Until 1853 Japan had isolated itself from the rest of the world. Japan was a forbidden country for foreigners and no Japanese was allowed to leave Japan.
The only exception were Dutch traders represented in the East Indian Trading Company. They were officially allowed to maintain all Japanese import and export trades with the outside world. However their presence was confined to the small island of Deshima in Nagasaki Harbor. According to some nineteenth century sources, the Dutch also maintained a flourishing business, smuggling people in and out of Japan.
In 1853 and a second time in 1854 a US naval fleet under the Commander Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858) forced Japan to enter negotiations with the US for an opening of its borders. On Perry's second trip to Japan, the American delegation and the Japanese shogunate government signed the Treaty of Kanagawa.
The European countries followed soon and by 1858 England, France, Russia and the Netherlands had concluded a treaty with Japan to promote commercial ties. Those four European nations and the US were referred to as the five Treaty Nations.
Before the Treaty of Kanagawa the Japanese population had never seen foreigners before. A new art genre of ukiyo-e were designed to satisfy the curiosity towards the different way of life of these strange-looking newcomers and their technological achievements. Iron black ships, horse-drawn carriages, locomotives, steam-vessels or hot air balloons had been unknown in Japan.
During the first years the foreigners were restricted to a certain area in Japan - the area around the harbor of Yokohama. Thereafter these prints are called Yokohama prints or Yokohama-e (e means picture in Japanese).
During the first years, the foreigners were not allowed to travel more than twenty-five miles outside Yokohama. The restriction was more of a precautionary measure to protect the foreigners against hostile attacks by the samurai class.
In 1862, the British merchant Charles Richardson was killed on a horse ride excursion on the Tokaido Road outside Yokohama. This became known as the Namamugi incident. The incident lead to a punishment attack on the Satsuma fleet in 1863 by the British Navy.
Yokohama prints can be grouped after the subjects they display. There are maps, ships, ceremonies and important events and portraits of foreigners. Portraits usually show a couple or the whole family with children, pets and servants are frequent among Yokohama prints. It can be assumed that many of these portraits were commissioned by foreign diplomats.
Ann Yonemura, the author of the book "Yokohama" (see below) estimates the total number of different Yokohama prints at some five hundred, designed by thirty-one artists between 1859 and 1862.
The Japanese ukiyo-e artists did not confine themselves to just depicting the foreigners and their technical stuff. They also tried to introduce Western painting techniques like the use of perspective and the technique of displaying light and shadows.
Yokohama prints always show interesting subjects and are often very charming in their use of Western painting techniques. No wonder that they are coveted by collectors.
Yokohama prints are rather rare and therefore often expensive. When it comes to quality, collectors should be willing to make some compromises. The impressions of many Yokohama prints are often fair to poor. Either too many impressions were made from one block or they were hastily and sloppily produced to meet the high demand of the market.
Ann Yonemura, "Yokohama - Prints from Nineteenth-Century Japan", Arthur M.Sackler Gallery, Smithonian Institution, Washington D.C.
Author: Dieter Wanczura