Forgotten Photos From Turn Of The Century Japan

May 10, 2024

A Geisha Writes a Letter, Circa 1885

At the turn of the 19th century, Japan was at a crossroads of tradition and modernity, undergoing major changes in society while trying to keep deep-rooted cultural customs. In the midst of this changing landscape, elements such as kabuki performers, geishas, cherry blossoms, and musical instruments like the shamisen played significant roles in shaping the country's cultural identity. Kabuki performers dazzled audiences with their theatrical prowess, geishas mesmerized with their mastery of traditional arts such as dance and music, and musical instruments like the shamisen added a melodic backdrop to everyday life. Here are some turn-of-the-century photos from Japan that reflected the cultures and norms of life during that period.


National Museums in Berlin

Handwritten letters written by geishas offered a window into a world of grace, eloquence, and cultural refinement. Around 1885, these letters were intimate expressions of emotion, friendship, and artistic appreciation, reflecting the unique role of geishas in Japanese society.

Geishas, highly trained in traditional arts such as calligraphy and poetry, approached letter writing with great care and attention to detail. Each stroke of the brush showed not only the message itself but also the writer's personality and artistic sensibility.

These letters often contained elegant prose, delicate brushwork, and embellishments, reflecting the aesthetic principles of Japanese art and literature. Geishas also decorated their letters with seasonal details, such as cherry blossoms or autumn leaves. Even the paper they selected was important.

Grace, Elegance, and Beauty Combined: A Geisha Performance


During the late 19th century in Japan, geishas were entertainers known for their mastery of traditional arts, including dance. Around the 1890s, geisha performances mesmerized audiences with their grace, elegance, and attention to detail.

Accompanied by live shamisen music and percussions, geishas would enchant spectators with their movements, intricate gestures, and facial expressions. Each dance was carefully choreographed to tell a specific story or evoke a particular emotion, often drawing inspiration from classical literature, mythology, or seasonal themes.

Beyond mere entertainment, these geisha performances served as a cultural preservation effort, safeguarding traditional art forms. Through their performances, geishas upheld centuries-old traditions, ensuring that these art forms continued to thrive in a rapidly changing society. Moreover, geisha dance provided a glimpse into the refined world of the Japanese elite as geishas entertained patrons at exclusive tea houses and gatherings.