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Pacific Affairs: Volume 88, No. 2 – June 2015 pp. 321-323

Review:
OPENING A WINDOW TO THE WEST: The Foreign Concession at
Kōbe, Japan, 1868–1899. By Peter Ennals. Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, 2014. xxiii, 237 pp. (Maps, illus.) US$29.48, paper. ISBN 978-1-4426-
1416-1.


Japanese treaty ports have been neglected as a subject of study by foreign historians so it now almost appears as if nineteenth-century globalization bypassed Japan’s harbours. In Japan, treaty ports now symbolize a time when Japanese sovereignty was impaired by the “unequal treaties,” which is a period the public would rather forget. From a comparative perspective, Japanese treaty ports also seem less interesting to global historians, as this era was rather short in Japan (1859–1899) and limited to a few places. By Chinese standards the foreign community in Japan remained small while the Japanese government also took meticulous care in ensuring that foreigners did not transgress treaty boundaries so these ports did not become stepping stones  for further imperialistic encroachment. As a result, Japanese treaty ports, which used to be the main places of cultural and economic interaction between Japan and the outside world, are marginalized in Japanese and international history.  Peter Ennals, a Canadian professor emeritus of geography, has now published a very readable, well-informed concise history of the Foreign Concession in  Kobe, which together with Yokohama, was Japan’s main international port in the late nineteenth century.
In the first three chapters of his book Ennals places Kobe geopolitically in the broader region and leads us through the establishment of the physical and political infrastructure of the foreign concession in relation to the native town of Hyōgo. When Kobe opened in 1869, ten years after Yokohama, its foreign planners wanted it to become a better location to work and live for middle-class Western merchants than other East Asian treaty ports. Just like other planned international settlements of the time, it included a grid-pattern for housing lots with streets and canalization, and a waterfront imitating the famous Bund at Shanghai, with the prominent building of a Japanese customs house for clearance of all international transactions. Unlike more nationally fragmented treaty ports, Kobe’s Foreign Settlement was united administratively and thus able to conduct its municipal development more effectively. This common core, designed to enable Western merchants in their business and maintain facilities for residents, manifested itself in a large brick municipal building for council meetings, which also housed a fire brigade, rooms for consular courts, and even a jail. The transient Western population of sailors, however, was provided for through inns and grogshops in the native town and high property prices in the settlement induced a stronger social segregation than for example in Yokohama.
The next two chapters explain Kobe’s economic basis. Silk and cotton textiles formed the backbone of Japan’s international trade and industry in the nineteenth century. Ennals shows how merchants at Kobe went through a period of trial and error, hoping to match Yokohama’s strength in silk exports, but failing due to market inexperience. The 1870s for them turned out to be rather disappointing. Eventually Kobe settled on its competitive economic advantage: assembling, processing and selling Japanese green tea to the American West and to Canada. The green tea export market thus came to influence the urban landscape in the Kobe settlement. Godown storage spaces with tea firing facilities and Japanese day labourers to handle tea leaves turned into a common sight. The seasonality of the tea trade meant very busy and intensive seasons followed by a stretch of time with much lower commercial activity. While North America became the prime destination of Kobe tea, the trade was mostly organized by British merchants with a surprisingly weak American presence, which was more prominent in the Yokohama silk trade. The economic chapters pay more attention to the initial years than Kobe’s burgeoning import trade, even though Kobe’s key economic success was its emergence as Japan’s leading import harbour, surpassing Yokohama by 1893. The reason Kobe’s second-largest group of foreign merchants was from Germany, which remained an insignificant destination for Japanese exports, may also have been related to the fact that German imports and shipping to Japan was on the rise. Foreign entrepreneurs later engaged in industrial activities such as the repair and building of ships as well as paper production but the most promising ventures were eventually bought by Japanese investors.
The last three chapters explore the social dimensions of the Foreign Settlement, which was separated by “Division Street” from the older Japanese town. Just like other treaty ports with an expatriate community where men outnumbered women, selective clubs and physical recreations provided an important venue of male sociability. The Kobe Club became the premier gentlemen’s club with a strict dress code and a bar. The Kobe Regatta and Athletic Club, with the support of the municipal council, turned a former river valley adjacent to the concession into sports grounds for horse racing, cricket, soccer and a gymnasium that could also be used for theater performances. Protestant missionaries established schools teaching English and the Bible.
Peter Ennals’ excellent and pioneering study relies exclusively on English-language material. British and American perspectives are thus well documented through diplomatic reports, corporate archives and the English language local  press, which also catered to other Western nationalities. To what extent Kobe, as the book title suggests, “Opened a Window to the West” or remained an extraterritorial enclave with limited local impact is more difficult to assess. As a showcase model of overseas life, Kobe’s role in introducing the Japanese people to Western culture and politics can be deduced in the partial spread of Western-style architecture in the Japanese part of town but we also know that despite all earnest missionary efforts in Kobe and elsewhere, the spread of Christianity often disappointed the proselytizers. Kobe in the nineteenth century appeared to be a port for processing and moving goods more than people, with Japanese overseas passenger traffic not yet playing a major role. One wonders how the overall narrative would need to be amended when continental European, Japanese or Chinese sources and voices were integrated more fully into the picture. This caveat does not detract from the fact that Peter Ennals has written a wonderful history of the Foreign Settlement at Kobe, which appears especially strong in its analysis of spatial developments and patterns of architecture.


Heidelberg University, Heidelberg, Germany Harald Fuess

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