that a set of “eight scenic vistas” or “eight views” (hakkei 八景) constituted a complete and integrated set made its way into Japan by the fourteenth-century. This motivated Japanese artisans and poets to find their own groupings of “famous sites” (meisho 名所) and by the Edo period (1615-1868) each province claimed to have its own set of eight special vistas.[1] For example, Kanazawa 金沢 in Sagami Province, in which Kamakura also resides, became among the most famous sets of eight views in Japan, which was visually represented by woodblock artists such as Utagawa Hiroshige 歌川広重 (1797-1858). Perhaps surprisingly, given Kamakura’s historical importance as a national capital, a specific set of eight views was never expressed among pre-Meiji poets, artists, and woodblock printers.[2]

Given the precedence of the literary and artistic value of the eight scenic vistas genre, one could conclude postcard publishers were naturally filling in the gaps of history when they issued sets of eight postcards depicting famous locations around Kamakura. Kanji Satō suggests this would be premature, as it overlooks the particular means of postcard manufacturing. The photomechanical process of printing late Meiji postcards was dominated by the collotype press, which used relatively large sheets of paper that were later cut into individual cards. Each of these sheets accommodated eight individual postcards, thus sets were most efficiently designed in groupings of eight cards, totaling 8, 16, 24, or 32 cards per set. Thus the relationship to the historical groupings of eight scenic vistas portrayed as a “complete” set is most likely coincidental, although it dovetails nicely into traditional Japanese arts.

Figure 1 [Set 1] & Figure 2 [Set 2]Figure 1.JPG

Figure 2.JPGSometime in the 1920s sets of picture postcards were more frequently issued in a paper sleeve or cover. These sleeves were initially imprinted with text or simple designs, but due to the highly competitive commercial market these utilitarian items became subject to the same visual expectations as the postcards themselves. The examples before us bear a hand-colored photographic image, which is given the same artistic care as the cards they hold [Fig. 1 & Fig. 2]. In addition to the minor and idiosyncratic coloring differences, each set uses a slightly different letterpress design. Set 2 also appears to be influenced by an Art Deco font style.

Figure 3 & Figure 4

Figure 3
Figure 4

The sleeve image of the Daibutsu matches the photograph of the Daibutsu on the interior postcard, save for the bokashi-style color wash of the sky. Both sleeves show a pink-hued twilight coloring of the sky while the cards are tinted with a daylight blue [Fig. 3 & Fig. 4]. The fact that these selves and cards are hand-colored is partly surprising. In the early part of the twentieth century many monochromatic photographic postcards were hand-tinted. In the early part of the Taishō period (1912-1926), however, a multi-color collotype printing process was developed, presenting a new option for publishers to speed up their production process. Some publishers took advantage of this technology and multi-color printed cards existed side-by-side with hand-tinted cards into the early 1920s. After the 1923 earthquake, however, almost all publishers adopted this new printing technology when they re-opened their businesses. Since these two sets of cards were issued post-1923 (see below), the fact that our unknown publisher was employing hand-coloring was an added selling point – justifiably noted on the sleeve.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Figure 6 [sleeve] & Figure 7 [postcard]

Figure 6
Figure 7.JPG

The photograph of the Daibutsu appears staged, as all of the onlookers face squarely towards the colossal statue with legs drawn together and arms at their sides. Upon close inspection, we also see very subtle signs of the 1923 earthquake that ravaged the Kantō region. The lanterns, for example, are shortened from their usual height, signs they needed to be pieced back together and re-erected. Additionally, the items normally arranged atop the offering table are now missing [Figs. 3 &4]. More significantly, the structure to the right of the Daibutsu appears slipshod, a significant difference from the ornate hipped roof building that stood in that same location for three decades [Fig. 5]. Moreover, in a detail that is only visible on the cover sleeves, wooden supports hold up the base of the pedestal, a clear indication of the damages rendered in 1923 [Fig. 6]. An artist carefully painted over the wooden supports for the postcard image, creating a new brick façade to complete the deception [Fig. 7]. The most evident sign of damage is the toppled tree that breaks into the foreground view from the left side [Figs. 3 &4].

Most likely, this photograph represents a period after the terrible destruction caused by the earthquake and after the initial clean-up of the temple grounds. Indeed, enough time has passed so the structure on the right could have been constructed. Yet, the ample work reported in refinishing the pedestal appears to have not yet been executed. Furthermore, in other photographs from April 1925 after the repairs, not only are the wooden supports removed, but the lanterns have been reconstructed fully and moved to the second landing. These details all suggest this photograph of the Daibutsu was taken after the Great Kantō earthquake on September 1, 1923, but before the repairs were finished in early 1925.

Figure 8 [Set 1] & Figure 9 [Set 2]

Figure 8
Figure 9

I suspect that Set 1 was printed in the mid-to-late 1920s. Regrettably, I have not yet been able to match the trademark of a drum (in the stamp box, see Fig. 8) to any known publisher. While Set 2 contains photographs of the same locations, only four of the eight photographs have been copied directly from Set 1. The other four cards offer different vantage points of those locations. Most importantly, the caption (in Japanese only) of the image of the bell tower at Kenchō-ji Temple in Set 2 distinguishes the bell as a National Treasure (kokuhō 國寶)[Fig. 23], a designation it received only on November 14, 1933, thus establishing a firm terminus post quem for this set. I would estimate that Set 2, also issued under an unknown publisher (although I’ve suspected Hoshinoya in the past), was printed in the mid-1930s. I remain uncertain if the same publisher issued both sets.

Below I offer brief historical commentary on the remaining seven views from both sets. The older set, i.e. Set 1, bears simpler captions that are set in blank spaces around the card. The newer set, i.e. Set 2, places the captions along the bottom edge of the cards, as is more traditional. The English in the bilingual caption is sometimes a loose translation of the Japanese, thus I provide a more literal rendering in square brackets.

