Monday, May 2, 2016

Letters in Photographs: Kusakabe Kimbei

Writing Letter (also known as Letter Writer) by Kusakabe Kimbei

Kusakabe Kimbei (日下部 金兵衛) (1841–1934) was a Japanese photographer. In 1854, Japan opened its doors to the outside world for the first time in more than 200 years, which set in motion a truly astounding transformation. As fate would have it, photography had just been invented, and as the old country vanished and the new one was born, daring photographers such as Kusakabe Kimbei took photos.

This interesting web site is a depository of old photos of Japan and it provides a detailed description of each one of them. I am pasting below the description for Writing Letter (or Letter Writer).

"A woman wearing a kimono is writing a letter with a brush. A box to place brushes and sumi (ink), and an andon lamp are on the tatami (rice mats). In the back hangs a kakejiku(hanging scroll).

The Japanese writing system was introduced to Japan from China in the 4th century AD. Initially, the Chinese characters were only used for reading and writing Chinese. Around the mid seventh century, or possibly earlier, a writing system was developed which used Chinese characters to represent the Japanese language. This was called Manyogana (万葉仮名). The name has been derived from the Manyoshu, a Japanese poetry anthology from the Nara Period (710-794).

The Meiji Period (1868-1912) saw a range of important transformations in the use of written Japanese. The Genbunitchi (言文一致) movement, for example, resulted in using a colloquial form to write. Previously, a classical style had been used. Additionally, in 1900, the Education Ministry standardized the hiragana script and limited the number of kanji (Chinese characters) taught in elementary schools to about 1,200.

More significant reform followed after the end of WWII, when conservatives were removed from control of the educational system. Undoubtedly, the most important reforms were limiting the number of kanji students learn at Japanese high-schools to just 1,850, and changing the direction from right-to-left to left-to-right."

I am thankful to Noriko Fukushima for her wonderful workshop about Japanese calligraphy in our school, and to Miro Villar for letting me know about Kusakabe Kimbei and this beautiful photograph.

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