Dr Franz Stoedtner (1870–1945), art historian and publisher, is considered one of the pioneers of documentary photography. In 1895, he started the Institut für wissenschaftliche Projection in Berlin, one of the first commercial institutions to propagate photographs for research purposes. Sold in the form of glass slides, the images were particularly appreciated as teaching aids in German institutions of higher education.
Stoedtner ventured a project whose scale was unusual for his time: his archive came to comprise over two hundred thousand photographs. They depicted various parts of the world and were divided into thematic categories: near and distant lands, art history, and technology. One of the sets depicted Japan.
Taken in two of the four main Japanese islands – Kyushu and Honshu – probably in late 1936 and early 1937, the photographs show the country seventy years after the watershed event represented by the Meiji Restoration: the fall of the Tokugawa military regime and the shift of power back to the emperor, the opening of the borders, closed for over two hundred and fifty years, and the confrontation with Western culture – a clash of the traditional and the modern.
The years after the Meiji era saw the modernization of the country, conducted on an unprecedented scale. It was a time of major social tensions for Japan: attempts at reconciling the indigenous customs and manners with those coming in from the West and a necessity to redefine the people’s own identity and take a stance in the face of the changing, tumultuous world. The 1920s and 1930s also marked the early stages of the extraordinary militarization of Japan. And although there is little indication of it – the camera lens focuses mostly on festivities, customs, and beautiful views – the photographs show the country on the eve of war.