Figure 10 & Figure 11

Figure 10
Figure 11
  • Set 1 caption: Hachiman Temple 鎌倉八幡宮 [Hachiman Shrine, Kamakura]
  • Set 2 caption: Hachiman Shrine Kamakura 鎌倉八幡宮 [Hachiman Shrine, Kamakura]

Residing at the geographical center of the city, the unusually long, nearly 2-kilometer long road leading to the Hachiman Shrine entrance traditionally doubled as the main thoroughfare of the city. Originally constructed in 1063, the founder of the Kamakura shogunate, Minamoto no Yoritomo 源頼朝 (1147-99), invited the tutelary kami of warriors, Hachiman 八幡, to reside in a new reconstruction of the shine in order to protect his fledgling government. Due to its relationship with the shogun and important political role, the Hachiman Shrine remains the most historically and culturally important site in Kamakura. Previous to 1868, this site was a shrine-temple complex (jingū-ji 神宮寺), meaning it was used as a place for Buddhist practice and the worship of kami.

Figure 12 & Figure 13

Figure 12
Figure 13
  • Set 1 caption: Tsuchiro Kamakura 鎌倉大塔宮土牢 [“The prison at Ōtōnomiya Shrine, Kamakura”]
  • Set 2 caption: Tsuchiro Kamakura 鎌倉大塔宮土牢 [“The prison at Ōtōnomiya Shrine, Kamakura”]

The Kamakura Shrine was erected by Emperor Meiji in 1869 to honor Prince Moriyoshi 護良親王 (also read Morinaga) (1308-1335) who was imprisoned and killed as an act of political retribution in 1335. Before he actively helped his father lead forces against the shogun, Moriyoshi was a Buddhist monk and previously held the position of head abbot of Enryaku-ji Temple 延暦寺, the prestigious seat of the Tendai school.[3] Moriyoshi’s life and unfortunate death captured the imagination of the Japanese and he was well known even before the creation of the shrine memorializing him. The postcard photograph depicts the cave behind the main shrine hall (haiden 拝殿), which according to tradition is where the prince was held captive for nine months. The alternate name of this site is Ōtōnomiya Shrine 大塔宮, for a pseudonym used by Moriyoshi.

Figure 14 & Figure 15

Figure 14
Figure 15

 Set 1 caption: View of Yenoshima 七里ヶ濱ヨリ江ノ島ヲ望 [Distant View of Enoshima from Shichirigahama]

Set 2 caption: View of Enoshima (Island) near Kamakura 七里ヶ濱ヨリ江ノ島ヲ望ム [Distant View of Enoshima from Shichirigahama]

 Figure 16 & Figure 17

Figure 16
Figure 17
  •  Set 1: View of Yenoshima 江ノ島入口 [The Entrance to Enoshina]
  • Set 2: Entrance of Enoshima (Island) near Kamakura 江ノ島入口棧橋 [The Entrance Bridge to Enoshina]

The famed island of Enoshima is a center of worship to the goddess Benzaiten 弁財天, a figure with origins in India and who entered Japan in the 6th through 8th centuries. As one of her roles, Benzaiten was considered the protector of the nation and thus was favored by military leaders. The founder of the Kamakura shogunate, Minamoto no Yoritomo 源頼朝 (1147-99), took advantage of the proximity of Enoshima to his new capital and mandated the construction of a torii on the island to memorialize his devotion to the goddess. Taking advantage of visitors to the islands, entrepreneurs soon set up a variety of shops, consequently making the excursion even more attractive to travelers. For early Western tourists, the sandy beaches made the island a favorite resort area. Older woodblock prints show that the island was connected to the Shichirigahama beach by a shallow sandbar before the bridge was constructed.

Figure 18 & Figure 19

Figure 18
Figure 19
  • Set 1 caption: Hase Temple 鎌倉長谷寺 [Hasa-dera Temple, Kamakura]
  • Set 2 caption: Hase Temple Kamakura 鎌倉長谷寺 [Hasa-dera Temple, Kamakura]

With origins in the 8th century, this temple is best known for housing one of the largest wooden statues in Japan. It is a 9 meter (approx. 30 foot) tall statue of the Buddhist goddess Kannon 觀音. Its purported origins are rather interesting. It is believed an artist named Tokudo 徳道 made two large Kannon statues from a single fragrant camphor tree in 721. One was enshrined in Hase-dera Temple in Nara, while the second was set adrift into the sea. Fifteen years later the wooden statue washed ashore near Kamakura and a temple, also named Hase-dera, was constructed to honor it. Like many religious sites in Kamakura during the Kamakura period, this temple was restored and expanded. Several later postcard sets of Kamakura include a view of the Kannon statue.

Figure 20 & Figure 21

Figure 20
Figure 21
  • Set 1: Yengakuji Temple Kamakura 鎌倉円覚寺舍利殿 [Reliquary Hall of Engaku-ji Temple, Kamakura]
  • Set 2: Engaku-ji Temple Kamakura 鎌倉圓覺寺山門 [Front Entrance of Engaku-ji Temple, Kamakura]

Founded in 1282 during the Kamakura period, Engaku-ji Temple was included as one of the Kamakura’s “Five Mountains” (gozan 五山), a network of Zen Buddhist temples supervised by a state bureaucracy but that also received the state’s protection. In the Meiji period (1868-1912) it became the center for Zen study in the eastern part of Japan. Not coincidentally, the famed popularizer of Zen in America, D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), trained there (though he remained a layperson until his death). Set 1 depicts the temple Reliquary Hall (noted in the Japanese caption) which houses a tooth of the Buddha. This building is registered as a National Treasure. Set 2 depicts the temple front gate (sanmon 山門, “mountain gate”), itself a prominent piece of architecture on the temple grounds.

