Happy Birthday Yokohama!

Japan's second city and early gateway to the world marks its 150th anniversary this summer

by Eriko Arita

For untold generations it was a muddy little fishing village on present-day Tokyo Bay. Then the destiny of Yokohama (meaning “broad beach”) changed forever when a U.S. naval squadron led by Commodore Matthew Perry dropped anchor there in February 1854.

Under intense pressure from Perry — with a presidential letter in his pocket demanding that the closed country of Japan open itself to the wider world — the ruling feudal Tokugawa Shogunate hastily constructed a building in the village for a “summit” between Perry and shogunate officials.

The Americans were desperate to have coaling and reprovisioning stations in the Northwest Pacific to facilitate the booming China trade, and also to resupply their whalers hunting in those waters. Japan, which had no navy due to its centuries of self-imposed isolation, wanted to avoid any war.

After intensive discussions in the village, in March the two sides signed a treaty establishing diplomatic relations. Subsequent treaties and agreements between Japan, the United States and other Western powers designated five ports — including Yokohama — to be opened for international trade.

Just five years later, on June 2, 1859 (according to the lunar calendar then in use in Japan), the newly built port of Yokohama opened — on what was July 1, 1859, by Western reckoning.

“Among the new ports, Yokohama was the biggest,” said Professor Emeritus of Yokohama City University Yuzo Kato, an expert on the city’s history, in a recent lecture arranged by the Yokohama Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Japanese and foreign traders used to go back and forth between their settlements in the town and trade various goods,” such as silk and green tea produced in Japan, he explained.

Before the opening of the new port, Kato said, the population of Yokohama was a mere 400. Now, the city — which sprawls over 430 sq. km — is home to more than 3.6 million people, making it Japan’s second-largest population center.

Though its rise has been so rapid, Yokohama’s development has been repeatedly fractured by events requiring it to be rebuilt again and again.

“In just 150 years since the opening of the port, three disasters have destroyed the city. Yet each time Yokohama has revived and become a more exciting place than before,” said Yoko Yamazaki, a novelist living in the city who contributed to a book titled “Yokohama Time Trip Guide.”

The first disaster was a great fire on Nov. 26, 1866, which started at a pork restaurant and razed two-thirds of the Kannai district beside the port, where hundreds of prostitutes perished, according to “Yokohama Past and Present,” published by Yokohama City University. Afterward, to prevent a repetition, the government built a park on the blaze site — later named Yokohama Park, which is now home to Yokohama Stadium, to which baseball fans regularly flock in their thousands.

The second catastrophe was the Great Kanto Earthquake that hit on Sept. 1, 1923. That day, shock waves and fires destroyed almost all of Yokohama’s buildings and harbor facilities, killing some 23,000 people in the city. Again, though, the rebuilding — which took more than a decade — brought a new vitality to the city.

One of the new features created then was Yamashita Park, Japan’s first waterfront urban park. The national government constructed it by reclaiming the waterfront, using debris from collapsed buildings. Since its opening in 1930, the park has been one of the most popular spots for locals and tourists in the city.

Tragically, though, only 22 years after the earthquake, a third disaster hit the city on May 29, 1945. That day, 517 giant U.S. B-29 bombers rained death and destruction, killing more than 8,000 people. In that raid, however, Kato says the area around the port was deliberately spared so the victors of World War II could use its facilities after hostilities were over. And that’s why, he explains, such venerable structures as the Yokohama Customs building and the Hotel New Grand survived. In fact, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, used those buildings for administration purposes during the postwar Occupation.

The Customs building is known for its elegant green dome and beige tiles, and citizens call it the “Queen,” with the “Jack” being Yokohama Port Opening Memorial Hall and Kanagawa Prefectural Government building the “King.”

Nowadays, both the historic buildings that survived the war and Yokohama’s exciting new architecture attract visitors by their thousands to the city.

On reclaimed land near JR Sakuragicho Station, a development scheme named Minato Mirai 21 was launched in 1983, and its skyscrapers are now a huge draw both for tourists and the conventions industry. Just now, in fact, a large-scale show titled “A Grand Exposition for Yokohama’s 150th Year” is running through Sept. 27. in the adjoining Shinko district.

Among the exposition’s displays is Bayside Citizens’ Cooperative, a presentation of their activities by an astonishing 150 nonprofit organizations based in the vibrant city.

Novelist Yamazaki, who is leading the event, commented: “Yokohama is a place where people from around the world have gathered to seek their futures. The city has an atmosphere in which people accept those who are eager to try something new.”

In fact, the city has accepted overseas residents since 1859, and is now home to some 79,000 people of overseas origin, including Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Brazilians and Americans. And with such wide horizons, it’s hardly surprising that locals are fond of saying that anybody from any country who lives here for three days or longer can call themselves a “Hamakko” (“Child of Yokohama”).

Yokohama has a short history compared to other cities in Japan such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka — but the openness of its Hamakko ensures this port city has a unique and vibrant character all its own.