When something Western this way came

by Burritt Sabin

Like a Yankee daimyo, on Nov. 23, 1857, Townsend Harris made a progress to Edo (now Tokyo) from his residence in Shimoda on the Izu Peninsula. Proceeded by an American flag made of Japanese crepe, Harris, on horseback, was escorted by a guard of six whose costumes bore the coat-of-arms of the United States. The same blazon adorned the dark-blue uniforms of the 12 men who followed, shouldering his palanquin. Bringing up the rear were coolies bearing his clothes and furniture, and his cook.

The procession halted at Kanagawa, where Harris gazed across the bay to the former anchorage of the Black Ships that brought America’s first emissary, Cmdr. Matthew Perry, to Japan in July 1853. Harris, Consul General of the United States for the Empire of Japan, now came bearing a letter from President Franklin Pierce requesting a commercial treaty.

After eight weary months in Edo, he succeeded.

The U.S.-Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce, concluded on July 29, 1858, opened Kanagawa (a district of Yokohama), Nagasaki, Niigata, and Hyogo (a district of Kobe) to U.S. vessels, and allowed Americans to reside in those four port locations as well as in settlements in Edo and Osaka.

Similar treaties made that year with Russia, Britain, France and the Netherlands established concessions beyond which foreigners could not travel more than 40 km. They also granted consular courts the right to try foreigners for crimes they committed in Japan, and also placed restrictions on Japan’s tariff autonomy. Together, these provisions made the treaties unequal in Japanese eyes.

Harris and E.M. Dorr, the American consul for Kanagawa, sailed into that city’s bay on June 30, 1859, the day before the concession was to open. They noticed buildings rising on the flat opposite Kanagawa. Dorr remarked that the government seemed to intend these buildings for a second Dejima — a reference to the tiny island off Nagasaki on which Dutch traders were confined during Japan’s sakoku (“closed country”) period of isolation from 1639-1854. This flat gave a nearby village of mud huts its name: “Broad Strand,” or Yokohama.

The Tokugawa Shogunate had indeed been reluctant to establish a settlement at Kanagawa itself, because its location on the Tokaido might risk conflicts between settlers and daimyo traveling the highway. This indeed happened, fatally, in the Namamugi Incident of Aug. 1862, when Charles L. Richardson, a British trader, was struck down by retainers of the Satsuma daimyo, Shimazu Hisamitsu, after he and three friends encounted his procession while riding on the Tokaido between Yokohama and Kawasaki.

Yokohama also possessed a natural deep-water harbor, while off Kanagawa the water shoaled. Now, with the development of the new concession, Yokohama also possessed a ready-made infrastructure for trade.

Soon it would also have Gankiro — a moated pleasure-quarter built on reclaimed land behind the new settlement. On Dec. 4 that year, every foreign resident received a parcel containing a porcelain cup, a blue towel and a fan. The cup bore the word “Gankiro,” and the cloth explained that Gankiro was “for the pleasure of foreigners.” The foreign merchants, despite appeals from the pulpit, flocked there.

Hokkaido haven

On the southern tip of Hokkaido, meanwhile, the port of Hakodate was also opened in 1859 as a haven for foreign whalers working the Japan Grounds. West of the town, land was cleared for a foreign settlement. But no one settled there. The consuls instead took up residence in temples, then the most impressive buildings in the town, and their nationals moved into Japanese houses on a hill above the waterfront business district.

Far from the suspicious eyes of Edo, Hakodate officials took a relaxed approach to their guests. Foreigners and their homes were safe, but drunken sailors often ran amok, many times targeting Japanese for theft and burglary. The town’s police force was too small to enforce the peace effectively. Vigilantes, fishmongers armed with poles, patrolled for foreign “scofflaws.”

The chief recreation for the more genteel members of the small foreign community was riding. The men could also enjoy the pleasures of the Sansoro, a house in the Yama-no-ue licensed quarter. Francis Hall, an American merchant, observed in 1860 that when a foreigner gazed through the Sansoro’s lattice windows, the women hid their faces. He wasn’t sure if this was from a dislike of foreigners, “or to heighten their charms by an affection of modesty they do not possess.”

Hall also noted hearing more Russian than English spoken in the streets, and wrote in his journal: “[The Russian’s] influence creeps like a mysterious shadow down from his home in the frozen north.” The Japanese were also spooked. They built a pentagonal fort at the town’s eastern end.

