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Meeting With The West

July 2024
3min read

In the 1860’s, Japanese artists pictured the first Americans in a newly opened land. Their work was a mixture of keen observation and delightful misinformation

Japan’s emergence into the nineteenth century was as abrupt as the appearance of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry in 1853 and, to the insecure autocrats who ruled her, just as unwelcome. Perry and his squadron had come determined to open that strange and inhospitable island empire to the outside world—preferably by treaty but if necessary by force. It was the first of two visits, for he appeared again the following year, and when he had finally departed, treaty in hand, a feudal society that had remained static for centuries would never again be the same.

Though Perry’s expeditions were by no means the first Western attempts to open Japan, they were the most dramatic and timely; undoubtedly that in large part accounted for their success. For in the 1850’s, Japan seethed with unrest. Political and social reforms were long overdue. Since 1635, the dynastic dictatorship known as the Tokugawa shogunate had allowed no citizen to leave the homeland (see “The Ordeal of the Kanrin Maru ,” on page 95); with rare exceptions, foreigners had been forbidden to enter it. In vain did a few far-sighted Japanese press for increased contacts with the outside. Aware of imperialist incursions in India and the Far East, they viewed the end of Japan’s rigid feudal system and the rapid modernization of the country as the price for national survival.

Thus, when Perry made his visits Japan was ripe for change, and the vast throngs which came to watch him seemed to sense the magnitude of the event. The nation clamored for information about the barbarian intruders. Because of severe censorship laws, regular newspapers did not exist. “Only men of low repute engaged in the business,” observed one official source. But for all the risks involved, these “men of low repute” could not resist the temptation to fill a profitable need. Their papers were issued in the form of simple sheets, or handbills, called kawaraban —two of them are reproduced at the left—generally consisting of one or more crude wood-block illustrations and some brief reading matter.

More often than not, it was an outlandish picture of America and Americans that these news sheets presented, sometimes full of delightful and imaginative misinformation. “North America,” to quote one, “lies to the northeast of Japan. A harbor called California is 5,000 ri (12,200 miles) across the sea from Japan. To the north of this harbor is a large city called Washington. Since the foundation of the country 1854 years have elapsed … The name of the king is Burishitonto Hiruraruto Serumore [President Millard Fillmore] …”

By 1859, Japan had opened the ports of Yokohama, Nagasaki, and Hakodate for trade with the West. Yokohama’s growth was especially spectacular. When viewed by Perry’s men in 1854, it was a swampy little fishing village of perhaps a hundred houses, lying just to the south of the shogun’s capital at Yedo—modernday Tokyo. A decade later, Yokohama was a bustling, brawling commercial boom town with a foreign population of 6.000.

The novelty of this sudden and rapid influx of Westerners aroused tremendous interest throughout the country. Their odd appearance and exotic dress, their perplexing manners and customs, and their amazing inventions and frantic activity all utterly fascinated the Japanese. Before long, not only the “men of low repute” who produced the kawaraban but established and much-respected print artists, working with the traditional wood blocks, vegetable dyes, and mulberry-bark paper, rushed to depict the mysterious ways of the West.

On the following pages is reproduced a portfolio of these prints, recording the daily life of the first Americans and other Westerners in Japan and giving a curious, almost enchanted Oriental view of the United States. Generally known as Yokohama-e , or Yokohama pictures, after the place where they originated, the prints shown here are a genre in themselves. As works of art they may be found wanting, but their charm is undeniable, and so is their humor—which was not always unintentional, for the artists often found an opportunity to poke fun at their subjects. As one well-known expert on Japanese art, Louise Norton Brown, has remarked: It was a kind providence that kept the foreign strangers from seeing themselves as others saw them, else they never would have had the assurance to put themselves in the position of mentors for the Japanese. Since those days we have learned ourselves that early Victorian architecture, spreading hoops, coal-scuttle bonnets, and ringlets, have elements about them not of beauty; but probably by no effort of the imagination can we get at the absurd and grotesque aspect of it all that the Japanese saw …

Caricatures or not, and by no means all of the Yokohama prints are that, they nonetheless provide a matchless pictorial account of Japan’s first prolonged meeting with the modern world. And if today we criticixe the Japanese artists for showing us as Asians in fancy-dress costumes, with eyes slanted, faces long and oval, and gestures and postures Oriental, we have only to think, perhaps, of the correspondingly grotesque characterizations of Japanese perpetrated year after year in such notable and popular works as The Mikado and Madeline Butterfly . The difference is, after all, so very slight.

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