Figure 22 & Figure 23

Figure 22
Figure 23
  • Set 1 caption: Kenchoji Temple Kamakura 鎌倉建長寺山門 [Front Entrance of Kenchō-ji Temple, Kamakura]
  • Set 2 caption: Tsurigane (Bell-Tower) Kencho-ji Temple Kamakura 鎌倉建長寺鐘樓(國寶) [Bell Tower at Kenchō-ji Temple, Kamakura (National Treasure)]

Founded in 1253 during the Kamakura period, Kenchō-ji is the oldest Zen training temple in Japan. Like Engaku-ji, it was also included among the “Five Mountains” network. Set 1 depicts the temple front gate. And while Set 2 depicts the bell tower, the significant historical entity is the temple bell (bonshō 梵鐘), itself designated as a National Treasure (kokuhō 國寶), the most precious of Japan’s historic and cultural properties. Cast in 1255 by Mononobe Shigemitsu 物部重光 it is the second largest in the Kantō region, only to one housed in Engaku-ji. It is believed that the goddess Benzaiten, who was thought to reside on the nearby island of Enoshima (see above), offered her divine protection to have it made. Some modern scholars have suggested Mononobe as the caster of the Kamakura Daibutsu since this bell was made around the same period, although this remains unlikely.


*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. I have also published my working notes on identifying publishers of Meiji and early Taishō postcards and establishing a sequential chronology for Kamakura Daibutsu photographs.

[1] Shirane 2010.

[2] Nenzi (2004) outlines the development of Kamakura and Sagami generally into a destination spot through the identification of “tourist packages.”

[3] Moriyoshi (his Buddhist name was Son’un 尊雲) had a complex relationship to his monastic vocation, since his vital role as abbot was to enlist the help of important temples and warrior monks to help his father, Emperor Go-Daigo 後醍醐天皇 (1288-1339), in his fight against the Kamakura shogunate.

Esaki’s Pilgrims at the Daibutsu

For nearly three decades after the first Japanese postal cards were issued in 1873, printing and distribution were strictly controlled by the government. Only with changes in postal codes in 1900 could private publishers start printing and selling their own postcards. Importantly, and for the first time, these privately issued cards could bear images on the obverse, thus being termed “picture postcards” (ehagaki 絵葉書). Previous government-issued specimens were printed blank to accommodate a sender’s written message. Moreover, the growing use among Japanese print shops of inexpensive collotype printing equipment meant photographs could be easily reproduced for this new medium. Many early photographic postcards are reproductions of images originally created and sold in Japanese photography studios, as is the case with the examples here.

Figure 1Esaki 01a.JPG

  • Year: 1900-1907 (postally unused)
  • Photographer: Esaki Reiji 江崎礼二 (1845-1910)[?]
  • Medium: collotype print on cardstock, hand-tinted
  • Dimensions: 5.5 in X 3.5 in
  • Reverse Imprint: Union Postale Universelle. CARTE POSTALE, 萬國郵便聯合端書

This postcard depicts the Kamakura Daibutsu, scaled to fit in the upper-left corner of the card [Fig. 1]. The blank space on the right side was reserved for a written message; Japanese postal code required the reverse side to be reserved solely for the name and address of the recipient. Once messages could be included on the reverse in 1907, postcard images were regularly scaled to fit the entirety of the obverse side.

For artistic flourish, the publisher of our card employed a subtle trompe-l’œil, making it appear as if the corner of the photographic image is curling off the paper. Visual illusions such as this would make the postcard stand out among a sea of similar imagery. Printed in large block lettering, the caption clearly denotes the subject of the photograph, the “Daibutsu at Kamakura.”

Figure 2

Esaki 02a

  • Title/Caption: 451 [or 461] DAIBUTSU AT KAMAKURA
  • Year: 1900-1907 (postally unused)
  • Photographer: Esaki Reiji 江崎礼二 (1845-1910)[?]
  • Medium: collotype print on cardstock, hand-tinted
  • Dimensions: 5.5 in X 3.5 in
  • Reverse Imprint: Union Postale Universelle. CARTE POSTALE, 萬國郵便聯合端書

Another postcard employs the same photograph. Here, the image covers a larger portion of the card, but lacks the trompe-l’œil effect [Fig. 2]. Additionally, the caption is much smaller and incorporates an identifying stock number, 451 (or possibly 461). It is of note that a caption which incorporates a stock number with a title is characteristic of prints made by Japanese photography studios of the 1880’s and 1890’s. By comparing this stock number to known lists gleaned from published Japanese studio albums, it appears likely the original photograph was taken by Esaki Reiji 江崎礼二 (1845-1910), a famed Tokyo-based photographer.[1]

Esaki apprenticed under the pioneering photographer Shimooka Renjō 下岡蓮杖 (1823-1914) in 1870 before opening his own studio in 1871 in Asakusa Park.[2] He soon established himself as a technical master, among the first of Japanese photographers to adopt the new gelatin dry-plate (zerachin kanpan ゼラチン乾板) technique in 1883 and executing technically difficult pictures of a naval mine detonating in the Sumida River (1883) and night-time exposures of a lunar eclipse (1884) and exploding fireworks (1885). The shorter exposure times of the dry-plate process also allowed Esaki to more easily photograph fidgeting children, an expertise he proudly displayed in a famous collage of more than 1700 young children and infants (1893).[3]

Figure 3

Esaki 01 pilgrimsThe photograph of the Daibutsu by Esaki (or one of his studio assistants) depicts the bronze statue from the southwest corner, an uncommon, but not unprecedented angle. More relevant to the site’s religious heritage, the photograph shows a line of Japanese pilgrims (jinreisha 巡礼者) in front of the Daibutsu, easily identified by their broad circular sedge hats and walking staffs carried over their shoulders [Fig. 3]. The mise-en-scène is more relaxed than reverent. The lead pilgrim, who holds his hat in his hand, appears to read the small rectangular sign perched on the pedestal (which, coincidentally, forbids climbing on the statue), while his fellow travelers casually stand conversing with one another. Only the temple priest by the offering table glances directly towards the camera.[4] This mundane expression of religious piety stands in contrast to the highly orchestrated images of devotion sometimes staged by Western photographers. Significantly, the distinction between Japanese pilgrim and tourist is often blurred, as both can engage in similar activities at a pilgrimage site, including visits to the temple souvenir shop.

