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When Yokohama port opened in 1859, part of the surrounding area was set aside for a foreign settlement that would become a center for new trends and services over the next 40 years.
Among the novel items produced in the 1.3-sq.-km enclave were newspapers, the first to be commercially circulated in Japan.
While mostly in English, these publications got their start in the early 1860s and evolved from being an exclusive medium for foreigners to a two-way communication tool between Japan and the West.
Situated near Edo (modern-day Tokyo), the newspaper industry flourished mostly in Yokohama, where dozens of English newspapers were published.
However, the publishers were not professional journalists, nor did they have the intention of promoting democracy to the Japanese, according to Yuga Suzuki, a journalism professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
“They were people full of ambition to make money. In today’s terms, they were venture business entrepreneurs,” Suzuki said, adding that many were in the printing business but took up newspapers on the side to earn money from advertisements.
Nearly 30 percent of the foreigners in Yokohama were traders, mainly of general merchandise, silk and tea, according to the book “Yokohama Foreign Settlement,” which was edited by the Yokohama Archives of History. The others were in services and manufacturing, or were bankers, lawyers or doctors.
Native English speakers accounted for some 20 percent of the foreigners, three-quarters of them British and the rest from the United States. Most of the non-English speakers were Chinese, many of whom had been brought over as translators by the Western traders who had been active in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
The Yokohama settlement was the largest among those built around the five ports that were opened through the 1858 trade agreement signed between the Tokugawa shogunate and the United States, the Netherlands, Russia, England and France. The ports were Yokohama, Kobe, Hakodate, Niigata and Nagasaki.
Until the agreement, Nagasaki had been the Western world’s only gateway to Japan for nearly three centuries.
Although Yokohama was just a small fishing village before the port opened in 1859, it soon gained prominence because it was the closest to Edo, the political center of Japan.
The settlers were basically forbidden from wandering more than 40 km from the foreign settlement, which lay in what is now Naka Ward, but they were given special residential and extraterritorial rights.
The first English newspaper printed in Yokohama was the Japan Herald, which debuted in November 1861. It was published by Albert William Hansard, a Briton who came to Japan via New Zealand, where records show he was involved in the real estate business.
The grandson of Luke Hansard, the printer for the British government in the 19th century, Albert Hansard first landed in Nagasaki, where he started publishing the Nagasaki Shipping List and Advertiser in June 1861. Its weekly counterpart in Yokohama began under the new name five months later.
As the first publication of its kind in the market, the Japan Herald played a vital international role by running official announcements for various consulates in Japan. It also augmented the missives with information for the community, running obituaries, birth announcements, shipping schedules and stories on local events or happenings in other countries.
The ads had an international flavor as well, bringing attention not only to local businesses but to those operating in Shanghai, Hong Kong or the other four ports in Japan.
“This actually brings me to a hypothesis that the mind-sets of the people (in the foreign community) in those days reached as far as Kobe, Nagasaki, Shanghai and Hong Kong” and even beyond, said Suzuki, an expert on the history of English newspapers in Japan.
Although the market was small, the Herald had a readership of around 200 or 300, drawing other competitors into the market.
While the publishers may not have intended to make money from newspapers at the time, “they held the enthusiasm of getting information out. In that sense, the spirit of journalism was there,” Suzuki said.
Over the years, newspapers came and went and merged and evolved, but soon individuals with a more serious journalistic bent appeared. The most prominent was a Scot named John Reddic Black, who worked for the Herald but later launched the Japan Gazette in 1867, writing editorials.
In 1870 came the Japan Mail (formerly the Japan Commercial News), which was known to be sympathetic to the Japanese government. The Mail, the Herald and the Gazette were recognized as the three major newspapers during the heyday of Yokohama’s English-language newspaper industry.
Foreigners were not the only ones who cherished newspapers. The Japanese, who had long been deprived of information on foreigners and foreign lands because of the prolonged policy of isolation, scooped up English periodicals to get an understanding of Western views and ideas.
Suzuki said the lower-ranked samurai who were responsible for administrating the historic changes ushered in by the 1868 Meiji Restoration and Japan’s Westernization were eager readers of English newspapers because they contained information that had long been considered taboo.
“Perhaps people who were oppressed were more sensitive to such things rather than people today, who are enjoying peace and don’t have to question anything,” Suzuki said.
Eventually, the Japanese government began using English newspapers as a tool to promote its international presence, although there were cases when conflicts of interest were evident.
It was not until a few decades later, in 1897, that The Japan Times entered the market.
The Japan Times was the brainchild of Motosada Zumoto, who was the secretary to Japan’s first prime minister, Hirobumi Ito, and a former translator for the Mail. He is said to have pushed the idea of publishing an English-language newspaper run by Japanese to provide information from a Japanese perspective and promote mutual understanding. He was The Japan Times’ first chief editor.
The paper’s mandate reflected the changes in the climate following Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and increased its presence on the international scene, according to “Kokushi Bunken Kaisetsu Zoku” (“Commentary on Japanese Historical Writings”).
The English-language papers published by the foreign community in Yokohama were eventually merged into The Japan Times in the first half of the 20th century.
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