At National Geographic, Eliza Scidmore and Samurai

Photographs from Eliza Scidmore’s days in Japan are going on display at the National Geographic Society in Washington starting today. The exhibit is twinned with an exhibit on samurai.

Included are two dozen hand-colored photos from the early 1900s, attributed to Eliza Scidmore. Some were published in National Geographic; others are from the Society’s archives and have never been shown before.

Koto player, attributed to Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Geographic)


Worker in Japan, headed for home, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Geographic)

Eliza Scidmore was affiliated with National Geographic for nearly 20 years as a writer, editor, photographer and member of the board. Her hand-colored images  accompanying a 1914 story titled “Young Japan” are thought to be the the first time the magazine carried photographs taken by a woman.

The related exhibit offers a very different view of samurai than the images we have of feudal warriors who served members of the nobility from the 12th to the early 19th centuries.

The elite status of the samurai changed focus after authority was restored to the emperor in 1868, an event known as the Meiji Restoration. As Japan embarked on a widespread program of rapid modernization, the sons of many distinguished samurai families got a Western-style education that prepared them for roles as statesmen and cultural ambassadors who helped build bridges between Japan and Western countries like the United States.

Jokichi Takamini (Source: his biography, 1928)

Describing events that led to the planting of Washington’s cherry trees in 1912, Eliza Scidmore referred to the contribution of Dr. Jokichi Takamine, an eminent Japanese chemist in New York City who offered to donate 2,000 trees for the project. His gesture was “an admirable samurai retort,” she wrote, to anti-Japanese demonstrations on the West Coast that sought to segregate Asian students and restrict Oriental immigration.

Not all samurai became members of the country’s elite. Some had to enter household service to survive. At a hotel in Yokohama during one of her many trips to Japan, Eliza counted on the services of Tatsu, a former samurai who “had the face of a Roman senator, with a Roman dignity of manner quite out of keeping with his broom and dustpan, or livery of dark-blue tights, smooth vest and short blouse worn by all his class in Yokohama.”

He translated correspondence for her, and she sought his advice on purchasing ceramics and artifacts that agents brought to her hotel for consideration. Once when she received a card for a garden party at the imperial place, Tatsu “sucked in his breath many times,” bowed low and translated thus: “Mikado want to see Missy, Tuesday, three o’cock.”

Samurai warrior, c.1877, Stillfried and Anderson, hand-colored photo (Source: Library of Congress)

The samurai followed a strict code of conduct that came to be known as bushidō, or “Way of the Warrior-Knight.”  Loosely analogous to the concept of chivalry, it stressed virtues like frugality, loyalty, honor, wisdom and the martial arts.

A 1900 book by Nitobe Inazō introduced the concept of bushido to readers in the West. Nitobe and his wife, an American Quaker from Philadelphia, became good friends of Eliza Scidmore, particularly in the final years of her life.     

The samurai exhibit runs March 7 to Sept. 3, 2012, at National Geographic’s Explorer’s Hall in downtown Washington. Tickets ($8 for adults) are required for admission.

Geishas at a tea ceremony, hand-colored photo by Eliza Scidmore, from the early 1900s (Source: National Geographic)

Geishas at a tea ceremony, hand-colored photo by Eliza Scidmore, from the early 1900s (Source: National Geographic)




Filed under Cherry Trees, Eliza Scidmore, Japan, Photos

3 Responses to At National Geographic, Eliza Scidmore and Samurai

  1. Pingback: My 'Pen Pal' Research Partner in Japan - A Great Blooming

  2. Eliza Scidmore certainly used photographs by Javanese photographer Kassian Cephas uncredited in her book on Java , and the hand coloured images of Japan would most likely be similarly uncredited local photographers. European and American writers imagined that their audiences would not recognise the authorship.

    Gael Newton Senior Curator Photography National Gallery of Australia

  3. Don Nakayama

    I am interested in the details of the 1926 news article interviewing Ms Scidmore where she refers to the role played by Takamine. Can you direct me to the article – I am trying to determine whether Takamine himself finances the purchase, or if it was the Japan Club of NYC or the city of Tokyo itself.
    Any help you can provide would be much appreciated.

    Thank you


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