The creation of these volumes was painstaking and astonishingly labour-intensive. The original photographs, all taken in Japan, were individually printed, washed, fixed, toned, dried, cropped, hand-coloured and pasted onto the page – a process that was repeated thousands of times across the sixteen editions of the book. The photographs were albumen prints created using silver salts suspended in egg white, a more time-consuming process than the gelatine and collodion method that had recently been introduced.
The most distinctive feature of Japan was the hand-colouring of the photographs. This technique had largely been replaced by mechanical colouring, and was already seen as more traditional and prestigious. The Japanese excelled in the hand-colouring of decorative objects such as fans, lanterns and prints, and by the 1880s they were applying this expertise to colouring photographs. It is estimated that a total of 350 individual colourists would have worked for a year on their own part of the work, with each colourist completing, at most, three prints a day.
The work also featured ten full-page collotypes of Japanese flowers by the renowned photographer Ogawa Kazumasa, a pioneer of this type of photomechanical printing. Okakura Kakuzo, director of the Imperial Academy in Tokyo and one of the most influential Japanese art historians of his day, contributed ten short essays focusing on Japanese artworks from different eras.
This Folio Society limited edition is the first to show all 259 original photographs, together with the text, 10 flower collotypes and 10 art prints, at their actual size. Creating this edition has been a considerable enterprise, involving the selection of the best available prints from two different copies, one of which is in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, and the other acquired at auction by The Folio Society. The binding design is based on that of the ‘Emperor’ edition of 1897.
David Perkins, who has conducted extensive research into Japan at the University of Manchester, has contributed a historical essay reproduced at the back of Volume II. In it, he explores the significance of Japan in the history of relations between Japan and the United States, and pays tribute to ‘a book which seems to look simultaneously back and forward, and as such is endlessly fascinating as well as extraordinarily beautiful’.