Tokyo, 1877

I’ve just spent an intense week working on the third novel in my Clockwork Legion series, The Brazen Shark. Many scenes I’ve written have been set in Tokyo of 1877. Like any city, Tokyo has its own personality but it’s a personality that has changed considerably in the last 137 years. I’ve been scouring the web for photos of Tokyo and its surrounding areas. Here’s one of my favorite, a public domain photograph of Yokohama in the 1880s.


What I like about this photo is how much the scene looks like many U.S. cities of the same period. There are wooden buildings, a gas lamp, and dirt streets. Of course, there are elements of this photo that seem very unique to Japan, such as the rickshaws and the banners hanging over the doors. I love how people are just going about their business, like the two guys on the right just chatting about some long forgotten subject. Some people are striding with purpose. Others are looking around.

Of course, one has to be careful when doing research on the web. Here’s another photo I like. This photo shows Kyobashi. According to Wikipedia, the photographer died in 1898 and this is supposed to be a nineteenth century street scene.


The problem is the streetcars. As far as I can tell from researching the Tokyo streetcar system, Tokyo and its surrounding areas didn’t get streetcars until 1901. (Update 11/24/14: After I posted this, Ged Maybury pointed out these are horse-drawn streetcars, which did exist as early as 1882. See his excellent comments below). Now, since The Brazen Shark is a steampunk novel, it’s tempting to allow this anachronism. However, one of the themes that’s emerging in the novel is the way in which Emperor Meiji’s “Restoration” was a transition from old feudal Japan to a new, modern vision of Japan. I do introduce scientists and inventors who want to bring this about, but I also want to show that they’re working in a city where this is all new and exciting. You might see some miraculous inventions in the Tokyo of my novel, but you won’t yet see an established transportation system that didn’t exist as early as 1877. Another possible anachronism is the guy in the straw hat in the lower left. That suit just says 1901 to me more than 1880!

Now, despite the fact that this photo has anachronisms, there are still things to be learned. Again, I see people walking and taking rickshaws through the streets. I see someone carrying baskets. I see horses and masonry buildings. As long as I keep in mind what would and wouldn’t be in this scene in the time period of my novel, the photo still serves as a tool to help me describe nineteenth century Kyobashi.

Speaking of science and exciting discoveries, it’s time for me to return to the observatory for a few days. In the meantime, you can start getting ready for The Brazen Shark by discovering the first two novels of the Clockwork Legion series. Click the link to see the books, read sample chapters and find out where you can buy them. Also, as we’re in the run up to Thanksgiving, this seems a great time to remind you that books make outstanding holiday presents. If you have read and enjoyed Owl Dance or Lightning Wolves and know someone who would like them, why not give one or both as a gift?

14 comments on “Tokyo, 1877

  1. dm yates says:

    I love this idea of Japan during this time frame, and the pics are great!

  2. Love the vintage photos. Fascinating to see what look like telephone poles so early. Perhaps these are actually telegraph wires? As to the second, though, an 1898 photo would only be 3 years earlier than 1901. Not that far off, though still outside your historical era.

    • Thanks! I’m pretty sure those are electrical poles in the photo. I considered that the photo might be as late as 1898, but according to the Tokyo Streetcar company website, the cars weren’t running until 1901, so that definitely suggests an error in the photo’s attribution — unless there were a rival streetcar company, but I haven’t seen any indication that such a thing existed.

  3. Ged Maybury says:

    I note that the trams are horse-drawn.
    I began my research. Wikipedia states: “1903: The Tokyo Horse-drawn Railway changed its motive power to electricity and, under the name Tokyo Electric Railway (or Tōden, 東電) commenced operations between Shinagawa and Shinbashi.”

    Thus this photo must predate that changeover.

    I draw your attention to this:
    – depicting horse-drawn trams, dated 1882.

    The Fine Arts Museum of Boston has a huge Japanese collection. It may well provide you further fodder.

    Finally, there is a high-res photo of that tram/street scene here:

    • Excellent catch. In the low-resolution photo I didn’t see that the trolleys were horse-drawn. It looked to me like the horse was simply walking along the track either behind or ahead of a trolly. I believe you have solved the apparent discrepancy. Moreover, you’ve given me excellent research fodder and even an idea for what to do with an idea I introduced in the novel but wasn’t sure where it was going to go. Thank you, Ged.

  4. Ged Maybury says:

    “Japan’s first railway opened between Shinbashi and Yokohama in 1872, and Ueno Station opened in 1883 as a north gateway to Tokyo. Meanwhile, a horse tramway appeared as an urban transportation facility for common people. The tramway was used for about 20 years since its opening in 1882. Later, the railway tracks were diverted to the use of trolley cars.”

  5. Ged Maybury says:

    Further to this photo:(and revealing my obsessive nature and the fact that I have entirely too much time on my hands), I’ve tentatively concluded that the street is Kajibashi Dori, looking almost due west. The time must have been close to midday in summer (note the shadows). The waterway is listed as ‘Kameshima River’ on my map.

    It is the only place in Kyobashi that fits for shadows, short bridge, street width, change of alignment and the transport patterns I extrapolate as existing at that time. (Assuming that the bridging of waterways would have progressed from easiest to longest, and thus the tramways would have followed).

    It looks utterly different now, of course. A subway (the Keiyo Line) runs under this street. Business district, high-risers, etc.

    I’d give you the latitude and longitude, but have forgotten how to extract them from Google Maps

  6. Ged Maybury says:


    • Arigato. Yes, that makes sense. I hadn’t really attempted to pinpoint the location, but that’s the general area I was guessing it must be.

      • Ged Maybury says:

        No problem, my good sir. It was a good intellectual distraction for a half-hour or so.

        And it suddenly occurs to me: the waterways in the area would have been high-use transportation routes in their own right. (I note the tide-line on the stonework, and the cart waiting lower left. I’d love to be able to turn the camera and see what else was going on that day.
        Have you researched that aspect? Water traffic?

      • I still need to research the water traffic of the period more. The harbor and port factor into the story and there’s a wonderful print by Hiroshige that shows commerce on the Kyobashi River. The river itself was essentially destroyed in World War II.

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