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If asked to name the most populous city in Japan, the answer seems obvious.

However, Tokyo is not strictly speaking a city. Rather, it is a prefecture-level administrative area that includes 23 semimunicipal wards.

With 3.66 million residents and growing, the answer is Yokohama.

According to the 2005 national census, Yokohama was the country’s second-fastest-growing city with a population of 1 million or more, increasing at a clip of 4.4 percent from five years earlier.

Yet only 150 years ago, Yokohama was a nameless fishing village with 100 households facing a sandy beach.

In fact, the shogunate chose the desolate site to open a foreign trading port precisely to keep Western merchants from encountering Japanese going about their daily business.

Thanks to deep water off its coast, Yokohama is an ideal spot for a major trading port. Also, thanks to its proximity to Tokyo, the political and economic center of modern Japan, Yokohama flourished as the country’s No. 1 gateway to the outside world.

Observing the 150th anniversary of the port’s opening, Yokohama residents and visitors are looking back on the city’s history as arguably the country’s most prominent and important port.

Yokohama is meanwhile facing critical challenges from powerful overseas competitors such as the ports of Busan in South Korea and Singapore, expert say.

“The port of Yokohama, together with the port of Kobe, was a principal port (for Japan) to modernize Edo (the former name of Tokyo) by opening up the country,” said Yutaka Watanabe, a professor at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology.

“Nobody could deny that. . . . But it is also true its international status has been declining over the years compared with other Asian ports such as Busan and Singapore,” Watanabe said.

Numbers bear out the competitive challenges confronting Yokohama.

According to the municipal government, Yokohama ranked 10th in the world in 1994 in terms of the number of containers it handled. But it fell to 28th in 2006, while Shanghai and Shenzhen in China and Busan cracked the top 10 by drastically increasing the cargo they handled.

Yokohama’s decline mirrors the overall falloff in Japan’s economic presence compared with rapidly growing Asian economies.

In 1990, Tokyo and Yokohama accounted for 85.4 percent of all port calls in major marine routes in Asia. By 2003, they accounted for only 35.8 percent, according to figures compiled by the Yokohama Municipal Government.

Insufficient investment and slow decision-making on the government’s part are other major problems for Yokohama and other Japanese ports, Watanabe said.

In recent years, container vessels have grown in size to cut costs by taking advantage of economies of scale. Larger vessels require larger facilities and deeper berths.

While countries such as South Korea and Singapore have poured money into their port facilities, in Japan, administrative red tape, particularly spooling out of the central government, has hindered the development of ports, including Yokohama, Watanabe said.

“In Japan, approval is given to a project, say, three years after the plan is submitted to the central government. It takes five years to start building (a facility). No port can beat the competition in such an environment,” Watanabe said.

Despite the decline of its international status, Yokohama is still one of Japan’s largest ports, supporting the country’s exporters, most notably the automobile industry. Nissan Motor Co. and its group companies have major plants in Kanagawa Prefecture, where Yokohama is located, and surrounding areas.

By the same token, many imports, including food and consumer products, flow into the greater Tokyo metropolitan area through Yokohama.

Yokohama is still a special city for many Japanese people, who cherish romantic memories of it as a symbol of the country’s rise in modern history.

Based on the 1858 Japan-U.S. Treaty of Amity and Commerce, Yokohama port opened the following year, finally ending Japan’s 200-year-old policy of economic isolation.

The first U.S. consul general, Townsend Harris, demanded that the international port be located elsewhere, complaining that Yokohama was too far from major roads and cities and that transportation was problematic.

Ignoring Harris’ request, the shogunate went about putting up a residential area for Westerners and Japanese merchants, which is the origin of modern Yokohama.

Soon after the opening of the port, many Chinese servants and artisans arrived, following Western merchants who came from China to Yokohama. Those Chinese people eventually formed what is now Japan’s largest Chinatown, one of the city’s most popular tourist spots.

The list of trade items handled by the port reflects Japan’s industrial development.

Soon after the port was opened, raw silk was by far Yokohama’s No. 1 export product in terms of value, accounting for 80 percent of all exports from the port, followed by tea and silkworm eggs.

Silk stayed at the top until the 1930s, but with the rise of Japan’s heavy industry in the postwar years, steel products rose to No. 1 in the 1950s.

Since the 1970s, the automobile has been king.

But trade isn’t the only thing Yokohama has going for it. Unlike the port of Tokyo, Yokohama boasts many fashionable spots that attract both tourists and locals, such as Yamashita Park along the bay, the landmark Ferris wheel in the Minato Mirai area, and Western-style buildings that date back more than 100 years.

“As a seaside park, the port of Tokyo is a complete failure. Nobody would visit Oi Wharf in Tokyo, which is just full of containers,” Watanabe said.

“But both young and old love Yokohama a lot and many of them come to the port. It’s a precious asset of Yokohama,” he said.

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