Hakodate in the 1920s

1930s’ Japanese “street photography” was lively — work by Hamaya, Horino, Kuwabara, Ōkubo and others is known and reprinted. But Japanese street photography is older than that. Kumagai Kōtarō was photographing Hakodate in the mid-twenties.

Kumagai Kōtarō, “Hakodate: The 1920s”The work of Kumagai (1893–1955) was little known until recently, but his negatives were preserved and a team in Hakodate, including one of his sons, produced a fine anthology: はこだて 記憶の街 (i.e. “Hakodate: Town of memories”), also titled Hakodate: The 1920s. Here it is.

Kumagai had to use glass plates in a big and heavy camera; it’s hardly surprising that a lot of the photographs are humdrum by the standards of the following decade (of roll film and even 35mm). But there’s always something of interest, even if it’s just the apparent nonchalance of young women wearing kimonos or furs in the slushy streets. (In one photograph [plate 8, which I’m annoyingly not showing you], a girl in a kimono is running through the slush.)

Kumagai Kōtarō, “Hakodate: The 1920s”

A bit windy up there in frosty Hakodate, unless perhaps there was some passing fad of puffing up the sleeves of one’s kimono. (But in the days before expanded polystyrene peanuts, perhaps not.)

A lot of the photographs rise well above the merely humdrum. We have some almost proto-Kojima (all right, post-Zille):

Kumagai Kōtarō, “Hakodate: The 1920s”

Most of the buildings of Hakodate were wooden (as elsewhere in Japan, of course), and in 1934 a huge fire would destroy much of the town, and kill thousands of people too. So the photographs are of particular historical value for Hakodate. (The book comes with a separate sheet showing exactly where, in relation to present-day Hakodate, each photograph was taken.)

Next, a pair of kenban (geisha rental offices, more or less). On the right, the girls in front are maiko (trainee geisha); for some reason at least three of them are wearing aprons.

Kumagai Kōtarō, “Hakodate: The 1920s”

Kumagai seems to have liked particular young ladies, occasionally following and rephotographing the same pair or, in two among the four below, the same young lady together with her son on a trike:

Kumagai Kōtarō, “Hakodate: The 1920s”
Kumagai Kōtarō, “Hakodate: The 1920s”

If the majority of the photographs are a little staid, there are some that are startlingly unconventional for their time. One is on the cover; here is another:

Kumagai Kōtarō, “Hakodate: The 1920s”

That could be by Kimura, thirty years later.

If the name Kumagai sounds dimly familiar, you may be thinking of the very different Kumagai Motoichi. Though the very comprehensive 日本の写真家 近代写真史を彩った人と伝記・作品集目録 (subtitled Biographic Dictionary of Japanese Photography but in Japanese only) lists Motoichi and two other Kumagais, it doesn’t list Kōtarō. And this isn’t the only remarkable collection of glass plates to have been rediscovered in recent years (Kondō Tomio’s work from Sado comes to mind). Perhaps yet more will come to light.

The book has eighty full-page plates (plus smaller ones dotted around the front and back matter), and printing (by Toppan) that’s good for the very palatable list price (and as good as plenty of present-day photobooks), in a hardback of roughly 23×23 cm. Captions and most texts are in Japanese only; a short introduction is also in English and Russian.

熊谷孝太郎 (Kumagai Kōtarō) = Kohtaro Kumagai. はこだて記憶の街 (Hakodate: Kioku no machi) = Hakodate: The 1920s. はこだて写真図書館叢書 1. Hakodate: Hakodate Photo Library / Mole, 2007. ISBN 978-4-938628-49-9 (here at Worldcat).

Since publication the library seems to have closed and Mole seems to have vanished, but Amazon, Junkudo and Kinokuniya all say the book is still available. Presumably it’s also obtainable via the standard offer of Japan Exposures (which is still alive and well).

At least one other book was published in the same series as this one: 木靴をはいて 面影の函館 (Sabo o haite: Omokage no Hakodate), a book of texts by Hasegawa Shun (長谷川濬) and photographs by Kumagai.

The Wayback Machine preserves from the old website (since disappeared) of the Hakodate Photo Archives (now seemingly moribund): an introduction to the work, an essay on Kumagai by Obinata Kin’ichi (大日方欣一), and photographs by Kumagai.

And there’s more (all in Japanese): about an exhibition of the work, about the Hakodate Photo Library

Copyright of the images above belongs to the Hakodate Photo Archives, not to me.


One Comment on “Hakodate in the 1920s”

  1. Michael says:

    Great geta! Really appreciate this. love your reviews and all the extra links.


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