19th Century Images Reveal How Japanese Locals Viewed American Tourists

Real History |

It turns out that Americans were given stereotypes by Japan in the same way that Japanese tourists were given stereotypes by Americans in the 1980's. The only difference? These Japanese stereotypes towards Americans were applied about 150 years sooner.

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Known as the "Yokohama pictures," these prints were popular in Japan in the mid-1850's as a way of depicting incoming American boats. Japan had closed its ports in 1639 to foreign trade, so you can imagine their shock at seeing Americans wash up on the shore.

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The American Navy's appearance would not be a one time event. It would pave the way for the Kanagawa Treaty to be signed a couple years later, somewhat opening the door to free trade once again. Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, representing the U.S. government, signed the treaty alongside officials from the Japanese government.

Not all ports were reopened, only Shimoda and Hakodate. But part of the treaty involved the establishment of a U.S. consulate in Japan. In April 1860, the first Japanese diplomats to visit a foreign power reached Washington, D.C.

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These prints definitely stand out in their era as fairly radical art pieces. The colorization definitely brightens them to an almost extreme visual level.

Art in Japan has undergone many innovations, even within the broader category of contemporary art itself. Sculptures, paintings, and drawings have all taken creative leaps as artists experiment with new and different materials and supplies. While there has always been a sect of artists that stick with native stlyings, many in the contemporary movement have embraced more Western faculties.

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The above portrait depicts Americans making bread. For some reason, they look extremely unsure about their endeavor, and it's humorous.

Japan is often overlooked as far as their penchant for contemporary art and performance art is concerned. Yes, Japan is the home of the famous Kabuki Theater. In these live performances, performers would wear over the top make-up while they sung and danced on stage. It began in 1603 with female kabuki, where female performers played the roles of both men and women. It became so popular that kabuki's founder, Izumo no Okuni, was asked to perform it before the Japanese Imperial Court. The performance art form reached its golden era by the late 1600's, and has remained a vital component of Japan even post-World War II.

So there you have it. The rich artistic history of Japan, combined with it's loud sense of humor and penchant for performance art, helps explain why their interpretation of the incoming American navy is so hilarious.

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