Deco-Era Japanese Railway Posters

The ad copy is mundane, but the images are stunning. In the 1930s, the Japanese railway system distributed beautiful art deco posters encouraging tourism by train. A collection of these rare posters in pristine condition were found rolled up in storage at an antique furniture store. Antiques Roadshow appraiser Rudy Franchi was stumped as to their origin. Even museum poster curators had never seen anything like them.

The veil of mystery surrounding the posters probably has something to do with Japan’s place on the world stage in the 1930s. While much of the Western world was struggling from the effects of the Great Depression, Japan was expanding, with a growing economy and territories that included Taiwan and Korea, which was a popular destination for Japanese tourists. The 1930s was also the decade when Japan established numerous national parks, many of which featured natural hot springs and were accessible by Japan’s growing system of railways. “It was like putting up posters for Yellowstone and encouraging tourists to get there by train,” Franchi says.

Although no one can be 100 percent sure, Franchi says the posters were probably printed in editions of 2,000 or fewer. “We think the numbers were fairly limited,” he says, “because there were only so many places to distribute them at the time. They’d put them in railway stations, send them to classrooms, things like that. The marketing wasn’t very sophisticated back then. Low thousands is typical of what the Japanese would produce for domestic posters. You see tons of Japanese posters from the ’30s meant for international distribution, but these were internal.”

The posters have been professionally restored and are up for auction online. See them and read their story at Collectors Weekly.

(Image credit: Heritage Auction Galleries)

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