Although faded, the hand-tinting is still visible in both cards, with the slate blue colossus overlooking his faithful visitors. The elements in the scene suggest this photograph was taken in the late 1890’s.[5]

Figure 4

Esaki 01b

Esaki 02b

The reverse of both cards is bordered by an ornamental filigree-like design in burgundy ink [Fig. 4]. These are examples of “undivided back” cards, since no line yet separates the areas 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 these dating between 1900 and 1907. Since it was not yet common for publishers to imprint their names or trademarks on the back, it is difficult to tell who printed these beautifully rendered cards.


*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. I have also published my working notes on identifying publishers of Meiji and early Taishō postcards and establishing a sequential chronology for Kamakura Daibutsu photographs.

[1] Stock lists for Esaki’s studio do not include numbers 451 or 461, but numbers 452 to 460 are all images of Kamakura, specifically Hachiman Temple, the Daibutsu, and the lotus ponds in Kōtokuin (the temple that houses the Daibutsu). See Bennett 2006a: 129. Unfortunately, almost all attributions to Esaki and his studio remain tentative and more work desperately needs to be done on his photographic oeuvre.

[2] For Esaki’s biographical information, see Bennett 2006b: 165 and here and here. Several Japanese resources note his name as “Ezaki,” but I follow the standard English “Esaki,” which is also how he promoted his studio on photographic mounts and in other published materials (the older “Yesaki” can also be found).

[3] This image was also sold in the United States through Sears & Roebuck catalogues.

[4] Closer inspection reveals a young boy towards the far right of the photograph, holding his hat in his hand, also possibly peering towards the camera

.Esaki 01 boy

[5] I have seen postcards of this image cancelled in January 1902, setting a firm terminus ante quem for the photograph. I have also seen a third postcard, oriented vertically, bearing this same photograph.

Panoramic Postcard of the Kamakura Kaihin Hotel

In the summer of 1887, Nagayo Sensai 長与専斎 (1838-1902), a physician and director of the recently incorporated Bureau of Health 衛生局, founded Japan’s first sanatorium, the Kaihin-in 海濱院, on the beaches of Kamakura. Since many Japanese physicians during the early Meiji (1868-1912) were trained under German doctors they soon adopted the contemporary belief in Western medicine that regular exposure to seawater would ameliorate people stricken with tuberculosis. German doctor Erwin Bälz (1849-1913) first recommended the mild climate of Kamakura as an optimal location for sea bathing therapy. This motivated Nagayo to work with wealthy Yokohama silk merchants to construct a vast Western-style resort on Yuigahama Beach 由比ヶ浜海岸 in Kamakura, replete with several acres of pine groves and spacious lawns. Called Kaihin-in (“Seaside Facility”), patients would participate in regular sea bathing sessions and enjoy the open-aired, scenic vistas. Within a year, however, mismanagement would cause the facility to be repurposed into a hotel and resort that catered to foreign visitors.[1]

 The hotel was renamed the Kamakura Kaihin Hotel 鎌倉海濱ホテル and quickly became a tourist destination in its own right. In 1891, an American sailor, M. B. Cook, described his pleasurable visit as such:

“From the streets of Kamakura we drove to the Kaihinin, a large hotel or marine sanitarium facing the sea, and surrounded by beautiful walks and drives. In the summer season it is full of guests, and being in one of the most healthy places in Japan, and the visitors are given so much attention, that it is becoming a center of attraction to all American tourists.[2]

The hotel was also featured in Murray’s A Handbook for Travellers in Japan, the premier English language guidebook for foreign tourists in Japan. It remained a wildly popular destination into the twentieth century, located a mile from the main Kamakura train station (the Yokosuka Line 横須賀線 opened in 1889) and was famed for its European-style cuisine, affordable rates, and English language guest services. It was also located less than a mile directly south from the most important foreign tourist attraction in the region, the Kamakura Daibutsu.

Figure 1

Kaihin obverse.jpg

Kaihin reverse.jpg

  • Title/Caption: Kamakura Kaihin Hotel Kamakura, Japan. // Telephone No. 4 & 331 The Best Bathing Beach in Japan // Telegram “Kaihin” Home of Daibutsu
  • Year: 1903-1907 [postally unused]
  • Publisher: unknown
  • Medium: collotype print on cardstock
  • Dimensions: 5.5 in X 3.5 in
  • Reverse Imprint: Post Card, 郵便はかき

The image on the postcard obverse [Fig. 1] shows the lawns and landscaping of the hotel grounds that led out towards the ocean (seen on the far left). The sprawling multi-storied complex is topped by a flag emblazoned with “KKH,” for the Kamakura Kaihin Hotel. The sweeping, panoramic photograph provides a potent combination of modern (Western) luxury and natural beauty, sure to lure even the most cagey tourist. The text under the photograph proclaims that the site offers “the best bathing beach in Japan,” a callback to its origins as a bathing sanatorium. Importantly, the photograph is overlaid with an oval image of the Kamakura Daibutsu, with the caption proclaiming that the hotel is the “home of Daibutsu.”[3] These elements show that the postcard was also used as an  advertisement, tying together the exotic Buddhist icon of the “Orient” with the scenic luxury of the resort grounds. Roaming, half-day long horseback rides to and from the port of Yokohama were no longer necessary to enjoy the Kamakura colossus. Daytime visitors could enjoy a short trek to the temple, expose or purchase a few photographs, and return to picnic by the beach.

Figure 2

Kaihin Daibutsu.png

This photograph of the Daibutsu [Fig. 2] likely dates from after 1903 (due to the outward facing metal lotus flowers atop the offering table). The reverse of the card shows that it is an “undivided back,” definitively dating it previous to 1907 (a “dividing line” was introduced the following year). This also proves the design on the front of the card was purposeful, with the bottom blank half of the card reserved for correspondence; only the address and name of the recipient was allowed on the back. The photographer(s) and publisher remain unknown.

