Curating First Impressions: Exploring the Seascapes of Sadahide’s Yokohama prints and their presentation of the Early Treaty Port Era

Sadahide’s Yokohama Prints or Yokohama-e are the product of a significant shift in the spatial context within a plethora of Japanese ports during the 1850s. These artworks illustrate the spatial dynamism within the Treaty Port’s commercial and social areas. In spite of the dangers of being a foreign merchant and complex spatial barriers incurred by the legal segregation of land and access to littoral space in Yokohama, Sadahide’s exoticised portrayals of the Treaty Port reflect the process in which people’s sense of place is curated and altered. The Harris Treaty signed aboard the U.S. warship Powhatan, came into effect in 1859 and catapulted Yokohama into the international economy.1

The pressured opening of Japanese trading ports induced the restoration of the social issues of human trafficking, and the violation of Japan’s domestic security.2 Foreign traders and officials hastily constructed entertainment venues and brothels to cater to their sailors’ needs.3 They were also known to venture deeper into the inlets of Edo Bay beyond the boundaries of the Treaty Ports and these outings often ended in violence against the foreigners.4 These acts began to break down Japan’s status society and, combined with the continued commercial concessions enforced on the imperial court, sparked acts of violence by the Bakufu against foreigners.5 The realities of Treaty Port life are largely excluded from Sadahide’s exploration of Treaty Port life and focus on the economic vitality, cultural sophistication, and social cohesion of the Treaty Port.

The artwork “Pictures of Western Traders at Yokohama Transporting Merchandise”, produced in 1861, consists of five weed blocks attached that capture Sadahide’s portrayal of the age of commerce in Yokohama’s Treaty Port. This print depicts five ships, each flying a flag that distinguishes them as one of the five Western members of the Ansei Treaties. Traditional Japanese woodblock printing emerged a century prior to the signing of The Ansei Treaties in 1858, which opened access to Japan’s trading ports after two centuries of seclusion.6 The national flags on each ship in Sadahide’s print are those of the United States, Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Russia. These countries established trading rights, port access, and the application of extraterritoriality between Japan themselves.7 This arrangement was arguably forced upon Japan by the United States by intimidating the shōgunate by periodically sending warships into Edo Bay.8

Despite Japan’s coercion into the treaty, its re-introduction into the global market and the high value of imported goods transiting through the Treaty Ports is illustrated thoroughly in “Pictures of Western Traders at Yokohama Transporting Merchandise”.  A mixture of steam and sailboats are visible. Inside the port holes, small sightings of the internal luxury are discernable. Many foreign women accompanying their husbands are visible, despite their scarcity in this period.9 A diversity within the staff is also depicted, on the American boat, an Indian male, distinguished by his turban, is pulling in the rigging. Goods are overflowing on the decks of each ship and in the small rowing boats on the water. Overall, the seascape is overwhelmingly a Westernised image. Sadahide celebrates a bustling yet peaceful image devoid of the local xenophobia that was rife towards the inhabitants of the Treaty Ports.10 This image is also thought to be inspired by a print published in the Illustrated London News half a year before this print release.11 Sadahide’s potential imitation of the British artist illustrates that Sadahide is able to manipulate Western artistic fashions to appeal to foreign consumers and curate a specific and positive sense of place within the viewer. 

Figure 1: “Pictures of Western Traders at Yokohama Transporting Merchandise”,  by Sadahide (1861).

Figure 2: Harbour Scene at Naples, from Illustrated News London.

The print entitled “A Picture of Sunday in Yokohama”, released in 1860 illustrates the spatial exclusivity of the Treaty Port.12 The image depicts a procession of the foreign inhabitants of Yokohama’s Treat Port including a brass band, the wives of merchants and again the flags of the five nations involved in The Ansei treaty. In the background, the merchant ships and one of the jetties can be seen, reinforcing the semi-colonial assertion of power the five nations have enforced on Yokohama. In Neo-Confucian conceptions of moral behaviour and within Tokugawa society, the role of merchants and handling money is associated with improper ethical practice and is a lowly occupation.13 Sadahide is perhaps mocking the Western ritualised celebration of the merchant class and contesting their perceptions of how they assert power over Yokohama’s littoral space by implying they are morally unrefined. This is a significant example of how perceptions of space and who holds power in these places may be interpreted by foreigners and Japanese people may interpret Sadahide’s representations in his prints differently.

Figure 3: “A Picture of Sunday in Yokohama”, by Sadahide (1860).

To conclude, Sadahide’s artworks exude a sense of calmness and present a highly sterilized image of Yokohama to engender Japan with the prestige and financial prosperity it aimed to embody in the eyes of Western visitors.14 In contrast with the dangerous and male-dominated reality of Yokohama’s Treaty Porty at this time, Sadahide provides an enchanting, stylised depiction of semi-colonialism. During the messy, infancy of the Treaty Port system, foreign merchants began to test the pliability of the spatial boundaries that they had assigned. Resultantly, markets for prostitution, and “coolie” labour were drawn to Yokohama’s shores to facilitate the growing market.15 As tensions rose between the British and Japanese in their quests for legal hegemony over legalities that transgressed the port’s limits, Sadahide continued to print visuals that appealed to Western foreigners residing and travelling through. There is a constant exoticism and beautification of the Treaty Port, the harbour, and the merchants.

  1. John Dower, “Yokohama Boomtown: Foreigners in Treaty Port Japan (1859-1972), Available at: yb_essay04.html (Accessed: 18/09/23) []
  2. Daniel Botsman, ‘Freedom without Slavery? “Coolies,” Prostitutes, and Outcastes in Meiji Japan’s “Emancipation Moment”’, The American Historical Review 116, no. 5 (2011): 1323–47. []
  3. Marius Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, (Harvard, 2022), p.317. []
  4. Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, pp.317-319. []
  5. Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, pp.314-317. []
  6. Dower, “Yokohama Boomtown”, available at: yb_essay04.html (accessed: 18/09/23) []
  7. Jeremy Taylor, “The Bund: Littoral Space of Empire in the Treaty Ports of East Asia,” Social History 27, no. 2 (2002): 125–42 []
  8. Todd Munson, “Imperialism and Indomedia in Bakumatsu Japan: The View from Treaty Port Yokohama”, PhD Thesis, (University of Indiana, 2004) pp.50-53 []
  9. Dower, “Yokohama Boomtown”, available at: yb_essay04.html (accessed: 18/09/23) []
  10. Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, p.317 []
  11. MIT Visualising Cultures, “Boomtown”, Available at:, (Accessed 18/09/23) []
  12. MIT Visualising Cultures, “Boomtown”, Available at: (accessed:18/09/23) []
  13. Munson, “Imperialism and Indomedia in Bakumatsu Japan: The View from Treaty Port Yokohama”, p.156 []
  14. Munson, “Imperialism and Indomedia in Bakumatsu Japan: The View from Treaty Port Yokohama”, p.147. []
  15.  Botsman, ‘Freedom without Slavery?”: 1323–47. []