Kyoto Journal

The Japanese Postcard Collection of Graham Bowyer

I was introduced to Japan by a Japanese school girl, who came to stay with my wife and me in 2000 on a home-stay programme organised by Lions International. Her energy and enthusiasm for not only learning everything she possible could about England, but also for introducing us to Japan, sparked our interest. Our relationship developed and she subsequently became our ‘Japanese daughter’. Within 2 years we set off on our first Japanese adventure, staying with ‘our’ student’s family and traveling along a relatively well worn tourist trail from Fukuoka to Tokyo. We were charmed and fascinated, and on our return sought ways to develop our new interest. We joined several organisations in the UK with Japanese interests. We were particularly interested in Japanese gardens, already being keen gardeners. This led to an active involvement in the Japanese Garden Society in UK. Our interest developed and we have made several further visits to Japan.

The year 2010 marked the centenary of the Japan-British Exhibition at the White City in London and the start of my picture postcard collection. Today there is almost nothing left of the huge and quite fabulous exhibition site. However, a local park in Shepherds Bush in West London includes what remains of one of two Japanese gardens built for the 1910 exhibition. Initially my interest was in helping with the programme of improvements for the centenary celebrations, but this developed into a wider interest in the exhibition. Searching for photographs of the original gardens, I discovered that an excellent source was the picture postcards, published at the time. These were popular as souvenirs as well as short message cards and were sold in huge quantities. A significant number have survived and can be purchased quite inexpensively. I now have more than 100 postcards from the Japan-British Exhibition, which provide a fascinating insight into the exhibition.

Being interested in gardens in Japan, I decided to investigate whether old picture postcards of Japanese gardens were also available and this has developed into a collection of more than 500 mostly from the period 1900 to 1930s. The theme has broadened to include landscapes and some cityscapes, gardens and temples. Some were posted in Japan and have a sequence of postmarks that mark the journey they took to reach the intended recipient. Some were written during the long trip home to Europe or America and posted in ports along the way. Some were posted on return and bear stamps from America or a European nation. Some have never been posted, but were souvenirs of someone’s trip. Collectively they provide a small glimpse of early 20th century Japan and of the Western travellers that went there.

On a recent trip to Japan, I visited our Japanese daughter and was introduced to Robert Blasiak, who worked at the same organisation. Robert and I quickly discovered a common interest in the tales of early 20th century visitors to Japan. I am delighted to be able to contribute a few images of old postcards to illustrate Robert’s excellent translation.

—Graham Bowyer