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Ice cream, soap and a Japanese-English dictionary have one thing in common: The first time they were made in Japan, it was in Yokohama.
Yokohama is home to many “Japan firsts” because the city was introduced to a wealth of new wonders when the port opened up to foreign trade in 1859, pulling in people and products from around the world.
This is a roundup of some of the items that Yokohama Archives of History official Hiroyuki Matsumoto says are “very likely to be Japan’s first.”
Unless stated otherwise, the following comes from “Yokohama Mono no Hajime Ko” (“Thoughts of Yokohama as Origin of Things)” published by the Yokohama Archives of History, which cites historical documents and articles in newspapers such as the Japan Herald and Yokohama Mainichi Shimbun.
Japan’s first ice cream is believed to have been made and sold in Yokohama in 1865.
Ice, at the time a valuable commodity, was first imported to Yokohama from Boston, even though the cost of bringing it all the way to Japan via the Cape of Good Hope was incredibly high.
Richard Risley, an American, bypassed that route and began importing ice from Tianjin, China, in May 1865. That same month, on the 15th, he started making and selling ice cream for the first time. He also opened the nation’s first ice cream parlor, according to an advertisement he placed in the Japan Herald, a Yokohama-based English newspaper.
The ad states that the premises adjoining the Royal Olympic Theatre “will no longer be rented as the Royal Marine for retailing liquors. An Ice Cream Saloon will be built upon the same lot, in which will be found every ease and European Comfort for Ladies and Gentlemen.”
Although the ice cream recipe that Risley used has been lost to history, Yasuhisa Watabe of the Japan Ice Cream Association says it was probably made with milk, eggs and sugar because such ingredients were available at the time.
The price was 50 sen — half of a typical female worker’s monthly salary at the time — or roughly ¥8,000 in today’s terms. At first, only foreigners ate the frozen treat, but Japanese began to enjoy it the next year, Watabe said, adding he has no idea what sort of cup or plate the ice cream was served in.
Eventually, Japanese began to make ice cream. According to several historical documents, Machida Fusazo, who had traveled to the United States on the Kanrin Maru, the first modern Japanese ship to sail across the Pacific, with its captain, Katsu Kaishu, an expert on Western military technology, opened an ice cream parlor in Yokohama in June 1869.
Beer was first imported in May 1865 from Britain, and Japan’s first brewery was built in Yokohama four years later.
The Daily Japan Herald ran an article announcing the opening of the Japan Brewery on Aug. 27, 1869, by a person named Rosenfelt.
Emil Wiegand, an American, was at one point a manager of the brewery. According to historical documents, he testified in a tribunal at the U.S. consulate general that he came to Yokohama in 1869 after signing a contract to manage the Japan Yokohama Brewery, which refers to the Japan Brewery.
A newspaper called the Gazette ran an advertisement announcing the sale of the brewery on June 15, 1874, and it is believed to have closed down around the same time. Wiegand later worked with American William Copeland, who had built Spring Valley Brewery in Yokohama. Their brewery was later sold and a new plant, also named Japan Brewery, built on the same site eventually became what is now Kirin Brewery Co. following several mergers.
Beer made at the first two breweries was mainly drunk by non-Japanese, but Japanese began drinking more than foreigners when Kirin’s predecessor began to produce its own brew, according to Kirin spokesman Takeshi Yamamoto.
The beer from the first two breweries usually came in ceramic containers, but the third mostly used glass bottles, he said.
James Curtis Hepburn, an American missionary, came to Japan in 1859. After learning the language through his missionary activities and by translating the Bible into Japanese, he published the nation’s first Japanese-English dictionary, “Waei Gorin Shusei” (“Japanese and English Dictionary”) in 1867 while staying at Jobutsu Temple in Yokohama.
The dictionary was also Japan’s first book with Japanese phrases and sentences written horizontally.
The first English-to-Japanese dictionary was published in 1862 by an Edo feudal government body based in what is now Tokyo.
Isoemon Tsutsumi established a soap factory and began selling it in July 1873 after he learned how to make the product from French engineer Boelle Leon when they were working for a steel company in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.
Tsutsumi decided to produce soap after learning Japan was relying too much on imports, which began in the 17th century and increased dramatically in the mid-19th century, according to the Japan Soap and Detergent Association.
Before soap was used, Japanese usually washed kimono and their hands with plain water, although sometimes they used ash to wash their kimono, an association official said.
Kosuke Mochimaru imported equipment to make matches and built a match-producing factory, according to an article in the Yokohama Mainichi Shimbun dated Jan. 22, 1875.
The Japan Safety Match Company, owned by American Thomas Brower, also built a match factory in Yokohama that same year, according to a newspaper ad dated Dec. 1, 1877.
In autumn 1875, Makoto Shimizu began making matches in Tokyo.
The Yokohama water supply system, completed in December 1873, was Japan’s first. It transported water from the Tama River in Kashimada, which is now in Saiwai Ward, Kawasaki, to Sakuragicho in Yokohama through wooden pipes. Under the definition used by “Yokohama Mono no Hajime Ko,” a modern water system assures a steady supply and uses such techniques as pumping water under pressure and using filtration.
The system underwent several improvements, including the use of metal pipes in some sections, but was abandoned when Yokohama built a steel-pipe water system in 1887.
Japan’s first photo studio was opened by American Orrin Freeman, who became the first person to import a camera as a commercial product to Japan. When Freeman opened the studio is unknown, but historical documents indicate it was operating as of 1859.
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