Rare & Beautiful

The Photo Book in Japan: 1920s–1940s

By Peter Kraus November 24, 2020

Like Gaul, the history of the photo book in Japan can easily be divided into three parts. The first is the period from the end of the nineteenth century to the 1920s. The books from this period were mostly concerned with depicting Japan and its people, and are typified by the numerous photo books published around 1910 by Ogawa Kazumasa, such as Illustrations of Japanese Life and Sights and Scenes in Fair Japan.

Hand-colored photograph from Illustrations of Japanese Life by Ogawa Kazumasa (1910).

The third part, which is most familiar to people, is the period after World War II, represented by the works of photographers such as Eikoh Hosoe, Ken Domon, Nobuyoshi Araki, Shomei Tomatsu, and Daido Moriyama, to name just a few. It is the second part, however, from the late 1920s to the end of World War II, that is the least known, and that is the focus here.

Kikai to Geijutsu (Interrelations between Machine and Art) by Takao Itagaki, designed by Masao Horino (1929).

Among the many factors that bought about changes in Japanese photography after World War I were an increased awareness of what was happening in Europe and also an important exhibition of photographs. This was the German International Traveling Photography Exhibition, which was held in Tokyo and Osaka in 1931, and brought a modernist aesthetic to Japan.

What was going on in Germany was very much influenced by the Bauhaus. This influence is perhaps best shown in two books that combine both a Japanese and a Bauhaus aesthetic: Kikai to Geijutsu (Interrelations between Machine and Art), by Takao Itagaki and designed by Masao Horino, published in 1929; and, by the same author and designer, Yushusen no Geijutsu Shakaigaku-teki (The Art of Superior Ships: A Sociological Analysis), published in 1930. In these works, the nature of the images has changed from the pictorial photographs that typified previous Japanese photo books to a much more hard-edged modernistic style. The design of the books also shows the influence of the Bauhaus, but, if only through the use of kanji, they retain a definite Japanese sense of identity.

The year 1932 saw the publication of a Japanese take on Vitezslav Nezval’s celebrated 1926 book ABECEDA, designed by Karel Teige and published in Prague, which features photographs of human models combined with letters of the alphabet. The Japanese version, Jinkotsu Toyomi No Shinkosei (New Compositions of Beauty of Human Anatomy), by the photographer Shuzo Nakagawa, who was also the designer, used nude models as opposed to the clothed ones in ABECEDA.

Jinkotsu Toyomi No Shinkosei (New Compositions of Beauty of Human Anatomy) by Shuzo Nakagawa (1932).

Two years later came the publication of what is surely the most outstanding of all Japanese photo books, Koshiro Onchi’s Hiko Kanno (Sensation of Flight). Onchi brilliantly combined his photographs with abstract designs to create a unique work, and one that transcends its classification as a Japanese photo book to warrant inclusion among the major illustrated books of the twentieth century.

Hiko Kanno (Sensation of Flight) by Koshiro Onchi (1934).

At the same time, one of the most important aspects of the Japanese photo book was slowly crystallizing. This was the gradual introduction of photojournalism into Japan. In the beginning, many of the publications were quite straightforward, and included magazines such as Asahi Graph, the Japanese equivalent of LIFE; Nippon, which was aimed at an audience beyond Japan; and Shahsin Shuho (Photo Weekly). By the mid- to late 1930s, photography was being co-opted for propaganda purposes. The most celebrated product of this was Nippon (Japan: The Nation in Panorama), published in 1937. This is a unique elaborate folding panorama showing life in Japan in photographs by Ken Domon and others. Unfortunately, it is extremely fragile, and very few copies seem to have survived.

After having used photography to demonstrate the power and achievements of Japan to the Japanese, and to the world, photography was mobilized as part of the country’s war effort. In many of these works there is the undeniable influence of the photographers who performed the same task under Stalin, most notably Alexander Rodchenko. Outstanding among all these publications is the magazine FRONT, whose issues bear a remarkable likeness to USSR in Construction. The nine issues that were published during the 1940s demonstrate stunning usage of photomontage and layout, and provide a unique record of the war in the East from a Japanese perspective. At the same time there was a steady stream of propaganda photo books coming off the presses, which in themselves form a whole collecting category. They also include a significant number of books on the Japanese territory of Manchuria.

From FRONT magazine (1942).

Among the more spectacular of the photo books from the war period are Teikoku kaigun no iyo (The Majesty of the Imperial Navy) and the two volumes of Daitoa senso: kaigun sakusen shashin kiroku (The East-Asian War: Photo Record of Japanese Naval Operations).

From Teikoku kaigun no iyo (The Majesty of the Imperial Navy) (1942).

One of the last wartime publications with extraordinary photographs, and a work laden with irony, was Katazushite nanno warerazo (We Shall Have To Win), published in 1944. All these works demonstrate the power that the Japanese government ascribed to the photo book as a medium of propaganda. Surprisingly, many of the books combine their often bombastic photographs with a delicate sense of design, revealing the underlying Japanese sensibility.

Despite having been produced in large numbers, almost all these books are rare today, but are worth collecting for the quality of the photography and the insight they provide into their place and times.

For those interested in finding out more about the books highlighted in this article, including questions pertaining to possible acquisition, please contact Peter Kraus at Ursus Books & Gallery: (212) 772-8787 or ursus@ursusbooks.com.

Peter Kraus is the founder and current owner of Ursus Books & Gallery in Manhattan, which offers a comprehensive selection of art reference books, superb copies of rare books in all fields, and decorative prints.


This is the twelfth installment in a collaboration with Peter highlighting important books from the past.

Previous articles in this series are “The Artist’s Book in America: The Arion Press in the 20th Century,” “Unusual Book Design for Unusual Times: Revisiting the Work of Iliazd,” “Desert Island Books,” “Architecture and the Illustrated Book,” “The Way It Happened: Modern Art Exhibition Catalogues,” “Matisse as Book Illustrator and Designer,” “Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler: Publishing Artists and Authors in the Early 20th Century,” “Paris and the Artist’s Book in the 1920s and ’30s,”  “Discovering Old Design Books in Japan,” “A Dialogue with Color,” and A Flowering of Creativity: Ladislav Sutnar and F. T. Marinetti.”

Please note that Designers & Books will receive an accommodation from sales resulting from this collaboration.

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