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Old Japanese Photos in Colour: The Artistry and Legacy of Kusakabe Kimbei

Explore the depth of old Japanese photos through Kusakabe Kimbei’s mesmerizing collection, as he captures the culture and heritage of 19th-century Japan in vivid colors. All in the vintage Japanese photographs are in Public Domain and free to print.

After posting some gorgeous vintage Japanese travel posters last week, I decided to carry on the theme. Here I have curated a collection of stunning old Japanese photos by the photographer Kusakabe Kimbei.

KusaKabe Kimbei & His Colour Photos of Japan

Kusakabe Kimbei’s remarkable photography journey began in the mid-19th century when Japan opened its doors to the Western world. Born in 1841, Kimbei was one of the few Japanese photographers who profoundly impacted how Japan was perceived globally. He was an artist whose work has stood the test of time and remains a rich source of information and inspiration for historians, artists, and enthusiasts alike.

One of the striking features of Kimbei’s photographs is the depth with which he captured the cultural nuances of Japan. His images of geishas, for instance, showcase the elegance and poise that defined this traditional Japanese female entertainer. The delicate kimonos, intricate hairstyles, and expressive poses in these photos give an insight into the beauty ideals and the social roles that geishas held in the society of that era.

Similarly, his photographs of samurais reveal the life and times of these revered warriors. With their armour, swords, and stern expressions, the samurais in Kimbei’s photos tell a story of honour, discipline, and the strict code of ethics they abided by.

Apart from individuals, Kusakabe Kimbei also had a keen eye for capturing the life of everyday people and workers. His photos of fishermen, farmers, and artisans reflect the diligence and simplicity that characterized Japan’s working class. These images not only bring to light varied occupations but also humanize the subjects, bridging the gap of time and cultural differences.

As these photographs were created before modern copyright laws were established, many of Kusakabe Kimbei’s works are now public. This allows scholars, artists, and history enthusiasts to access and utilize these images without restriction. In the present day, his work is not only valued for its artistic quality but also as historical documentation that offers a rare glimpse into the pre-modernization era of Japan.

Another great glimpse into Japanese culture is with the woodblock prints of Utagawa Kuniyoshi. You can find the sites complete Japanese vintage collection of prints here.

Colourized vintage Japanese Photos by Kusakabe Kimbei

The Coloring of Old Japanese Photos

His mastery of hand-colouring techniques makes Kimbei’s photographs even more special. During a time when colour photography was not available, Kimbei skillfully applied colours to his monochromatic photographs.

This added a layer of depth and realism, making the scenes come alive. The delicate hues of the kimonos, the verdant landscapes, and the golden accents on the samurai armour all testify to Kimbei’s artistic brilliance.

The coloring of photographs by hand was first developed in Europe. It, however, became very popular in Japan in the late 19th century.

The skills of Japanese watercolourists and woodblock printmakers were quickly applied to the colouring of photographs and became very popular.

These hand-colored photographs were like early postcards and very popular with foreign tourists and collectors.

Hand-colouring photography adds colour to black-and-white photos manually to make them more realistic and artistic. Many different materials are used for hand colouring, such as oils, pastels, crayons, watercolours and other paints and dyes. Brushes, cotton swabs or even fingers are often used to apply the colour to the black and white photographs.

Downloading The Photos of Old Japan

To download a higher resolution of the photo you want, click on the image title above. A higher-resolution photo will open in a new window on your browser. If you click on that photo with your mouse, you will have the menu option to save it to your hard drive.

All these beautiful photos are in the Public Domain. You can print them at home on photo-quality paper or send them to an online printer. For a more professional print, choose an online printer. You will also be able to select your size.

Also, with print shops, you can also have the images printed on many different products from iPhone cases, mouse mats to pillows and mugs. Just like how I print my vintage personalized map pillows.

Old Photos 1-6

Old Photo 1.Pilgrim going up Fujiyama

This old Japanese photo by Kusakabe Kimbei is of a pilgrim in a traditional dress about to climb Mt Fuji.

