Kuniteru II, View of the Steam Engine at Tanakawa, Tokyo

Ichiyusai Kuniteru II (1829 - 1874) View of the Steam Engine at Tanakawa, Tokyo (Tokyo Takanawa totsudo jokisha sagyo no zenzu), 1870. Oban triptych.

This is a landmark print, showing the earliest industrialisation of Japan following the Meiji commitment to progress in 1868. This print probably represents the new circular railway installed in the late 1860’s. As a document of a unique and violent moment of social change, the print is miraculous.

The central motif, running the full width of the triptych is the steam train. Japanese artists had at this time no vocabulary for drawing geometric or mechanical things and no visual clues to modern industrial products. Hence the detail of the locomotive is schematic at best. Everything here is arranged in flat, parallel planes - the foreground, the road-bridge and the landscape. Littering the scene are vignettes of past and present - this collision of old and new. Hand carts vie with pedestrians and rickshaws… men in bowler hats pass women and samurai in kimonos. But there is little sense of regret for past times - this is a celebration of the new, the organised and the advanced.

The railroads opened up Japan like nothing else. When looking at travel prints from just a few decades before we can only observe a mediaeval method of transport: people literally carrying pedestrians across rivers. Journeys were limited to how far a man could walk in a  day. The railroads changed the way that people viewed the world and its possibilities; and prints like this one celebrate that.

These railway prints are hugely sought after and this is a fine example of the genre. The print is in three separate sheets, unbacked. Colour impression and condition are all fine.

A copy of this print is in the Met Museum New York.

Signed Ichiyusai Kuniteru ga, published by Daikokuya.