Yokohama: Westernization



“Woodcut of the residential compound in Yokohama’s foreign quarter” (Courtesy of MIT)

As one of a few trading ports that were opened between western powers and Japan, Yokohama developed a  worldview and societal worldview that was unique to the rest of the country.  Eventually, those ideals would spread to the rest of Japanese society as part of its transition from the Tokugawa to Meiji, or from “early modern “(kinsei) to “modern” (kindai)  (Jansen, 1, 11).  In Around the World in 80 Days, this transforming Japanese world forms the backdrop for Phileas Fogg and Passepartout’s adventures in Yokohama, and, as such, it is important to discuss it accurately.

Compared to many other nations, Verne is relatively favorable toward the Japanese, perhaps because, to an European outsider in a trading port for Europeans like Yokohama, it would appear that the Japanese had begun to westernize.  This is demonstrated by Japanese state building exercises during this period, which saw Japan borrow models from the West for a centralized state (Jansen, 10).  However, while accurate that Japanese borrowed from the West, this was more driven by fear of the power of the West suddenly at their doorstep and the trading partnership forced upon the Japanese by Admiral Perry (Chang).  Yokoi Shōnan, a Meiji period scholar, samurai, and politician from Japan articulates this clearly, writing in 1864 that

“A trend of the world today is for all nations to communicate with one another.  Should Japan alone stick to the old custom of closing her door to foreigners and remaining in seclusion, this would instantly turn the multitude of nations into her enemies, inviting self-destruction before our eyes” (Chang, xvi).

Shōnan worked to westernize Japan out of fear of the West throughout his career, arguing that Japan should avoid the mistakes of China when dealing with the West (Chang).  One way he attempted to modernize Japan was by arguing for a state religion, which he saw as a potential westernized strength.  Ultimately, Japan decided to implement nationalized State Shinto as its religion, starting in the late 19th century (Chang).

Another place to see Japanese fear of the West is in the journal of Francis Hall, “America’s leading business pioneer in [Yokohama,] Japan” and a newspaper correspondent for the New York Tribune between 1859 and 1866 (Notehelfer, ix).  While there are many moments that illustrate Japanese distrust of the west throughout the Journal, one clear incident occurs on November 17th of 1859, when The Mayor of Kanagawa calls upon one of Hall’s friends, Dr. Hepburn, and asks him to give up his Chinese books for examination (Notehelfer, 42-43).  In another incident, just two days later, Hall writes that he thinks Yangaro (who is most likely Dr. Hepburn’s translator, though the journal is unclear) may be a government spy (Notehelfer, 43).

Photograph of Francis Hall with his Sisters-in-law after his return from Japan in 1866 (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

These sources demonstrate that the Japanese distrusted the West and somewhat ironically sought to westernize in order to compete with their new rivals.  While Verne accurately notes that they had westernized, his writing does not seem to hint that the Japanese distrusted the West, instead viewing the West as a positive reflection of what the Japanese could be.