FROM THE ARCHIVES

150-year-old images reveal what Japanese artists once thought about exotic American visitors

“Strange” and “new” are relative terms, as a fascinating series of Japanese woodcuts unearthed by the Public Domain Review handily reminds us.

Inspired by the dress and habits of visiting Americans, artists in 1850s Japan once dedicated themselves with an ethnographic intensity to the study of exotic Western newcomers. Today, the artwork provides Americans with a novel perspective on their ancestors, described in portrait titles like People of the Barbarian Nations – Americans, and Americans’ Love for Children.

This particular genre of woodcut is known as Yokohama-e, and was produced in the small fishing village of Yokohama, today one of Japan’s most international cities. Yokohama was one of the first ports that Japan opened to foreign trade, at the insistence of the American government. The US made several failed attempts to get Japan’s attention throughout the early 19th century before finally forcing Japan out of isolation in 1854.

The images below were retrieved from the digital archives of the US Library of Congress.

Yokohama meisho benten
“Yokohama meishō benten: Amerikajin” (Famous places in Yokohama: Americans.)
Yokohama kyujitsu
A carriage ride along the shoreline in Yokohama, in “Yokohama kyūjitsu Amerikajin yūkō” (Americans enjoying Sunday in Yokohama). (Sadahide Utagawa)
Shosha-Amerikajin
A woman holds a parasol and a man smokes a cigar in “Shōsha – Amerikajin” (True picture of Americans.) Yoshikazu Utagawa.
Gokakoku no uchi
Women in Western dress riding sidesaddle in “Gokakoku no uchi – Amerikajin” (People of the five nations – Americans). (Utagawa, Yoshitora)
Bankoku Zukushi-Amerijakin
An American couple in “Bankoku zukushi – Amerikajin” (About foreign lands – Americans). (Yoshitora Utagawa).
Bankoku jinbutsu zue
“Bankoku jinbutsu zue – Amerikajin” (People of the barbarian nations – Americans). (Yoshitsuya Utagawa)
Amerikajin-bango wakai
An American couple conversing with Japanese translation in the text, in “Amerikajin – bango wakai” (Americans – Japanese translations of barbaric languages). (Yoshitora Utagawa)
Amerikajin Yuko Sakamori
An American man holding a glass and a Japanese courtesan holding a bottle in “Amerikajin yuko sakamori” (American enjoying himself). (Yoshitora Utagawa)
Amerikajin yugyo
“Amerikajin yūgyō” (Americans taking a stroll). (Yoshifuji Utagawa)
Amerikajin no zu
A husband stands nearby while his wife breast-feeds an infant in “Amerikajin no zu” (Portrait of Americans). (Yoshitora Utagawa)
Amerikajin no zu-pansei nokamato
Two American men baking in “Amerikajin no zu – pansei nokamato” (Portrait of Americans – bread making). (Yoshikazu Utagawa)
Amerikajin kodomo o aisu zu
A mother and child with a Japanese manservant leaving for a walk, in “Amerikajin kodomo o aisu zu” (Picture of Americans’ love for children). (Yoshitoyo Utagawa) (Yoshikazu Utagawa)

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