Painting the West, the Yokohamae style.

Painting the West, the Yokohamae style

Yokohamae 横浜絵 is a sub-genre of the Japanese ukiyoe 浮世絵 production which became an artistic trend in the mid-nineteenth century, right after the arrival of the foreigners from Europe and America. This style is named after the place where the first overseas communities established their businesses once landed on the oriental coasts of Japan. Although these prints may not be as notorious as the most canonic ukiyoe, they have recently become a matter of interest among scholars and enthusiasts both for the uniqueness of their subjects and the accurate representations of the foreigner reality in late Edo Japan.

After the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry with his “black ships” in the Edo Bay and the sign of Kanagawa Treaty in 1854, Japan officially had to put an end to its isolationist policy and join the colonial context where other European nations and the US had already entered. Despite the new arrangement, the Japanese authority remained still doubtful about the foreigners, thus it established that only the then small fish village of Yokohama could be turned into a location for international trade. The location had been chosen mainly because of its strategic position, as it was close enough to Edo but not that close to allow the foreigners to enter the capital. With the landing of the outlanders, new districts destined to host the overseas traders with their families started to appear in the harbour areas of Yokohama, and their community was mainly composed of people coming from the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia and the Netherlands. Other than dwells and mansions, the neighbourhoods also had several warehouses and some buildings for commercial business. The foreigner districts were separated from the Japanese ones by the main street of Honchōdōri 本町通り, which became a bustling place where the Japanese, the Yokohama Chinese community, and foreigners would melt together.  

Art Utagawa Sadahide, Yokohama Honchō and the Minatozaki Pleasure Quarter
Utagawa Sadahide 歌川貞秀, Yokohama Honchō and the Minatozaki Pleasure Quarter 横浜本町と港崎遊郭之図, ink and colour on paper, 1860, Harvard Art Museum, Boston.

To witness the foreigner activity in Yokohama, the shōgunate decided to send from Edo a group of ukiyoe artists, tasked with realising some woodblock prints concerning the new planning of the town. Therefore, the first Yokohamae involved the representation of the new urban districts, the new structure of the harbour areas and the daily trade activity. 

Utagawa Sadahide歌川貞秀, Picture of Western Traders at Yokohama Transporting Merchandise 横浜交易西洋人荷物運送之図, ink and colour on paper, 1860
ukiyoe japan painting Yokohama
Utagawa Sadahide歌川貞秀, View of Yokohama 横浜背景之図, ink and colour on paper, 1860, MET NY

However, the ukiyoe artists had soon to fulfil a different task from their original one. The prints of the new Yokohama scenario, in fact, had gained considerable popularity among the commoners of Edo as well, since they were the only media that people outside Yokohama had to come into touch with such an exotic environment. Nonetheless, the locals of Yokohama had become captivated by the foreigners’ reality, even though they had been spending much time side by side with them. Aside from their features, what most intrigued the Japanese were, especially, their outfits and their daily lifestyle. It is under this light that many ukiyoe artists chose to shift their focus on the Floating World and started depicting new prints concerning the daily life in the foreigners’ districts of Yokohama. The prints were usually published in national newspapers and magazines and they  also offered a brief description of the foreigners’ habits and customs.

art Yoshifuji, Foreigners at play on an in a park, 1861, Art of Japan
Utagawa Yoshifuji 歌川芳藤 , Foreigners at play in a park 外国人遁宅之図, ink and colour on paper, 1861, Art of Japan

Among all the artists who dealt with the Yokohamae style, those belonging to the Utagawa School had undoubtedly been the most prolific ones. Utagawa Sadahide 歌川貞秀, in particular, dedicated much of his artistic career to its production. Known for his out-of-the-box thinking, Sadahide started as a usual ukiyoe artist but his deep fondness of the overseas aesthetic eventually led him to become the most representative artist of the Yokohamae current. One of his best artworks is a print collection in three volumes published in 1862 with the name Yokohama kaikō kenbun shi横浜開港見聞誌, Record of Things Seen and Heard at the Open Port of Yokohama. His prints intended to show that human nature followed the same patterns, despite where one came from. Sadahide’s love for the foreigner’ reality made him affirm that:

“some Westerners […] are no different from Japanese in terms of beauty, of countenance, and body (except, of course, for the blue eyes) and there are many Americans, in particular, who are just like the Japanese”

Utagawa Sadahide歌川貞秀, Two Portuguese Women, ink and colour on paper, 1860, British Museum, London
Utagawa Sadahide歌川貞秀, Two Portuguese Women, ink and colour on paper, 1860, British Museum, London
Utagawa Yoshitora, Returning Sails at the Wharves 波止場之規範, ink and colour on paper,1861, MET NY
Utagawa Yoshitora, Returning Sails at the Wharves 波止場之規範, ink and colour on paper,1861, MET NY
Utagawa Yoshitora 歌川芳虎, View of the Amusements of the Foreigners in Yokohama 武州横浜外国人遊行之図, ink and colour on paper, 1861, Harvard Art Museum

Utagawa School most depicted themes usually were everyday scenes in the new districts with men and women from the “Five Nations”, being busy with their daily matters. The obsessive precision that the artists used to represent the intricate details of the garments and accessories worn by their human subjects is undoubtedly worth mentioning. It is possible that they used to draw inspiration from European fashion magazines such as The Illustrated London News to make their prints, managing to emphasise the massive volumes of the crinoline cages and the shapes obtained by the corsets as well. Also, in the Utagawa Yokohamae, U.S. women used to be depicted with a peculiar “pineapple-shaped” hat. The reason is that the artists had apparently copied a female profile on a U.S. coin2. Most compelling, the features of the subjects were not that different from those of the most traditional ukiyoe, making a stark contrast with their outfits. Other than the Five Nations, the Utagawa artists had also provided representations of people coming from different Asian countries, like China and India. The Chinese subjects in the prints were the members of the Yokohama Chinese community, which was a vibrant reality of the growing international business, whereas the Indians subjects were the servants of the European traders.

Utagawa Sadahide歌川貞秀, Foreign Business Shop in Yokohama横浜異人商館売場之図, ink and colour on paper, 1861, MET NY
Utagawa Sadahide 歌川貞秀, Foreign Business Shop in Yokohama 横浜異人商館売場之図, ink and colour on paper, 1861, MET NY

The depiction of this innovative international background in the Yokohamae indeed helped Japan to be more acquainted with the overseas life style. Further, from a historical point of view, the Yokohamae-styled prints offer a precious insight into the frame that modelled both the growth of the city itself and the passage from the Edo to the Meiji Era.

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