George Rose (1861-1942) was a prodigious Victorian photographer, famous for his postcards of Victoria published by the Rose Stereograph Company. Not so well known are his photographs from a visit he made to Korea and Japan in 1904, which provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Korean and Japanese people at the time.

Rose was born in Clunes, a gold mining town, on 10 December 1861. After leaving school, he worked in his father’s shoe shop in the town. George’s photographic career took off when he discovered his talent for creating stereographs, which were enormously popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Stereographs are taken with a camera which has dual lenses to create a pair of images, side by side. They are then mounted on a card. When inserted into a special viewer called a stereoscope, the dual images form one three-dimensional image.

One of Rose’s photographs shows a Japanese woman using a stereoscope:

Three Japanese girls wearing kimonos sit on floor and view stereograph photographs. One girl views a stereograph through a stereoscope.
Japanese girls enjoying the beauties of nature. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/1055

Rose had an enquiring mind and an adventurous spirit. He visited Korea in 1904, when Japanese forces were in the country to launch an assault against Russia. 1

Korea was undergoing sweeping changes with the Japanese presence, as well as encountering modern western technology and culture for the first time. Most Korean people still lived a traditional life in rural areas: travelling on foot, using pine branches for fuel and drawing water from the stream to wash their laundry. “Respectable” women hid their faces behind a cloak.

Photographs of Korea at the time are rare. Photographic technology arrived late in Korea, and most of the photos taken were by amateurs or by Korean photographers who were still learning the craft, so their work has not survived. As a result, Korea was not extensively photographed. By contrast, Rose was an experienced photographer who had been taking photos since 1880 and used professional equipment. His glass negatives have been preserved in excellent condition. We are indebted to Rose for providing this unique insight into historic Korea and Japan.

What makes Rose’s images distinctive are the scenes of everyday life they capture: local people in traditional costume walking the streets, street vendors and farmers in crowded markets, busy labourers and children standing on the rocky city walls. Rose did not “pose” his subjects: he photographed the people as he saw them. Their activities take place against a backdrop of local buildings with tiled and thatched roofs, pagodas, temples and rural landscapes. His images also reveal the lives of labour-intensive work for the lower classes. The presence of Japanese soldiers in some photos highlights the tense political background. Rose’s captions provide interesting additional information and his personal opinions on each situation.

Most of Rose’s photos deal with civilian life rather than being overtly political. Two photos that do highlight the political situation in Korea show Japanese soldiers standing at the Arch of Independence in Seoul, Korea:

Japanese soldiers stand and sit at the Arch of Independence, Seoul, Korea, 1905. The road to Peking (Beijing) is in the background.
Japanese soldiers at the Arch of Independence, Seoul, Korea. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/1024

Close-up view Japanese soldiers standing and sitting at the Arch of Independence, Seoul, Korea, 1905.
Japanese soldiers at the Arch of Independence, Seoul, Korea. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/1024. Rose, who travelled with a Japanese interpreter, adds a personal touch when he says that each soldier was anxious to send a photo to his relatives in Japan.

crowd  small Japanese schoolboys wearing traditional Japanese clothing wait to say for soldiers to arrive at railway station. The soldiers will go off to Russo-Japanese war, 1905. Two men wearing suits  wait with them.
Japanese schoolboys waiting to see soldiers bound for war. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/941

In Japan, Rose captured the moment when rows of small Japanese boys waited for a train carrying soldiers to arrive, before they went off to war. When the train arrived, the children sang a war song and shouted “Good luck!”

Korean people wearing white clothing and hats walking a busy street.
Street view, Seoul, Korea. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/1113

Meanwhile, working Koreans went about their daily business in narrow city streets thronging with people. This was a colourful world of people wearing an assortment of clothing and hats, surrounded by picturesque buildings. Rose tells us that the small white hats consisted of a black gauze framework fitted to the head, with the hat sitting above it. This gave the wearer both ventilation and shade. One man wears a large straw mourning hat, which was worn when mourning the death of a parent. Behind the street scene are mountains and trees, an indication that it was very much a rural society.

Crowds of people in narrow street, Ping Yang, korea. One woman wears an enormous summer hat and one man carries a fan.  The roofs are curved and made of clay tiles.
A narrow busy street, Ping Yang, Korea. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/1016

Market day was especially crowded, as country people came to town to buy and sell goods.

Very large crowd of people in the market place, market day, Seoul, Korea. They wear light, loose clothing and cloth hats. The wooden buildings behind them have long, tiled clay  roofs.
Market day, Seoul, Korea. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/1014

Korean labourers working on a pavement in a city street. They wear loose clothing.  The wooden building behind them has a large curved clay roof.
[Korean labourers at work] Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/1013

In 1904, Korea was a pre-industrial society. Work was manual, labour-intensive and hard. Rose captured this image of five Korean labourers sharing the one shovel. Rose considered this inefficient, but today we can only marvel at the work achieved through manual labour. The beautiful roof is one example.

