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On Jan. 1, 1868, foreign merchants, who had spent the preceding days on ships offshore waiting for the official opening of the Port of Kobe, finally received permission to land on the beach of what had been a sleepy village well known locally for its thriving sake and fishing industries.

“The scene they gazed upon from the ships was very different from that which meets the eye of a visitor arriving in the harbor of Kobe today. On the beach were a few fishing boats, and a little further up the thatched huts of fishermen stood on the site of what is now known as the Native Bund, west of the Settlement. Behind lay the small town or village of Kobe,” wrote the Japan Chronicle newspaper in 1918.

“Kobe was then mainly a long struggling street continuing from the bridge over the Minato-gawa (Minato River) to the avenue leading to Ikuta temple,” wrote the Chronicle, which was later absorbed by The Japan Times.

Next year, Kobe will mark 150 years since its opening to trade with the West in 1868. This early contact is perhaps best represented to today’s tourists by the ijinkan (former foreign residences). However, Kobe’s official efforts to promote its history outside Japan tend to be romanticized and quite selective. The city is fighting to position itself as a tourist destination in a region increasingly dominated by neighboring Osaka and the ancient capital of Kyoto.

Relatively few people today know about how life proceeded in Kobe’s foreign settlement and what its residents’ struggles were back then.

The port opened five years later than originally planned, due to opposition within the government about having foreigners live that close to the Imperial capital of Kyoto.

The opening had been delayed, the Chronicle recounts, because at that time pro-shogunate and pro-Emperor forces were battling for control of Japan. Later that year, the Tokugawa shogunate collapsed, bringing on Japan’s transition to a modern society through the Meiji Restoration.

“What the (government in Tokyo) feared, however, was that the opening of Hyogo and Osaka would precipitate the gathering storm by exasperating the anti-foreign and pro-Mikado (Emperor) party and thus involve the Shogunate in additional difficulties,” the Chronicle said.

Under the terms of an agreement to open the country, a foreign concession was created in Kobe where American, British, French, Dutch, German, Chinese and other foreign merchants established their businesses. They were exempt from Japanese laws and governed themselves through a municipal council.

The Kobe concession remained until 1899, when jurisdiction reverted back to Japan. For three decades, Kobe’s foreign community remained a country within a country and a major international gateway in Asia.

The beginning was rough. Kobe was barely in its infancy when the first crisis occurred.

In February 1868, just over a month after Kobe had opened, a group of pro-Imperialist soldiers from the Bizen area, in what is now Okayama Prefecture, entered Kobe as they headed to Osaka to join their allies. As they passed along a road north of the Kobe Foreign Settlement, they shouted “down on your knees!” But foreigners watching the procession refused to kneel.

“An American was attacked by one of the samurai, but succeeded in getting away. Two French Marines crossed the line of procession, and the order was given (by the Bizen man’s commander) to cut them down,” the Chronicle relates.

Things escalated, and soon, 20 U.S. Marines arrived with a cannon and fired at the Bizen men, who then fled. Miraculously, neither side suffered any casualties, though the Japanese commander would later be caught and forced to commit seppuku.

In the early days, the problems were not merely political, however. The port had been officially open for business but there were some very fundamental problems. Massive efforts were still needed to drain the area in the Kobe settlement and protect it against the sea.

“As late as the end of May 1868, it was regarded as hopeless to expect the land to be in a condition for building upon at an early date,” the Chronicle’s history says.

Japanese were usually forbidden to live in the settlement, although many worked there, including police officers. The exact number of foreign residents at the time is not known. An early census taken in 1871 shows there were 116 British, 36 Germans, 19 French, and 240 Chinese, plus others, including Americans, whose numbers are not recorded.

Tea from other parts of Japan was a major export, while textiles were a major import for the foreign merchants, who leased lots in the settlement from the Japanese government. But it wasn’t all work. In a Chronicle interview, merchant Ferdinand Plate, who arrived in Kobe in 1872 and was living there in 1918, described the makeup of the early settlement.

“Most of the foreigners were young men; there were few ladies; and the community as a whole led a free and easy life. Alcoholic liquors, paying only a five percent duty on cost, were cheap and were consumed in considerable quantities.” Beyond the booze, various social clubs would pop up. Two born in this era, the Kobe Club and the Kobe Regatta and Athletic Club, still remain.

Eventually, the foreign settlement would be drained and built upon. Business would, after a few lean years, begin to thrive. What is difficult to understand today is the extent to foreign people in Kobe, and the other foreign settlements, had been isolated from the rest of the country due to logistical and legal factors.

One woman, identified in the Chronicle only as J.R. Drewell who lived in Osaka and Kobe from 1871 until 1917, described communications and travel methods between the two cities, which are only about 20 minutes apart by train today.

“The usual means of communication between Osaka and Kobe in those days by water, the journey taking a minimum of two hours. On an average, you could say that a visit to Kobe and back meant at least a day’s journey. In those days we did not enjoy the conveniences of the post and the telegraph. Carriers conveyed mail between Osaka and Kobe. . . . These men would run through the Settlement collecting mail,” she recalled.

The other cause of the isolation was legal. Japanese authorities, in an effort to keep the outsiders as far away from the Emperor’s residence in Kyoto as possible, decreed they were not allowed to venture more than about 25 miles (40 km) from the Kobe Settlement. That meant until 1872, the year of a foreign exposition, Kyoto had been out of bounds and could only be visited with special permission, which was only rarely granted. Even afterward, travel outside the proscribed limits could be difficult.

One early resident, identified as P.S. Cabuldu, who got out of Kobe, describes an 1874 trip to Tsuruga, which is now in Fukui Prefecture, via Otsu, Shiga Prefecture.

“In those days one could not go anywhere in the country without a passport, and the moment we entered a hotel we had to produce this document for examination by a policeman who was always stationed outside.

“At Otsu they did not ask me for my passport and on arrival, I got a train ticket to Tsuruga. I arrived towards evening, gave up my passport, and slept at the hotel. Next morning I rose and went for a short walk. On returning to the hotel I was met by a policeman who asked me when I was going back. I replied that I was returning (to Kobe) at once, which I did,” he said.

From these early years, the Kobe foreign settlement grew. By the end of the 19th century, it was home to about 2,000 foreigners. In addition to a trade in goods, the Kobe settlement is credited with popularizing the consumption of beef (Kobe beef was being served as early as 1868) and for inventing the popular fizzy drink ramune, which was produced in the settlement and, in 1886, was promoted by a Yokohama-based Japanese newspaper as a way to avoid the cholera epidemic sweeping Japan.

Today, Kobe remains a major center for foreign expats. The Kansai region as a whole is second only to Tokyo in official diplomatic importance, with 19 consulates general and about 40 honorary consulates.

“The opening of Japan was not easy for everyone. As with any major change, there were those in favor and those against it. Some tried to protect their culture and perceived foreign influences as a danger to the Japanese culture. Others saw it as an opportunity to renew and move forward,” says Roderick Wols, current consul general of the Netherlands and head of the Kansai Consular Corps.

“Through the Port of Kobe, foreign merchants with their ships entered and they brought exotic products, which came in larger quantities than previously was the case in Nagasaki. All in all, the opening of Kobe, and the opening of Japan, proved to be very successful and gave Japan a place amongst the nations in the world,” he added.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.

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