If the czar had coveted Hakodate as a warm-water port, its opening gave other powers an interest that impeded any Russian design. As Hugh Cortazzi, a former British ambassador to Japan, notes in “Victorians in Japan” — “the British were always in a majority” among the Hakodate foreign community. Although in fact more Russians than Britons rest in the Hakodate foreign cemetery — the only part of Hakodate’s designated settlement area ever used by the foreign community — the first to be interred there, in 1854, were two seamen from the Black Ships.

Far to the south in Nagasaki, a port only Dutch and Chinese traders had previously been permitted to enter, opened to Japan’s treaty partners in 1859. There, the government sited the settlement south of Dejima, on a plain bounded by the harbor and a range of hills to the East. It built a broad bund, along which rose the chief trading houses. Opposite them, across a canal, were “Army and Navy,” “Our House” and other grog-shops where sailors and others slaked their thirst. In the hills stood the wealthier merchants’ houses — an area today known as Glover Garden, after the Scottish merchant Thomas B. Glover, whose bungalow, built in 1863, still stands in Minami Yamate. Besides a club there were two bowling alleys and an athletic ground. The pleasure houses for foreign patrons were in the Maruyama quarter.

The Nagasaki settlement compared favorably with Yokohama’s — not only as its streets were lit by gaslamps, but because its small scale gave it the edge in efficient administration. (Yokohama’s Municipal Council, by contrast, spent most of its time bickering.)

‘Madame Chrysantheme’

The French warship Triomphante steamed into Nagasaki on July 8, 1885. “We proceeded up the deep waterway between two rows of fantastically shaped towering mountains mantled by trees,” wrote Lt. Julien Marie Viaud in his diary. “The mountains range symmetrically on the right and left like the unreal backdrop of a play.”

Viaud — writing under the pen-name Pierre Loti — made Nagasaki the backdrop for his romance, “Madame Chrysantheme.” The novel’s protagonist became the Lt. Pinkerton of Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly.” The real-life model for her was Kaga Maki, according to Jan van Rij in “Madame Butterfly,” who identifies the character of Butterfly’s son with Tomisaburo Glover, son of Thomas. He also speculates that he was the adopted, not natural, son of the merchant and his wife, Waka.

Political turmoil delayed the opening of the fourth port, Hyogo, until Jan. 1, 1868. Indeed, the concession had been open only a month when, on Feb. 4, in what is now known as the Kobe Incident, soldiers of the Bizen daimyo opened fire on “every foreigner whom they happened to see,” as Britain’s minister to Japan, Sir Harry Parkes, put it. U.S., French and British soldiers took off in pursuit, but the samurai melted into the hills.

Yet after this baptism by fire, the Kobe settlement was the picture of order. Unlike at Yokohama, settlers never packed pistols in readiness for samurai attack, and the cemetery did not fill with foreign victims. Just as Kobe’s skies and foliage were semi-tropical, and its buildings white, the settlement’s history was sunnier. It was, in the words of Douglas Sladen, a visitor in the 1890s, “the lotus-land of a contented little colony of English traders.”

In settlement administration, Kobe shared with Nagasaki efficiencies of small scale, but had the advantage of learning from mistakes made at its Kanto predecessor. E. G. Holtham, who arrived in Japan in 1873, found Yokohama and Kobe similar in essentials. “And yet I have never found, among people who are equally acquainted with both places,” he wrote, “even a respectable minority who did not profess to prefer the smaller settlement . . .” Many bungalows still dot the hills of Kobe’s Kitanocho district, testifying to the peacefulness of the settlement. In Yokohama, by contrast (though also due to the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923) only one settlement building survives, the Mollison & Co. office, built on the first road inland from the bund in 1883.

Niigata opened in 1869, but few noticed. The Shinano River delta rendered the port unusable by large ships. The English traveler Isabella Bird counted just 18 foreigners when she passed through in 1878. She saw this in a positive light, remarking that Niigata was “altogether free from the jostlement of a foreign settlement” — her search was for “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan,” the title of her 1880 account of her travels.

Though the treaties had served to further trade and contact between Japan and the West, the unequal terms on which they were concluded had always rankled with the host country. Indeed, one engine driving Japan’s rapid modernization during the Meiji Era had been the desire to eradicate this perceived inequality. The treaty-port settlements were finally abolished in July 1899, ushering in a period of “mixed settlement.”

Now, a stone lantern from the Gankiro stands in Yokohama Park (the pleasure quarters’ former site), bearing a plaque stating that “an international social hall” had once flourished there. Indeed, the settlers and the Japanese had been “mixing” long before 1899.