A photographic introduction to items from the collection

3,800 dry glass plates that became picture postcards

Materials held by Rekihaku include a collection of glass plate photo negatives. They were used and stored by Shobido, a printing company no longer in business that was located in Jimbo-cho, Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. The negatives were donated to Rekihaku in 2005. The exact size of the collection is 3,846 glass plate negatives, 877 photo prints, and a number of other items. Despite the poor state of preservation, including broken plates and disintegrated images, the size of the collection is massive.

Shobido was founded in 1897. It specialized in printing and selling paintings and photographs, and also produced items such as picture postcards, New Year's cards, bromides, posters, calendars, reproductions, pictorial magazines, and photo albums. Details of Shobido's history can be found in the book "Shobido: Kaiga to tomo ni Kyujunen" ("Shobido: Ninety Years in Paintings") published by Shobido in 1987.

The negatives stored at Rekihaku are of an assortment of media, including photographic advertising materials of catalogues and pamphlets of picture postcards produced by Shobido, photographs of design and reference materials used in the pre-production stage, and photographs not related to items showing memorial services for former company employees. Classified according to use, there appear to be more picture postcards than any other type of item, though there are also those thought to have been used for New Year's cards, Christmas cards and calendars. Most date from the pre-war Showa period (1926-1939). However, because few carry captions, we have no information on the subjects or sites of an exceedingly large number of the photos. It is possible to classify the items into the following broad categories.

1. Army, naval vessels, military aircraft, military facilities, and battle sites
2. Colonies and occupied territories (Korea, China, Sakhalin, etc)
3. Tokyo and regions throughout Japan (including sightseeing places and historic sites)
4. Events and activities such as exhibitions, festivals, and air raid drills
5. Facilities and buildings such as schools, factories, mines, and restaurants
6. Portraits and photographs of famous figures from all ages and cultures (historical figures, members of the Japanese imperial family, naval officers, geisha, etc)
7. New Year's cards with designs of animals from the Oriental zodiac
8. Famous art works and reproductions, including oil paintings, Japanese paintings, and ukiyo-e
9. Illustrated guides of fish, birds, insects, animals, farming implements, etc
10. Landscapes, still life, sports, and other miscellaneous subjects

Not all of these photos can be said to be originals. In the case of reproductions of paintings and similar items, the originals obviously existed separately. A close look at photos that appear to be originals reveals that quite a few are reproductions made from the original prints. It is most likely that the person or company placing an order supplied the print, which was usually copied for printing purposes. Unfortunately, because there are no written materials that detail the processes and activities required to produce the finished product, we know little about the characteristics of individual photographs. A small assortment of surviving materials includes letters from people who placed orders, picture postcards produced by the company, and some basic information on the outside of paper boxes used to store the dry plates. However, information extracted from such items is only fragmentary. It might be possible to identify the contents and dates of the photos if we gather together items held in the collections of other museums and sold in antiquarian book markets and matched them with Rekihaku's dry plates. This task remains to be done.

For this article we wanted to show a random selection of photos with interesting scenes which serve as good illustrations of the times in which they were taken. The end result was a selection of photos that symbolize the period of war and imperialism. All are prints that have been made from glass dry plate negatives.

As a means of providing more information on this collection, a catalogue will be made available from the database section of the Rekihaku website (in Japanese only).

HIGUCHI Takehiko(Modern Japanese History, Research Department)