Mount Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan and one of the “Three Holy Mountains”. It is an iconic symbol of the country and is named after the Buddhist fire goddess Fuchi.

Mt Fuji is a beautiful cone-shaped mountain in a national park west of Tokyo. Every year, thousands of Japanese pilgrims climb the mountain throughout the night to reach the summit at dawn. Just to witness the magnificent sunrise from the mountain’s summit.


2. Japaneses Tattoo – Kusakabe Kimbei

I love the composition of this photograph and the colouring on the wonderful tattoo is amazing.

Traditional Japanese tattoos are known as Irezumi. This tattoo is done by hand, with a special Nara ink, using wooden handles and metal needles attached via silk thread. It is a painful and time-consuming process by a limited number of specialists.

Japanese Tattoo

3. Yoshiwara Girls

A beautifully coloured photo by Kusakabe Kimbei of a group of prostitutes in Yoshiwara. Yoshiwara was a well-known red-light district in Edo, present-day Tokyo.

Old Japanese Photo by Kusakabe Kimbei

4. Old Japanese Photo of Girls Playing Hane

The girls in this photo by Kusakabe Kimbei are playing a game similar to badminton but without a net. Instead of strung rackets, they use paddles (hagotia) made from lightweight wood of the paulownia tree.

The shuttlecock is a berry, and the idea is to keep the berry in the air. It was more of a game than a sport, traditionally played by girls at New Year.

Old colourised Japanese photos.

5. Old Japanese Photo of Country Children

A lovely colourized vintage photo of a group of children in the Japanese countryside. I love the children’s traditional dress.


6. Kusakabe Kimbei – Girls Hairdressing

This is a delightful photo of two girls in traditional kimonos doing their hair. I love how the kimonos and the painting in the background have been colourized.

Kusakabe Kimbei-Hair_Dressing

Old Japanese Photographs 7-12

7. Old Japanese Photo of Harakiri

A rather gruesome colourized photo by Kusakabe Kimbei of Harakiri. Harakiri is a form of Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment. Samurai traditionally carried it out to die with honour rather than be captured by the enemy.

photo of Harakiri

8. Kusakabe Kimbei – Flower Seller

I like how the delicate flowers have been coloured in this Kusakabe Kimbei photo of a flower seller—another stunning vintage photo of Japanese everyday life.

Kusakabe Kimbei Flower Seller

9. Three Girls From The Back

Another lovely photo showing women in traditional kimono’s from the back.


10. Selling Flowers

Another vintage colourized Kusakabe Kimbei photo of someone selling flowers.

Kusakabe Kimbei selling flowers

11. Vintage Japanese Photo – Lantern Makers

It is the vivid red and pink pigments on the lanterns in this colourized vintage Japanese photograph that makes it so wonderful.

Vintage Japanese photo lantern makers.

12. Vintage Japanese Photo – Vegetable Seller

Another vibrantly colourized photo of everyday Japanese life from the late 19th Century. A market trader carries his wares traditionally, balanced on a pole.

Market trader
Kusakabe Kimbei tattoo man

Other Japanese Prints

If you liked these vintage Japanese photos by Kusakabe Kimbei, check out these old Japanese art prints from the Shin-bijutsukai , these traditional Japanese designs, Ohara Koson bird paintings and those of Watanabe Seitei.

You will probably also like some of these other vintage images.

If you want to try out your own colorization of photos then print them onto watercolor paper first, this can be done on an inkjet printer.


Wednesday 6th of March 2024

Nice group of unique photos!


Thursday 7th of March 2024

Thank you so much. It's nice to hear you enjoy them.

Julie Briones

Monday 21st of October 2019

My sister's last name is Wakabayashi... I think these would really interest her. Sharing the link!


Monday 21st of October 2019

Thank you, I’m sure she’d love them they are fascinating photos.


Wednesday 16th of October 2019

The watercolors are lovely! Thank you for sharing at Vintage Charm!


Wednesday 16th of October 2019

Thank you glad you liked them.