Thispaper will offer the opportunity to take a closer look at our text “A Pioneerin Yokohama”, analyzing the contents of his story and examining the firsthandaccounts of a foreign merchant (our author) in late-Tokugawa Japan.
De Coningh accountsgives a view of the difference between the protected isolation of an old Dutchtrading post to the turmoil and disorder of the new trading port of Yokohama. Hiswritings shed light on what trade and life was like in Japan before and afterJapan’s trade was opened with the west. Through this we are given anopportunity to look at a Dutch merchant’s adventures and life during the earlyyears of the opening of this new treaty port, Yokohama.
His perceptions as aforeigner of Japan and how things may have changed throughout the course ofthese few influential years. The influence that foreign trade and the influx ofa new foreign population had on this once isolated island nation, the frailtyof its oppressive government as their borders were forcibly opened and the somewhatunspoken tensions between the Japanese people, their government and theforeigners from the many nations that now resided in Yokohama. These tensionswould not only impact the livelihoods of the foreign merchants but at timestheir very safety. Through the stories that de Coningh tells we might come tounderstand this period of time better though his own firsthand accounts.Firstly, let us look at the contrastbetween the first few chapters in de Coningh’s memoirs. Within this firstchapter our author gives a somewhat overblown account of his first visit toJapan, remarking on the country’s beauty and telling stories fit for anadventure novel but without much real substance.
He spends as much time givinghis impressions as giving an actual account of events. In fact, it appears thisfirst chapter comes from a man swept up in the idea of traveling to a far offforeign land. However, his return trip would offer him a much different view ofthe people of Japan and thus a greater contrast because of it.
On this returntrip, he speaks very highly of the etiquette of the Japanese people. Betweenthe strictly controlled man-made island of Deshima, where he suggests that lifewas dull but safe and comfortable in comparison to the turmoil caused by thenewly opened port city of Yokohama. In the course of this book, de Coninghwould state many times over, that he felt the Japanese people where “among themost courteous people in the world (de Coningh 19).” Maybe because of thepraise he offers to the people of Japan that when this dramatic shift in tonehappens we can then see through his perspective how things have changed and thenow sobering reality of a nation being forced onto the world stage. Upon entering the Yokohama harbor, DeConingh is not greeted with stories of great profit from his fellow countrymen,but stories of the many murders that have been and would continue to takeplace. His account indicates that early years in Yokohama proved to be lawlessand overcome with untrustworthy types, this very quickly painted his opinion ofthis port city. The foreigner’s relationship with the Japanese people wasseemingly very unstable, as De Coningh himselfexpressed numerous times throughout this text. The lives of foreigners inYokohama were complicated, as this kind of life brought both the potential forgreat opportunity as well as for great disaster.
The living conditions for foreigners in andaround Yokohama in late-Tokugawa Japan were at times extremely dangerous, eitherfrom the threat of murder or of property damage from the unhappy nativeJapanese population. Much of his story revolves around this imminent threat ofdeath felt by the foreigners in Yokohama. De Coningh’s life seemed to revolvearound making money as a merchant.
He only spoke briefly of the time he wouldspend during the day trading his wares with the Japanese merchants. However, hedoes talk briefly about the lack of cargo that he brought with him. His talksabout his concern mostly with his dealings with fellow countrymen and the otherforeigners that he interacts with. He talked a lot about the murders that keptoccurring around Yokohama creating a fear for all the foreigners. There isalmost not even a chapter without this concern of murders at the forefront ofour authors mind.
Not only from hearing second-hand accounts told to him but,in at least one case he saw this kind of unlawfulness first hand. During thesetimes of fear for the foreigners there was no realhelp from the Japanese government. Even though, there was a fear of one’s lifethere was a comradery and understanding between the foreigners that can cameout of these tense and stressful times.The civil economy in Yokohama wasobviously affected by this new influx of foreign goods and currency.
As aresult, according to de Coningh’s account Yokohamabecame very expensive for foreigners. Where provisions were cheap, often otherexpenses were highly priced and expensive such as imports and comforts fromhome. The foreign immigrants also faced an economic system that would changecurrency exchange and limit monetary transaction. Even so this text spends muchtime on the interpersonal relationships between foreigners of differentbackgrounds in these uneasy times. The foreigner’s rights were very limited atthis time, as the Tokugawa government seemed to have no intention of offeringassistance to anyone entering their lands.Through de Coningh’s accounts we can get agood understanding of late-Tokugawa Japan and see that this was a time of muchchange.
During this time, there was a sharp shift from a country with closedborders and strict, almost prison like conditions for foreigners to a countrythat was forcibly opened to the world. De Coningh’s tail offers us a greatopportunity to read of his firsthand knowledge and immersions into the Japaneseculture. The stories laid out in this book can, at times, seem dramatic andthere are many accounts that he speaks of that are not his own but those of themen in his company. Because of this it is worth taking a step back andunderstanding how this tale seems to play out. Though he gives some accountsthat can be verified by the translator, many still have an air of a tale toldto invoke excitement while making this a bit more of an easy to read book.
Thus, leaving us seeing things only in the way that he wishes them to beremembered. This is at best one man’s tale and a much too narrow view of whatJapan at this time must have been like. It’s wonderful to have firsthand accountslike these, even if the tales that he tells leave some room for questioning theaccuracy and reality. His need to offer his view seems like an overblowndescription. He gives his account as he remembers it, this lets us look at notonly the accounts that he speaks of but the state of his mind, and what weighedon him during his stays in Japan. While it is wonderful to have a personalaccount of a foreign merchant and sailor in Japan at a truly interesting andtrying time, we must look to how he writes these memoirs.
These writings aretold through stories not as a stale documentary of accounts as they happen butfantastic stories with embellishment, exaggeration and some at least form ahistorical perspective, superfluous accounts. It’s much more interesting to firstlook as these stories as that, adventure stories from a far-off land and as theauthor of this text seeks to show in the forward is how these stories seem tobe intended. That said, through this text we do have verification of accounts,as well as annotations, offering more clarity on de Coningh’s accounts of thepeople that he would meet and the events that transpired around him.In summation, De Coningh’s memoirs give usa good look at the contrast between the very controlled man-made island ofDeshima and that of the new port of Yokohama. Through the stories, he tells ofhis visits to each of these harbors we see a great distinction in not only hisaccounts but also the tone and approach he takes.
This contrast is wonderfulfor us as readers, we can get an idea of the impression of his time spent inYokohama and the effects that were left on the author which leaves animpression on the reader. To read the fanciful storytelling and embellishmentof a man traveling to a wondrous foreign land gives the reader an excitingstory to become immersed in before even setting foot in this new port city.This may speak to the time or years of travel between trips or even to theoverall political climate that is at the forefront of this story. While deConingh’s interpretation of this time lacks an in depth look at the Japanesepeople and society as a whole, it does offer a different and enlighteningdescription of what life in early Yokohama was like for a foreign merchant.