Rose also captured images of temples and landscapes in Korea.

Temple of the Sun, Seoul, Korea, 1905.  The temple is three storeys high with curved roofs and steps at the front. The landscape is rocky.
Temple of the Sun, Seoul, Korea. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/1060


In Japan as in Korea, Rose photographed ordinary people doing their daily tasks: he highlighted the lives of labourers, market women, farmers and children; even showing laundry drying on a rooftop.

Six small Japanese children wearing kimonos stand on a bridge.  One little girl holds a baby. Mountains, trees, two houses and a  field  stand behind them.  The children smile. A small boy runs.  They look very happy.
Views of Miyagino, Japan. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/968. This photo shows children playing on a bridge amidst a spectacular landscape. One small girl is minding the baby.

A Japanese farmer poses indoors for a photo. He wears a large round hat, a scarf, a thick cloak made of grass. He smokes a pipe and carries a round bucket and a large bunch of radishes.
Typical Japanese farmer. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/1056. The farmer in this photo wears a grass cloak and a hat. He carries a hoe and has a pipe in his mouth.

Japanese labourers carrying loads of wood and charcoal
Coolies near Yumoto, Japan. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/938
[Note: ‘Coolies’ is an outdated cultural term. Today we would use the term ‘labourers’]. This image shows Japanese labourers carrying heavy bundles of wood and charcoal on carrying frames. A rocky tunnel stands behind them.

Scene showing a city of roof tops with  houses and trees on a hill. In the foreground is a large clothes line on a roof top. It is full of white cotton clothing.
A laundry, Motomachi, Japan. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/1109. Rose’s image reveals a solution to drying the clothes in a densely populated city.

Working Japanese women appear in this photo (below) of female hawkers carrying and wheeling large baskets at the market. They wear practical clothing and a variety of hats. Rose’s photos reveal volumes about the lives of these people.

Women selling goods at the market. Some women  use large cane baskets on large wheels. One woman carries a large basket on her back.  The women in front wear trousers, long jackets and hats. Houses with gable roofs line the street.
Female hawkers, Tsuru-ga-oka, Japan. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/1070

Shops in Yokohama, Japan. A woman carries a baby on her back. A man pulls a rickshaw. People stand and walk in the street. In the background are one hundred very steep steps on the side of a hill.
The hundred steps, Yokohama, Japan. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/957. The challenging steep steps in the background form a connecting link between Yokohama and the European residential part of the city.

Rose did not neglect Japanese sport and leisure: in this image below we see famous Japanese wrestlers, who were larger and taller than the average Japanese. Their garments feature elaborate designs.

A group of young Japanese wrestlers look at the camera. Some wear colourful garments on their lower body.  Other men wear kimonos.
Japanese wrestlers. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/1058

Rose also captured the activities of Japanese women enjoying an array of social and cultural activities: writing, playing music, dancing, smoking, playing games and visiting the tea house. Dressed in elaborate kimonos, they enjoyed their recreation separately from the men. Rose’s captions provide valuable context.

Two Japanese women wearing colourful  kimonos curtsey deeply to each other. Two other Japanese women and a little girl watch them. All the women have their hair pulled up with a bun on top.
Good morning? How are you? Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/943

Three Japanese women wearing kimonos, seated on a mat, playing musical instruments.
Three Japanese ladies giving a concert. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/1096

Japanese women and a little Japanese girl sitting on a mat in a tea-house. They hold tea cups while one woman pours tea from a teapot.
Japanese ladies in a tea-house. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/934

Four Japanese women and a little girl wearing kimonos play blindman's buff. One woman wears the blindfold, while the others watch.
A game of blindman’s buff. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/940

A young Japanese woman sits holding a long scroll, a love letter, while another young woman stands and puts her hand on her shoulder.  They both wear kimonos. Two trays with a teapot, cups and cake stand in front of them.
Japanese girl reading a love-letter. Photo by George Rose, 1905; H96.160/969. A glimpse into the private life of a Japanese girl: holding a long love letter, the girl appears to ask her friend for advice.

You can view more of Rose’s fascinating photographs of old Korea and Japan on the Library catalogue.

Just go to the Search box and change the drop-down menu option to ‘Pictures & photographs’. To find Rose’s photographs of Korea, type the words: Rose Korea in the Search box and then press the Search button. To find his photos of Japan, type the words: Rose Japan.

Most of the images have been digitised, so you can view them online.

Further reading

Peterson, M, & Margulies, P, 2010, A brief history of Korea, Facts On File, New York

Rose, George, 2004, Hoju sajinʾga ŭi nun ŭl tʻonghae pon Hanʾguk 1904 = Korea through Australian eyes, Kyobo Book Centre Australia-Korea Foundation, Seoul


  1. Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, making it the most powerful nation in the region. Korea became a protectorate of Japan in 1905, in effect ruled by Japan.

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