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, which the National Geographic attributes to Eliza Scidmore. Some were published in National Geographic; others are from the Society’s archives and have never been shown before.
Proper crediting of photo illustrations was a murky practice a century ago, and it’s likely that Eliza Scidmore collected — rather than generated — many of the photos the Geographic attributes to her. The hand-colored ones were tinted by professional technicians in Japan. The photos of high technical quality, especially posed scenes of “typical” Japanese subjects, were probably copies of studio shots made for the tourist trade.
Eliza Scidmore was affiliated with National Geographic for nearly 20 years as an early member of the Society’s board and a contributing writer and photographer. She published more than half a dozen articles in the magazine, and submitted many photos for publication beginning early in the twentieth century. Her photos are thought to be among the hand-colored images accompanying her 1914 story titled “Young Japan,” which may have been 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.
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.”
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.