My Peaceful Enlightenment at the Yokohama Archives of History:)

On March 21, 2015, I had the opportunity of exploring the Yokohama Archives of History (Yokohama Kaikō Shiryōkan) located in Kannai, Yokohama. This museum focused primarily on the years between Commodore Mathew C. Perry’s arrival in 1853 and the Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923. Generally, when I visit museums, I have a difficult time appreciating the original documents and photographs on display, due to my lack of knowledge on that particular subject or topic. However, since I had been studying about Yokohama’s Golden Age in great detail in my history classes, I had an exciting time observing the surviving records of the past, and being awed by new knowledge.

The moment I entered the gates to the museum building, surprise and excitement propelled my attention towards the enormous tree in front of me. I read the placard, and my guess was proved correct in assuming that the tree was the one in the famous illustration by Wilhelm Heine, depicting the arrival of the Black Ships in 1853.

The tree was called Tamakusu (from the Tabunoki family), and it stood near the reception hall where the Treaty of Kanagawa was signed between Perry and the representatives of the Shōgun (Tokugawa Ieyoshi) in 1854. I learned that Tamakusu not only survived the Great Kantō Earhquake but also the Great Yokohama Air Raid in 1945. I sat on the bench beside Tamakusu for a while, smelling the fresh leaves and imagining the nervous voices filling the atmosphere in 1854, preparing for the arrival of the foreigners. I quietly enjoyed sitting next to the living memory of Japanese history with the hope that Tamakusu will continue to grow and its value never forgotten.

I realized that I had already spent almost fifteen minutes just appreciating the ancient tree so I hurriedly entered the museum building. On the first floor, there were several panels on the walls, which examined how a deluge of Western ideas began flowing into Japan following Perry’s arrival. The first panel that caught my attention was a display of six drawings, each by a different Japanese artist on their image of Perry’s appearance. Upon being isolated from the foreign world for over two hundred fifty years, Japanese artists had nothing but their imaginations to rely on, regarding the faces of foreigners. I noticed that all of the drawings had several similarities as they all had bold facial features such as a big nose and thick eyebrows. To me, the faces resembled the supernatural creature in Japanese folk religion called the Tengu, so it was interesting to notice a Japanese essence in the foreign faces.

Another interesting object on display was a woodblock, which was used for a local newspaper in 1859. The newspaper reported the opening of Yokohama, Nagasaki and Hakodate to foreign countries, and the image printed by the woodblock depicted several foreign ships approaching the Yokohama harbor. I could not help but stare at the beautiful details carved onto the surface of the wood and imagine how much time and effort was put into the piece. Several months ago, I had the opportunity of carving my own woodblock print in art class, and I realized the importance of precision and patience in producing the perfect print. Therefore, because I could relate to the difficulties involved with creating an image from a piece of wood, I was captivated by the masterwork on display.

When I came around to see the miniature model of the U.S.S Susquehanna, which was one of the ships collectively called the ‘Black Ships’ by the Japanese, I was surprised to see that it was not entirely black. I realized that I had never actually seen a picture or model of the actual ship, so I had naturally formulated an image that the ship was drenched in black. To my surprise, the wooden keel, deck and booms shone brown. Thinking back on July 8, 1853, I assumed that the billowing smoke from the black funnel would have left the Japanese onlookers with a simple impression that the ship was completely black.

When I went to the second floor of the museum, I found several black and white photos of the Yokohama Port and the Kannai area. One photo captured an ordinary day on Honchō Dōri, and Western influence was apparent as the people wore boots and the stores were labeled “Tailor and Outfitters” or “Swiss watches: G. Schneider”.

By then, the time was approaching the closing time at five o’clock so I left the museum and decided to sit down on the bench beside the Tamakusu tree again. I reflected on the new knowledge I gained from exploring the museum, and I took a moment to appreciate the events in all of Japanese history that made today. With a happy sigh, I stood up and walked out of the museum building feeling like an expert on Japanese History.:)

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