A vast collection of ca. 2500 photographic postcards (ehagaki) of kabuki actors in costume, along with a large selection of kabuki-related vernacular photographs. KABUKI ACTORS.
A vast collection of ca. 2500 photographic postcards (ehagaki) of kabuki actors in costume, along with a large selection of kabuki-related vernacular photographs.
A vast collection of ca. 2500 photographic postcards (ehagaki) of kabuki actors in costume, along with a large selection of kabuki-related vernacular photographs.

A vast collection of ca. 2500 photographic postcards (ehagaki) of kabuki actors in costume, along with a large selection of kabuki-related vernacular photographs.

Japan: ca. 1912-80.

A large and impressive ensemble of Japanese photographic postcards depicting kabuki actors. Photographic postcards effectively replaced ukiyo-e woodblock prints which were enormously popular through 1900. This collection documents the rise and fall of great actors, the evolution of costume styles, the various sets and decorations employed on stage, as well as the proliferation of photographic postcards as mementos and collectible memorabilia. Offered with this collection is a series of vernacular photographic prints of actors, many from the early 20th century.

Japan’s postal system was established in 1870 as part of many Meiji era reforms to modernize the country. All postcards were produced by the government until 1900. Initially, postcards served a commemorative purpose, printed with images of famous events and holidays. Following the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5, many thousands of postcards celebrating victories were sold and demand increased exponentially. By the 1910s, progress in photographic printing enabled the mass-production of photographic postcards, such as those represented in the present collection.

Such postcards featuring legendary kabuki actors superseded the genre of woodblock prints yakusha-e (actor prints), an offshoot of ukiyo-e. This new type of memorabilia, called ehagaki (picture postcard), developed in parallel to buromaido (photographs of movie and kabuki stars). Our comprehensive collection of postcards and photographs contains examples of both. Actors are generally depicted in costume on stage or in a photo studio; however, there are a large number depicting them away from the stage, often with their families. These mementos were either distributed in advance of a performance for promotional purposes or sold at the theater to devotees. An avid community of collectors for this material emerged within a short time.

On many of the postcards there are notes or messages which note the date of the performance, the actors who performed, and the name of the play. Others have this information printed. There are also several examples of postcards printed with dialogue from iconic scenes. One series of photographs has been signed in red or black ink by the great kabuki actor depicted, Sawamura Yujiro. Another series bears the stamps provided by theaters to those attending so that they could commemorate and show off their visits. A few more depict the cast on stage during a performance for their “curtain call.” Many candid photographs show the actors as they prepare for a performance, applying their makeup, rehearsing lines, and putting on their costumes.

Another highlight of our collection is its considerable number of early photographic celebrity “stills” of the kabuki actors. They were likely produced in the early 1910s and reveal costumes and makeup from the period. These earlier examples were clearly not intended as postcards since they lack an indicated location for the stamp, a message, and an address. It is possible these are precursors to mass-produced buromaido and photographic postcards which constitute the bulk of this collection. Printed on larger format paper that is rather thick, these photographs would have been far more expensive. One series, in particular, consists of photographs taken among the audience during a performance, with the heads of fellow attendees in the way.

Celebrated actors represented on the postcards in this collection include (with last names first): Nakamura Utaemon, Onoe Baiko, Nakamura Ganjiro, Ichimura Hazaemon, Ichikawa Sadanji, Onoe Kikugoro, Nakamura Kichiemon, Ichikawa Danjuro, Matsumoto Koshiro, Kataoka Nizaemon, Nakamura Senjaku, Nakamura Kanzaburo, Nakamura Kinnosuke, Yorozuya Kinnosuke, Onoe Matsusuke, Sawamura Sonnosuke, Bando Tamasaburo, Ichikawa Danshiro, Ichikawa Ennosuke, Ichikawa Ebizo, Bando Mitsugoro, Nakamura Fukusuke, Ichikawa Chusha, Nakamura Shikan, Jutsukawa Enjaku, Onoe Shoroku, Sawamura Kinjuro, Sawamura Yujiro, Nakamura Tokizo, Kawarazaki Tokizo, Kawarazaki Kunitaro, Bando Hikosaburo, etc., etc.

DATING THE POSTCARDS: We are able to date the ehagaki based on several features.
Layout: Division between address and message on the verso of the postcard

1910-1918 – The dividing line leaves the bottom third of the card for the message.

1918-present – In most cases, the line divides the reverse of the card into halves.

Reading: “Postcard” (or yubin ha(ka)gaki) label on verso.

Pre-1945 – Japanese is printed right to left.

Post-1945 – Japanese is printed left to right.

Reading of hagaki: Pronunciation of middle syllable.

Pre-1933 – Written hakaki without consonant mark.

Post-1933 – Written hagaki with consonant mark.

Thickness: Postcards on thicker stock are generally older.

We know of no comparable collection of this material related to Japanese theater outside of Japan. Our ensemble of several thousand photographic postcards is in fine condition. A few of the earlier examples are slightly worn or faded but overall the postcards and photographs are in an excellent state of preservation.

❧ Kenji Sato, “Postcards in Japan: A Historical Sociology of a Forgotten Culture,” in International Journal of Japanese Sociology, (2002) no. 11, accessed online.

Price: $12,500.00

Item ID: 6660