Figure 3

TMKD Kaihin Obverse.jpg

  • Title/Caption: Kamakura Kaihin Hotel Kamakura // Telephone No. 4 & 331, Kamakura // Japan
  • Year: 1930s
  • Printer: unknown
  • Medium: halftone print and ink on paper
  • Dimensions: 5 in X 3.5

The same photograph of the hotel compound was later used on paper luggage tags [Fig. 3] for the Kamakura resort. Affixed to suitcases and steamer trunks, luggage tags were very popular in the interwar period. In addition to helping sort luggage in transit, these tags signaled the cosmopolitan sophistication of the tourist and thus were often designed with bold images and bright colors. The oval inset of the Daibutsu closely mirrors the postcard design, yet this photograph of the Kamakura colossus is of a much later vintage, quite possibly dating from the 1930’s [Fig. 4].

Figure 4

TMKD Kaihin CU.png

The Kamakura Kaihin Hotel suffered significant damage during the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, but was rebuilt to its previous grandeur. The hotel would remain in operation up through World War II, until a series of fires resulted in its closing in the mid-1940s.


*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.

[1] An overview of the cultural encounters between Germany and Japan in the field of medicine are discussed in Kim 2014. For more information on Nagayo, see Rogaski 2004, esp. pp. 136ff. The best available information on Nagayo’s role in the founding of the Kaihin-in appears to have been discussed in the Exhibition Reminiscing the Kamakura Kaihin Hotel 鎌倉海浜ホテル追憶展, organized by Hirata Emi 平田恵美 of the Kamakura Central Library, Modern Historical Materials Division 鎌倉市中央図書館近代史資料室 in 2011. I am indebted to the review of this event by Noriyuki Takagi 高木規矩郎 found here, here, and here. Other scattered information can be found here. Certainly, far more archival research needs to be done for a full account of this story. I have not been able to consult this work: Kamakura kaihin hoteru: Nipponhatsu no kaihin rizōtohoteru 鎌倉海濱ホテル 日本初の海浜リゾートホテル [The Kamakura Kaihin Hotel: Japan’s First Seaside Resort Hotel], by Shimamoto Chiya 島本千也 and Hirata Emi 平田恵美.

[2] Cook 1891: 29. A handful of other late nineteenth and early twentieth-century tourist remarks can be found here.

[3] There are versions of this postcard without the small overlay of the Daibutsu. The caption instead reads “The only resort in the Far East.” The best online collection of Kamakura Kaihin Hotel memorabilia remains here.


  • Cook, M. B. 1891. A Sailor’s Visit to the Island Empire. New York: John R. Alden.
  • Kim, Hoi-eun. 2014. Doctors of Empire: Medical and Cultural Encounters between Imperial Germany and Meiji Japan. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.
  • Rogaski, Ruth. 2004. Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tonboya’s Failed Voyeurism of the Daibutsu (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

After the Meiji Restoration, the popularity of photography began to overshadow traditional Japanese woodblock printing. Increasingly, woodblock artisans came to find employment with photography studios, adapting their technical painting skills to add vivid color to monochromatic photographs. In the beginning of the twentieth century, due to the craze surrounding Japanese picture postcards (ehagaki 絵はがき), artisans continued to ply their trade by adding translucent water-soluble pigments to these small format calotypes. One of the most famous postcard distributers was Tonboya トンボヤ, or the “Dragonfly Studio,” first opened by Yoshimura Kiyoshi 吉村清 around 1905.[1] The Tonboya storefronts in Yokohama, first located in the Isezakichō 伊勢佐木町 district before moving to the more heavily trafficked Motomachi 元町 district, were easily identifiable because of large signboards made to look like red cylindrical postal boxes (yūbin posuto 郵便ポスト) widely adopted in Japan. One side of the signboard had the word “POSTALCARDS” painted on it, while the other said ehakaki エハカキ [sic](“picture postcards”), suggesting Yoshimura catered to both foreign and domestic travelers.[2] One image that would represent the photographic interests of both groups would be the Kamakura Daibutsu, located close to the port of Yokohama [Figure 1].

Figure 1PCKD009t(o)


  • Title/Caption: Daibutsu at Kamakura. 佛大倉鎌
  • Year: 1907-1918
  • Publisher: Tonboya トンボヤ
  • Medium: collotype print on cardstock, hand tinted
  • Dimensions: 5 in X 3.5 in
  • Reverse Imprint: Union Postale Universelle.[+], 郵便はかき

By setting the camera on the second landing of the paved walkway, this unknown photographer filled the frame with the image of the Daibutsu; positioning the statue frontally and symmetrically, this framing is similar to many of the images produced by Yokohama photography studios. The image depicts three figures, two women and a young child, facing the Buddhist icon in the center of the photograph. This setting might elicit other images of religious piety at this site, but the mise-en-scène is complicated by the presence of two more children, standing at each of the sides, who stare directly at the viewer. Their presence might have been obscured had it not been for the colorist who painted them in light hues of blue and pink. Notably, their casual posturing is stark contrast to staged “photo ops” of foreign travelers who try to visually suggest their domination of the Orient. Because of these elements, on the whole, we are made to feel as if the scene is staged and that we have been caught in an act of  voyeurism. The women and child, positioned center-stage, engage in a orchestrated religious performance while the children at the edges observe us watching them. A rather apt visual metaphor for the Orientalist gaze, where the artist attempts to create a certain controlled vision of the East, but with “unruly” actors foiling the illusion.[3]

This postcard is not imprinted with a trademark to identify the publisher. The black ink and serif font used for the reverse, however, in addition to the guide lines provided for writing the address, all suggest this card was made by Tonboya.[4] In addition, the position of the diving line for correspondence indicates this card was printed between 1907 and 1918. If the image on the obverse was not self-evident enough, bilingual cerulean letterpress (note the impression the reverse) identifies the scene clearly: “Daibutsu at Kamakura.”


*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.

[1] Several online English sources claim Tokutaro Maeda was the founder of Tonboya, but I have found no Japanese sources that confirm this. I prefer here to follow the print Japanese sources (e.g. Saitō 1985: 1), but leave the question unsettled.

[2] Several early-century postcards depicting the streets of Yokohama show this red cylindrical signboard, as seen here: Red postal sign.pngThe full postcard can be found here (not part of the Archive).

