Introduction

Yokohama and Japanese History

Yokohama and Japanese History

I went to Yokohama for the first time last weekend to catch a play. The professor of my Japanese theatrical history course has a number of friends in the Greater Tokyo Area’s theatre scene. He somehow negotiated free admission for the entire class to playwright Toshiki Okada’s “Super Premium Soft W Vanilla Rich” (スーパープレミアムソフトWバニラリッチ) at The Kanagawa Arts Theatre (KAAT).

This image shows a scene from the play “Super Premium Soft W Vanilla Rich.” Three actors can be seen. Two are facing each other in the background. One is wearing a shopping basket on his head in the foreground.
“Super Premium Soft W Vanilla Rich” [source]
 “Super Premium Soft W Vanilla Rich” features a five-person cast and one set: the inside of a convenience store. Each character represents a popular attitude towards Japan’s business world. Together, the characters present a sort of critique of contemporary Japanese consumerism.

Afterwards, we chatted with Okada, and headed out to explore Yokohama. A short walk led us to Yokohama’s historic port – I’ll briefly explain its importance. In the seventeenth century, Japan’s Tokugawa Shogunate responded to the threat of European imperialism by introducing a number of sakoku, or ’closed country,’ edicts. In this way, the Shogunate prohibited interaction with all European countries, other than that with Dutch traders around Nagasaki. The degree to which these edicts succeeded in eliminating foreign influence is debatable, but I won’t get into this topic here. The sakoku edicts lasted until 1854, when American Commodore Matthew Perry forcefully opened Japan to Euro-American trade at Yokohama’s port. The liberalization of Japan’s trade encouraged the pivotal Meiji Restoration (1868), after which Japan began its rapid industrialization. It was fascinating to see Yokohama’s port in person after reading about its historical significance in my first and second-year history courses at U of T.

Here’s a representation of Perry’s arrival:

This image shows a group of people meeting at a port. It represents American Commodore Matthew Perry's arrival at Yokohama.
“Landing at Yokohama” by William Heine, 1855 [source]
Here’s the port as it was when I visited it:

This image shows Yokohama's port and skyline. A paved road runs along the seashore.
In a way, Yokohama’s skyline represents Perry’s legacy; it is a symbol of nineteenth and twentieth century Euro-America’s industrial and aesthetic influences on Japan.

Readers interested in learning more about Japan’s nineteenth and twentieth century history should check out Andrew Gordon’s A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to Present (2003) for an introduction.

After spending a few minutes taking in the port, we strolled through Yokohama’s Chinatown. The sweet and savoury aromas of Mantou and Xiaolongbao met in its narrow, vendor-lined alleys. We indulged in some Sichuan-style cooking.

This image shows a large gate leading into Yokohama's Chinatown. It features Chinese characters.
The entrance to Yokohama’s Chinatown.
This image shows a bowl of tofu in sauce. This particular variety is  known as 'mapo tofu.'
Mapo Tofu

We ended the day by taking another walk through Chinatown and catching the train back to Tokyo.

This image show a doorframe shaped like a panda opening its mouth. It is located in Chinatown, Yokohama.
One of Chinatown’s iconic buildings.

I’ll begin my travels through western Japan next week. Blogging will be on pause during winter break, so I’ll share my travel stories in the new year. In the meantime, have a great break, everyone!

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