Report on the talk ‘Stations, Steam, and Speed: Railroads and the Spatial Imaginary in Nineteenth Century Japanese Woodblock Prints’

I was very fortunate to be able to view the Sainsbury Institute Third Thursday lecture on May 18 by Dr. Alison Miller, titled: “Stations, Steam, and Speed: Railroads and the Spatial Imaginary in Nineteenth Century Japanese Woodblock Prints.” Dr. Miller’s talk explored woodblock prints as a critical space for the construction and circulation of discourse on railway technology as part of the changing urban space and infrastructure of Tokyo in the 1870s and 80s. Through a wonderfully in-depth analysis of the visual iconography of trains and the composition of these prints, Dr. Miller called attention to how fissures between the visual culture of railways and their historical practice can enrich our understanding not only of the actual lived engagement with trains in the Meiji period, but also of how woodblock prints mediated that experience for a broader public.

Utagawa Hiroshige III (1842-1894), Shinbashi tetsudō ryō しんばし鉄道寮 (Shinbashi Station) from the series Tokyo kaika meisho zue no uchi 東京開華名所図会之内 (Illustrations of Famous Places in Modern Tokyo), 1875, © The Trustees of the British Museum (1949,0514,0.8)

Arguing for train technology as a visual phenomenon, Dr. Miller addressed the genre of bunmei kaika-e 文明開化絵: “images of civilization and enlightenment.” While not unrelated to Yokohama-e 横浜絵 prints that depicted foreign populations, culture, and technologies in and around the newly opened port of Yokohama in the 1860s, kaika-e focused primarily on domestic state and private infrastructure: factories, government buildings, post offices, and other contemporary architecture. Such infrastructure was, of course, at the heart of the development projects of the early Meiji state, rhetorized in slogans such as shokusan kōgyō 殖産興業: “encourage industry” and bunmei kaika “civilization and enlightenment.” Seen as a critical component of diplomacy and legitimization for the early Meiji state, the import of rail system development was more political than economic or military (and indeed, railroad infrastructure was initially subject to ambivalent reception on these latter grounds). A significant part of the Meiji government’s efforts to establish order, enact reforms and development projects, and consolidate power in the 1870s, railway technology featured prominently in early Meiji print culture as a symbol for progress and development.

One of the most striking features of some of these prints, however, and one which directly relates to Dr. Miller’s larger argument, is that prints for current events would often be produced in advance to be sold on the day, sometimes as many as 300 sheets. Given that a publication ordinance first passed in January 1872 stipulated that authorities be provided with copies of print materials in advance of publication, many depictions of these events and infrastructure operated in an ambiguous space between actuality, visual citation or reuse, and fictive imagination.

Utagawa Yoshitora (active ca. 1850-1880),Tokyo takanawa kaigan jyōkisya tetsudō o hashiriyuku no zenzu 東京高輪海岸蒸気車鐵道走行全図 (Railroad Train At Takanawa Beach, Tokyo), 1871, Robert O. Muller Collection, National Museum of Asian Art (S2003.8.3666)

This print for instance, features the Takanawa embankment, a remnant of which was recently uncovered during a redevelopment project in 2019. The inaccuracy of the size of the train wheels, and the lack of accurate mechanical detail of the train engine all suggest that this print was produced not from visual observation, but by borrowing from a developing lexicon of train iconography. As Dr. Miller points out, prints such as this one, produced a year before the train line was fully open in 1872, often featured a conglomeration of styles, some depicting American trains with their diamond chimneys and cow catchers, even though locomotives in Japan between 1870 and 1882 were of British make.

Despite the likelihood that Japanese ridership must have composed a significant portion of the early ridership, especially within the third-class seats, the population of Tokyo at the time was spread out across a vast area of the city, meaning that, given the limited run times and area covered by the early train line, many residents of Tokyo would have experienced trains through prints rather than through riding them. Even for those who did ride the train, this encounter with the material train as technology was already mediated through their prior encounters with the many images of trains that saturated the print market of the 1870s. These kaika-e of trains thus remind us of the interdependent relationship between media and the development of technology and infrastructure, something particularly pronounced perhaps in the development of Meiji print culture, but applicable as well to the proliferation of songs, theater, and fiction featuring railroads and rail travel at the time. Reinforcing the centrality of transport systems to the Meiji government project, Dr. Miller’s talk also raises the importance of attending to the particular visual language of kaika-e prints—their almost “fisheye” and forced perspectives, their use of light and shadow, their uneven representation of gender—to better account for their ideology and longstanding impact on social and cultural understandings of newly built infrastructure in the Meiji period. I truly enjoyed Dr. Miller’s talk and eagerly look forward to future developments in the project.

Please contact the Sainsbury Institute office team on for all requests relating to the recording of the lecture.

Melissa Van Wyk, Assistant Professor in Japanese Literature, University of Chicago