[3] By shooting one woman mid-stride ascending the small flight of steps, this photographer is (accidentally?) paying homage to Enami Nobukuni 江南信國 (1859—1929), but without the overal effects of sterling visual narrative.

[4] The best site for identifying Tonboya cards remains here: Another common reverse printing of Tonboya during this period is discussed here.


  • Handy, Ellen. 1998. “Japonisme and American Postcard Visions of Japan,” in Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards,  Christraud M. Geary and Virginia-Lee Webb, eds. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Saitō Takio 斎藤多喜夫. 1985. “Yomigaeru shinsaizen no Yokohama fūkei よみがえる震災前の横浜風景,” Kaikō no hiroba 開港のひろば, No. 12, pp. 1, 4.
  • Satō, Kenji. 2002. “Postcards in Japan: A Historical Sociology of a Forgotten Culture,” International Journal of Japanese Sociology, No. 11, pp. 35-55.
  • Yokohama Open Port Museum 横浜開港資料館, ed. 1999. Nen mae no Yokohama Kanagawa ehagaki de miru fūkei 年前の横浜・神奈川―絵葉書でみる風景. Tokyō: Yurindo 有隣堂.

Tonboya’s Onlooker of the Daibutsu (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

By the end of the nineteenth century the port city of Yokohama had developed into a thriving tourist destination. Consequently, numerous Japanese shops opened to cater to the needs of both domestic and foreign travelers. Perhaps surprising to a modern reader, among the prized goods offered for sale were picture postcards (ehagaki 絵はがき), the first truly commodified form of the photograph which unexpectedly became a collectors craze in the first decade of the twentieth century.[1] Around 1905, Yoshimura Kiyoshi 吉村清, the proprietor of the well-known Tokyō-based publisher Kamigataya 上方屋, started a new venture in Yokohama, called Tonboya トンボヤ, or the “Dragonfly Studio.”[2] The dragonfly was long seen as symbol of courage and strength in Japanese culture, and thus it was cherished by the samurai and bestowed the romantic name of the “Victorious Insect” (kachimushi 勝ち虫). This lore notwithstanding, Tonboya postcards – emblazoned with its distinctive dragonfly trademark – soon became some of the most famous and widely circulated postcards of the period.

Figure 1



  • Title/Caption: Daibutsu at Kamakura. 佛大倉鎌
  • Year: c. 1909
  • Publisher: Tonboya トンボヤ
  • Medium: collotype print on cardstock, hand tinted
  • Dimensions: 5 in X 3.5 in
  • Reverse Imprint: Carte Postale Post Card [+],  郵便ハガ[キ]

This image of the Kamakura Daibutsu [Figure 1] highlights the rustic setting of the colossal statue, framing the statue between sprawling tree branches and the silhouette of a sago palm. With the camera placed in the southwest corner, our unknown photographer creates a voyeuristic scene as a man in knee-high mud boots and western attire peers towards group of Japanese visitors from behind a tree. Seeing this observer from behind, we take his perspective and also gaze upon the group of Japanese visitors dwarfed by the overlooking bronze statue. The brightly colored garments of the women on the right stand in contrast to the uncolored gray shades of the men and boy on the left [Figure 2]. The boy wears a school uniform (gakuran 学ラン), a style adopted decades earlier based on French and Prussian military outfits.[3] Among this group, only a single man looks up towards the Buddhist statue. The others stand and stare at each other from several paces apart. The gives an unnatural effect to the scene, as the stationary bodies and odd spacing fails to build up a clear visual narrative. What is the relationship of these temple visitors to each other? What is their purpose for being there? As was typical of cards from this period, bilingual cerulean letterpress informs us as to the identity of the Buddhist figure, the “Daibutsu at Kamakura” (note the imression left on the reverse along the bottom edge).

Figure 2

PCKD008t(men).JPG   PCKD008t(women0.JPG

Often, Tonboya would impress its dragonfly logo at the lower right on the front of the card, but our variant lacks this identifying element.[4] Turning to the reverse of our card [Figure 1], we still fail to easily locate the characteristic mark of the dragonfly. So, just how can this card be distinguished? The designers at Tonboya devised a creative and playful way to identify their publishing studio; they replaced the ki (キ) in hagaki (ハガキ, “postcard”) with a highly stylized dragonfly illustration [Figure 3]. Only the most attentive observer would notice this subtle alteration, but once noticed it becomes an easily identifiable marker of this studio. This creative design can be dated back to around 1909 and remained throughout Tonboya’s existence into the late 1920’s.

Figure 3



*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.

[1] Satō 2002: 41.

[2] Several online English sources claim Tokutaro Maeda was the founder of Tonboya, but I have found no Japanese sources that confirm this. I prefer here to follow the print Japanese sources (e.g. Saitō 1985: 1), but leave the question unsettled. Another unresolved question remains the relaitonship between Kamigataya and Tonboya. It appears that Tonboya may have been a distribution name of postcards printed by Kamigataya (which continued to also publish postcards under its own name). Some sources claim Tomboya opened as early as 1904, other as late as 1907.

[3] The development of Japanese school uniforms are detailed here:

[4] Tonboya would also often include an identifying letter and stock number in the lower left, but this is also missing in our specimen. It is also possible to find cards with the letter and numbering system, but still lack the dragonfly icon, see here: [then search for the reference number 10989247]


  • Handy, Ellen. 1998. “Japonisme and American Postcard Visions of Japan,” in Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards,  Christraud M. Geary and Virginia-Lee Webb, eds. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Saitō Takio 斎藤多喜夫. 1985. “Yomigaeru shinsaizen no Yokohama fūkei よみがえる震災前の横浜風景,” Kaikō no hiroba 開港のひろば, No. 12, pp. 1, 4.
  • Satō, Kenji. 2002. “Postcards in Japan: A Historical Sociology of a Forgotten Culture,” International Journal of Japanese Sociology, No. 11, pp. 35-55.
  • Yokohama Open Port Museum横浜開港資料館, ed. 1999. Nen mae no Yokohama Kanagawa ehagaki de miru fūkei 年前の横浜・神奈川―絵葉書でみる風景. Tokyō: Yurindo 有隣堂.

