Another of the many casualties of the modern digital, computer-connected life is the old custom of both sending and collecting picture postcards. At one time, when most homes were without a telephone and when city dwellers could expect mail delivery two or three times a day, the postcard served as a cheap and fast means of visual communication. At one time it wasn’t all that uncommon to receive in the morning a card saying, “I will see you this afternoon for tea.” These days an email lands in your inbox, plain white ‘electric’ paper, and in an ugly block type san serif you get: CUPM4T. No greeting, no signature, but maybe a little yellow animated smiley face. Pretty much the case now, and no question it is the same around the world, including Japan. In spite of that, Japan at one time enjoyed a golden age of picture postcards.
In a beautiful book published by the Museum of Fine Arts in conjunction with their exhibition in 2004 of “Art of the Japanese Postcard: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” we are given an impressive look into the postcard art form as it was practiced in Japan in the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries.
One of the major factors in the popularizing of postcards in Japan was their use in conveying visually both news and military propaganda. As documents of current events, every incident from floods to earthquakes was sketched or captured by snapshot and turned into a postcard. The heyday of postcard popularity in Japan ran from 1896 to 1914, and by 1905 the modern visual style was beginning to show signs of graphic sophistication. Curator of the Boston exhibition, Anne Nishimura Morse believes that any history of Japanese art would be incomplete without the inclusion of the postcard art of that country.
Fishermen by Yamamoto Kanae; sometime between 1900-1912; color wood engraving, ink on card stock.
Two o’clock at night in the Yoshiwara, from a 1906 series by Odake Kokkan; color woodblock and stencil, organic and inorganic colorants, metallic pigment on Japanese paper adhered to card stock.
New Year’s card 1932 by Takahashi Haruka; color lithograph, ink and metallic pigment on coated card stock.
Japanese soldier facing the rising sun; artist unknown, from the time of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905; color woodblock and embossed texture, organic and inorganic colorants, on card stock.