Between the way Japan has embraced technology and just how incredibly safe the country is, it’s easy to forget that it really wasn’t so long ago that the whole nation was still under the feudal system. Until 1868, “samurai” was still very much a viable career choice, as the ruling shogunate relied on a trained warrior class to keep the peace.
How much the traditions of Japan’s fabled swordsmen live on in Japanese society today is something scholars love to debate, and while there are points to be made both for and against their importance, there’s one thing that unquestionably remains, and that’s photography of real-life, genuine samurai.
In the early 17th century, the ruling Tokugawa shogunate enacted strict policies isolating Japan from the rest of the world. Eventually, though, more and more contact with the outside world began to trickle into the country, showing just how far behind the rest of the world Japan had slipped scientifically and technologically. The isolationist system was repealed in the 1850s, and in 1868 the feudal government, and with it the samurai, were done away with.
This left only a scant few years during which modern technology and the warrior class coexisted in Japan. One of the first photographers to work in Japan was Italian Felice Beato. Following a working journey through Asia, Beato arrived in 1863, where he settled in Yokohama, then, as now, the choice for dashing expatriates.
Japan had suddenly become the focus of intense international attention, with the outside world eager for its first glimpse at life in the country. Beato was ready to satisfy the world’s curiosity with his photography showing the sights and people of Japan, including the samurai, as shown in these shots from 1866. They may not be quite as handsome as some of the samurai we recently introduced you to, but there’s no denying that these guys look like they could really handle themselves.
Firearms had been introduced to Japan centuries ago during the Warring States period, but their cumbersome designs and the lack of industry to easily produce them in mass quantities meant that when Beato began working in Japan, the samurai’s traditional armaments were still very much in use.
Japanese online commentators were just as captivated by Beato’s photography as its original audience must have been.
“Just by looking at their faces, you can tell how much they’ve experienced in life.”
“I wouldn’t want to mess with any of these guys.”
“Wow. If you figure the oldest guy is in his 60s, that means he might have been born in the 17th century.”
We can only hope that the snapshots people have taken of us are this compelling 150 years from now.
Source, images: Labaq
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Amazing photography from the 1860s shows us some of Japan’s very last samurai