This year, Osaka is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the opening of its port to the outside world. Numerous events, lectures and symposiums on how Osaka developed from 1868 to the present have taken place or are planned between now and early next year.
Many of them focus on the engineering and technical skills needed to transform the port into a modern international hub, or how expanded trade benefited Osaka and Japan. But one aspect of the port’s history seems to have been forgotten and almost hidden, possibly because it’s viewed historically as a major business and diplomatic failure: the Osaka Foreign Settlement.
Compared with the better-known Kobe Foreign Settlement — where 150th anniversary celebrations include an exhibition at Kobe city museum on the foreign settlement’s contribution to Japan — Osaka appears less interested in letting the world know that between 1868 and 1899 it, too, had a foreign concession where Western merchants and Christian missionaries lived and worked.
The Osaka Foreign Settlement was located in the Kawaguchi district in Nishi Ward along the riverfront. It consisted of about two dozen Western-style buildings where European and U.S. merchants established themselves under the extraterritorial treaties Japan had signed to open itself up to the outside world. For three decades, it was a separate nation with Japan, but not a prosperous one.
The settlement was plagued from the beginning by unfavorable conditions in Osaka bay that made transportation of goods by sea rough and dangerous. It was also plagued by political chaos in Osaka and by a lack of interest among local merchants which made steady, profitable trade impossible. By the 1870s, Kobe — not Osaka — was, along with Yokohama, the most prosperous of Japan’s foreign settlements. In the minds of Western traders in the Kansai region, Kobe was the port truly open to outsiders.
But while 19th-century merchants abandoned Osaka for Kobe, the missionary movement flourished. Schools for young Japanese under missionary supervision opened in the settlement area. Today, the Kawaguchi Christ Church Cathedral is the most prominent reminder of the old foreign settlement.
Finding scholarly and popular works on the Osaka settlement, even in this year of anniversary celebrations, remains difficult. Amateur history buffs interested in gleaning valuable lessons for today from the failures of the first Western merchants in Osaka are apt to be disappointed in the lack of available material.
It’s not that the Osaka Foreign Settlement has been wiped from the history books. Rather, a tendency to study only success, not failure, has relegated it to a very minor historical footnote in Japan’s 19th-century development. Public public relations types generally only want to look on the bright side of life and create pleasant images rather than learn from history’s failures.
But a deep understanding of the Osaka Foreign Settlement might not only satisfy the curiosity of history buffs but also provide timely tips to the city’s international PR flacks.
Over the next couple years, Osaka will wage an international PR campaign to host the 2025 World Expo, to promote what they hope will be one of the country’s first casino resorts, and to win World Heritage Site status for ancient burial mounds. They will be very busy bees, buzzing around, creating all sorts of ways to promote Osaka.
How Osaka dealt with the outside world long ago might seem unrelated to their efforts, but that is not the case. Such historical knowledge gives modern Osaka possible promotional material that would resonate more deeply with intelligent outsiders than pompous speeches, slick-but-vapid videos, or historically whitewashed brochures we too often see.
In other words, the ancient history of a local international failure might contribute to Osaka winning international success today. Who’d have thought it?
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.
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