The Idea of America in 19th-Century Japanese Prints

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A work made of color woodblock print; oban triptych.
An American Mercantile Building in Yokohama (Yokohama ijin shokan no zu), 1861
Utagawa Sadahide

The array of prints featured in this exhibition emerged from the specific historical events initiated when a fleet commandeered by US Commodore Matthew C. Perry first landed in Japan in 1853. Perry’s arrival marked the beginning of a period of mutual curiosity between two cultures, and his mission was to open Japan to trade after more than 200 years of restrictive policies under the Tokugawa shoguns. The terms of the trade treaty were not finalized until 1858, at which time five Japanese ports—including Yokohama, the most active—were opened to the member nations: the United States, France, England, Russia, and the Netherlands. Surrounded on all sides by water, the modest foreign settlement at Yokohama was designed to both contain and protect the newcomers.

Prints known as Yokohama-e, or “pictures of Yokohama,” soon capitalized on the novelty of the people and goods coming into the busy international port. The Japanese public had a great appetite for news about the arrivals, and publishers enjoyed a much-needed boost to their businesses when they mass-produced commercial images of this fresh subject matter. However, Yokohama-e were often misrepresented as realistic or factual. While a few of the images take genuine, observed scenes as their source, the prints were often based on engravings in foreign newspapers. Japanese artists created convincing or amusing scenes of Western customs, dress, technology, and transport, and even American cities, often fictionalizing them in the process. The resulting prints found an eager audience among visitors from Europe and the United States as well as domestically.

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