To See a Buddha: A Visual Literacy of Buddhism in America (Digital Exhibit)

[This is a online version of my Archive exhibit at the UCSB Religious Studies Department. Many thanks to Will Chavez for his enthusiastic support and assistance.]

UCSB Exhibit

What do you think the Buddha looked like?

My research has been guided by this deceptively complex question. As Americans were first introduced to Buddhism on a mass level in the latter half of the nineteenth century, I became interested in how they also developed a “visual literacy” of Buddhist images. Before the happy Laughing Buddha was popular, the Great Buddha of Kamakura was the most prominent visual icon. This Great Buddha, or in Japanese, “Daibutsu,” was constructed in 1252. Here’s a look of how this statue made its way into the American imagination.

The Albumen Print and Yokohama Shashin


The popularity of the Kamakura Daibutsu in America was accidental. When Japan re-opened its borders to foreigners in 1859, the port of Yokohama – a short day’s ride from Kamakura – was selected as one of the treaty ports were foreigners could legally reside. The close proximity of Kamakura Daibutsu to this bustling port city was a significant factor in its blossoming popularity.

In addition, two other factors played a role in the recognizability of the Kamakura Daibutsu: the development of the international tourism industry and the invention of the camera. Globetrotting tourists who hoped to preserve their picturesque travels in souvenir photographs unwittingly helped promote a visual identity of an exotic Japan back home in America, with geisha, rickshaws, and Buddhist “idols,” such as the Kamakura Daibutsu.

Because of the sheer number of wealthy tourists in Yokohama, professional photography studios started to open their doors for business. These studios, operated at first by foreign residents, sold souvenir albums to fit the needs of their eager clientele. These souvenir photos were called Yokohama shashin, or “Yokohama photographs,” due to the high concentration of studios in this port city.

Adolfo Farsari (1841-1898), an Italian adventurer, eventually settled in Yokohama in the 1870s. Farsari entered a fiercely competitive photography industry when he bought out an established photography studio to open his own firm, A. Farsari & Co. Like his competitors, he sold photographs and pre-made albums to wealthy “globetrotters” who sought to return home with photographs of famous sites.

The first commercially viable photographic process produced what are known as albumen prints. They used albumen found in egg whites to bind the photosensitive chemicals to the paper.

After the monochromatic print was processed, artists would hand apply watercolor washes to provide vibrant color. Often these artists were Japanese, some who may have been trained in traditional Japanese woodblock printing.

Picture Postcards and the Collotype Process



Although photography had been in existence for over half a century, some claim that the first truly commodified form of the photograph was the picture postcard. Small and inexpensive, the postcard was a convenient souvenir that could easily be sent around the world for the appreciation and amusement of someone else.

The Japanese postal delivery service began in 1870, but it was not until 1900 that new postal regulations allowed for private companies to print their own postcards. In Japan, the postcard soon rivaled the traditional woodblock print as the favored medium to present contemporary Japanese images.

Early postcard images were commonly recycled photographs from old souvenir photography studios. In 1905, spurred by the international interest in photographing the Russo-Japanese War, a picture postcard boom hit Japan, breathing life into a new industry and collecting hobby.  Still catering to a thriving tourism industry, the private postcard publishers reshot the same generic imagery that sold well as albumen prints, including the Kamakura Daibutsu.

One of the most prolific postcard publishers of the period was the Ueda Photographic Prints Corporation, founded by Ueda Yoshizō上田義三 in the port of Yokohama around 1905. Because printing photos was exceptionally expensive and time consuming, new mechanical photographic reproduction processes were soon invented.  The development of a new printing technique, called the collotype, allowed for photomechanical printing – and the creation of inexpensive postcards – on a massive scale.

Stereophotography and Stereoviews


Perhaps one of the most curious forms of early photography involved a technique for making stereoscopic images.  By placing  a pair of slightly different images – taken by two cameras separated by about the distance between a person’s eyes – and viewing them through a stereoscope, they would merge and create an illusion of depth, thus mimicking three dimensional viewing.  An early form of virtual reality, stereocards, or stereoviews, became wildly popular by the end of the nineteenth century.

Although some stereoviews were sold in Japan, most stereoviews were sold directly to Americans in department stores, through mail-order catalogues, and by savvy door-to-door salesmen. A surviving manual for salesman instructs them in the “hard sell,” scripting a sales pitch to say: “You see, nearly everyone is getting a ‘scope and views, and really, so should you. One like this will last you all your days.”

Mass produced Japan-themed stereocard sets first started to appear in 1896, but dozens of Japan sets were available just a decade later. These images were no longer tourist souvenirs, but imaginary escapes for people who did not possess the wealth of a world-touring globetrotter. Many of the same images found in Yokohama photography studios and postcards publishers were used to paint an image of the exotic Orient.

In 1903, the novice professional photographer, Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935), was hired by the premier publishers of stereoviews, Underwood & Underwood to take new stereo-photographs of the scenery of Japan. As with many other publishers, he captured the “majestic calm” of the Kamakura Daibutsu.

Originally novelty items that could be paired with parlor games, stereoviews soon started to be marketed as educational tools. Eventually the reverse was filled with descriptive text, often taken directly from tourist books published a decade or more earlier.

From Idol to Icon


By the first decade of the twentieth century, the image of the Kamakura Daibutsu not only circulated through photographic prints, postcards, and stereoviews –  as we have seen already – but also through numerous travel books, magazine articles, and newspaper columns. The image was so often reproduced that it no longer signified a bronze statue, but an amorphous idea, a veritable icon of the exotic Orient.

It is not surprising that such an icon found favor among early modern advertising firms. The growing tourism and cruise ship industry was one of the early adopters of the Kamakura Daibutsu image. The Pacific Mail Steamship company, the first to offer a regular trans-Pacific route from San Francisco to Yokohama in 1867, used it in its magazine ads. Even the Japanese cruise company, Nippon Yūsen Kaisha (NYK) used the Daibutus in their English-language brochures.

