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Sadanobu II (二代目 貞信), earlier name Konobu I (一代目 小信)

Naniwagawa no unjô sho (Customs house at the river in Osaka: 浪花川の運上所) and Denshinki o miru (View of telegraph office: 電信機を見る)
Hase Konobu ga (長貞信写画)
No artist seal
Ishiwa, Osaka Hirano-chô, Yodobayashi Minami
c. 1875
(H x W)
Horizontal ôtanzaku nishiki-e
16.4 x36.7 cm
Very good
Excellent color, unbacked; small repaired wormhole upper margin
Price (USD/¥):
$925 / Contact us to pay in yen (¥)

Order/Inquiry: SNB07


On July 8, 1853, when American Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into the harbor at Tokyo Bay, he brought with him technological wonders as gifts for the emperor to impress the Japanese with the superior achievements of western culture. The subsequent "enlightenment" of Japan during the Meiji period featured the promotion of industry, communication, and commerce through the development of telegraph (1869), telephone (1877), and postal networks (by 1877, the postal system had become such a great success that it had joined the International Postal Union). Japan's modernization also included the construction of railways beginning with a line between Tokyo and Yokohama in October 1872.

The telegraph as designed by Samuel Morse (1791-1872) arrived in Japan in 1854. The morse-code device was first demonstrated in front of Dutch scholars by Commodore Matthew C. Perry (1794-1858), leader of the Perry Expedition that led to the end of Japan's Sakoku ("Closed country": 鎖國 or 鎖国), the foreign relations policy of relative isolation of the Tokugawa shogunate from 1641 to 1853. In 1869, British telegraph engineers were invited to Japan, and Japan's first telegraph circuits, which were Breguet-style dial instruments (with katakana substituted for roman letters on the dial-face), opened on a miniscule pilot-project scale at the Yokohama Lighthouse Government Office and Yokohama Courthouse with a line less than 1 km in length. With that success, however, in the following year the new Japanese Meiji government quickly installed much-expanded lines between Tokyo and Yokohama, and Osaka and Kobe, respectively, and international communications were soon established as well. By 1871, the telegraph network had spread to other key points in Japan, including wires running from Nagasaki to London.


Sadanobu II's timely woodcut of a modern port scene is fascinating in its depiction of the transitional world that the Japanese were navigating during the Meiji period (明治時代 1868-1912). For the most part, native dress prevails among the many figures, aside from the two westerners chatting with Chinese traders at the far right, the family of three (parents and child) on the left (perhaps considering taking a ride in the jinrikisha, 人力車), and a pair of westerners engaged in a discussion at the far left. In the middle distance we see a western-style steamboat (or a Japanese steam-powered ship). Otherwise, the boats and ships on the busy river appear to be conventional Japanese vessels. Presumably, the western-style house on the right was the site of customs operations (a transport office) as well as telegraph communications. Unrelated to this, there is a curious aspect to this design — ten or more of the figures appear to be gazing upwards, but what has attracted their attention remains a mystery.

Views of mercantile establishments such as Sadanobu II's would have been quite popular with citizens of the period, many of whom were curious about what the West had achieved and how introducing it all into their native land might change Japanese society (not everyone was thrilled by these developments in the early years of Meiji). Moreover, the brighter, somewhat garish color palette used by Sadanobu II is today considered a part of the phenomenon called Kakushin no iro ("Colors of progress": 革新の色), whose vivid colorants, including aniline dyes, were associated with the progress of a nation intent on modernizing and assimilating the most progressive aspects of western culture.


  1. Oka Yasumasa, et al.: Japan Envisions the West: 16th-19th Century Japanese Art from Kobe City Museum. [Exhibition catalog] Seattle Art Museum, 2007.
  2. Asano, Toru, Ozaki, Masaaki and Tanaka, Atsushi: Shajitsu no keifu yôfû hyôgen no dônyû. Edo chûki kara Meiji shoki made (Development of western realism in Japan: From the middle of the Edo period to the early Meiji period: 写実の系譜・洋風表現の導入。江戸中期から明治初期まで). Tokyo: National Museum of Modern Art, 1985.