This photo, taken during the final years of Japan’s Edo period, depicts a samurai warrior – dressed in traditional armour and brandishing a sword – in a striking pose for the camera. The photograph was taken by Felice Beato, a British-Italian photographer who lived in Japan from 1862 until around 1885. Beato was one of the first Western photographers to visit Japan, which had only very recently begun allowing foreigners to enter the country after over two hundred years of seclusion. Because of this, many of Beato’s photographs were some of the first real images that the West had ever seen of Japan and its culture – including landscapes of the countryside, pictures showcasing the daily lives of citizens, and pictures like this of real Japanese samurai. Beato would take his photographs candidly in public as he explored, as well as in a photography studio he had founded in Yokohama where he lived.
Beato’s presence in Japan coincided with a period of radical social and political change. Over two hundred years of rule by the Tokugawa shogunate (which we call the Edo Period) had come to a close, and the ruling power had been restored to the Japanese Emperor. Alongside this, feudalism was also abolished – levelling all classes of people as equals in Japanese society. This meant that the samurai, a typically hereditary noble class, were stripped of their power and social influence, and would soon go extinct as a relevant caste. Beato’s photographs remain to be some of the only depictions of real Japanese samurai during a time when they were active and had functional importance to their society.
After living in Yokohama for over twenty years, and having taken many rare photographs of Japan in the midst of great change, Felice Beato would eventually leave the country and move to Burma, where he started another photography studio.