The statue also took on more artistic renderings, gracing the cover for the sheet music to “Buddha,” composed by Lew Pollack in 1918 for a Vaudeville act. Lyrics were added the following year by Ed Rose, and it became a popular “foxtrot” dance record for home enjoyment. In addition, the Daibutsu image was also used to add an exotic quality to mundane home goods, such as incense.

The exotic image was also used as a symbol of foreign danger, and can be found in the background of movie sets, such as the Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), reflecting racist and xenophobic undercurrents of American culture. After WWII, the Daibutsu manifested again as popular souvenir trinkets marketed to overseas soldiers, such as cigar ash trays.

The Kamakura Daibtusu continued to be used widely in American advertising  throughout the 1950’s, before the allure of the Laughing Buddha started to take a firm hold in the American imagination.

Did You Know?

Both the Laughing Buddha and the Great Buddha of Kamakura are not actually images of the historical Buddha!! They are representations of different buddhas, Maitreya Buddha and Amitābha Buddha respectively – consider taking a Religious Studies class to learn about these figures!

Where’s Waldo?: Did you spot the happy, lounging temple dog that was photographed in both a stereoview and postcard in this exhibition?


[Thank you for your virtual visit!]




Ueda’s Unfussy Daibutsu Postcard (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

Figure 1pckd006u(o)pckd006u(r)

  • Title/Caption: Daibutsu, Kamakura. 佛大倉鎌
  • Year: c. 1907 [postally unused]
  • Publisher: Ueda Photographic Prints Corp. 上田写真版合資会社
  • Medium: collotype print on cardstock, hand tinted
  • Dimensions: 5.5 in X 3.5 in
  • Reverse Imprint: Carte Postale [Type 2], Made in Japan, 郵便はかき

The unknown photographer of this image set the camera slightly off-center, positioning it just to the left of the shoulder of the three-step stairway leading to the first landing. From this position the Daibutsu does not peer directly at the viewer, but slightly off to the side, creating a more restful, nonconfrontational composition. The Japanese visitors add to this genial environment, casually positioning their bodies in front of the Buddhist statue [Figure 2]. It appears as if one woman is fixing her hair as she casually looks back towards the camera. Another, older woman, appears to look dotingly upon a child who is plafully placing a foot on the fence around the coin box. Unlike other staged photographs where Japanese supplicants are made to kneel in prostration in front of the Daibutsu, this presents a mundane scene. All of  these elements combine to create a spontaneous and unfussy mise en scène, a seeming “snap shot” of the daily affairs on temple grounds.

Figure 2

PCKD006u(o) visitors.jpg

The hand coloring is fairly typical of postcards of the period, with the Japanese garments painted in vibrant colors. We do not see pink cherry blossoms painted behind the Daibutsu, thus directing our attention to the brightly clothed visitors in the foreground. The reverse of the card does not indicate the publisher, but the design corresponds to the Type 2 back of Ueda publishing, dating this card between 1907-1918. The reverse is slightly unusual since the “Made in Japan” mark is on the lower edge of the card and not in the dividing line splitting the correspondence and address sections. Another small detail suggesting Ueda as the publishers is the coloring of the child clothing (pink with a red dot) as we find on other Ueda cards. In bold, cerulean letterpress (not the slight embossing on the back of the card from the lettering), the caption simply states the object and location, in English and Japanese – Daibutsu, Kamakura.

*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.

Kōzaburō’s Undivided Back Postcard (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

Many early Japanese turn-of-the century postcards were colorful illustrations, cartoons, or woodblock prints, some of which were made by famed Japanese artists, but these traditional arts forms would soon lose favor to the photograph. One of the shifts that ushered in the visual dominance of photographic postcards was the introduction of private company postcards 私製はがき, which had been illegal to print until new postal regulations were introduced in 1900. In addition, the adoption of a new photomechanical printing technique, called the collotype, allowed for the wide availability of inexpensive photographic images of Japan.

Many early photographic postcards first circulated as albumen or silver gelatin prints sold by commercial photography studios. Early postcard publishers experimented with the orientation of the old images on the new format. By placing the image on the top half of a vertically oriented card, the bottom half could be reserved for the message [Figure 1]. Strategically designed areas or blank spots were necessary on the front of the card, because the reverse of the card was reserved solely for the name and address of the recipient until 1907. The regulations were determined by the Union postale universelle, the body which oversaw the postal system worldwide. These postcards, known today as “undivided back” cards, were replaced by “divided back” cards in 1907 in Japan, where the message could be included on the reverse of the card.

Figure 1


  • Title/Caption: NA
  • Year: 1900-1907
  • Photographer: Tamamura Kōzaburō 玉村康三郎 (1856-1923?)[?]
  • 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

The image depicts a wide angle view of the Daibutsu taken from the third landing. The positioning of the camera shows the rustic, yet landscaped grounds surrounding the Daibutsu statue. Lacking the presence of people, this bucolic setting exhibits a more quiet moment of the famous tourist destination.  On the right, the supports and roof of the ablution pavilion stick out from under an evergreen tree. The water basin (chōzubachi 手水鉢) for washing hands is found underneath (dating from 1749).

The photographer of this image is debated. Older studio albumen prints of this image are imprinted with “661 Daibuthu [sic] at Kamakura.” This numbering is consistent with the studio catalogue of Tamamura Kōzaburō 玉村康三郎 (1856-1923?)(See Bennett 2006: 152), but other sources attribute this image to Ogawa Kazumasa 小川 一眞 (1860-1929). (A similar, but not exact, photo has been identified in an Ogawa studio album). This exemplifies the difficulty in determining the correct attribution and age of old Daibutsu photographs, and more research still needs to be done.

Moreover, because the publishers of the postcard did not imprint their name on the back, it is difficult to tell who printed this tourist souvenir. 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 sections 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. (The photograph was probably taken in the mid-to-late 1890s). In addition, 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.