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Book Review


Assendelft de Coningh, C. T. [Cornelis Theodoor]. A Pioneer in Yokohama: A Dutchman's Adventures in the New Treaty Port. Edited and translated with an introduction by Martha Chaiklin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 2012. Pp. xxxii+162. $15 (paper).


     Martha Chaiklin has done a service to the field of Japanese history by translating the colorful personal account of life in early Yokohama by the Dutch merchant C. T. de Coningh. Most accounts of the opening of Yokohama focus either on the role of the British and Americans or on the domestic political conflict that erupted when Yokohama opened as an international port in 1859. De Coningh focuses instead on the role of the Dutch and his perspective provides valuable insights not seen in Anglo-American sources.

     The book consists of a translator's introduction and seven chapters by the author. The introduction explains who de Coningh was, how he came to Japan and why he wrote the book. It also describes the special relationship the Dutch had with Japan during the early modern period but provides only a brief account of the opening of Yokohama. Readers not already familiar with that story may want to consult an introductory history.1 Chaiklin explains in the introduction that the original text is the second half of a longer memoir and she has organized de Coningh's rambling account of life in Japan into chapters to make it more coherent. Overall she maintains fidelity to the original text, explaining the many obscure references in detailed footnotes, and she has succeeded at making the text readable while preserving its value as a historical source.

     De Coningh begins his account of life in Japan by describing his stay in Nagasaki several years before Yokohama was opened. Most Europeans were expelled from Japan in the 1630s and only the Dutch remained, isolated on a small artificial island in Nagasaki known as Dejima. His account suggests that life on Dejima was dull but safe and comfortable. His narrative strategy of beginning the story in Nagasaki is unusual and Chaiklin suggests it was a literary device intended to portray an "idyllic" Japan that was thrown into turmoil by the opening of Yokohama (p. xxiii). A recurring theme in the book is the decline of Dutch influence after the opening of Yokohama, and de Coningh criticizes Dutch officials who were reluctant to leave the comfort of Nagasaki.

     Their reluctance is not surprising. His account shows that in its early years Yokohama was a lawless place plagued by human and natural disasters, bereft of creature comforts and inhabited by unsavory characters (he does not mention that life was calmer across the bay at Kanagawa). The Westerners in Yokohama indulged in brawling, cursing, public drunkenness and, in at least one case, a spectacular food fight (p. 88-89). He is critical of the British and Americans, who formed the majority of the population, but also of the Dutch. He saw some of his Dutch compatriots as "brave, law abiding men" but the rest included "people whose honesty was highly questionable, some drunken rabble, and one murderer" (p. 159). His account contrasts with later descriptions of the city as a bastion of modernization and he repeatedly undermines pretensions of Western cultural superiority, in once case ironically contrasting the "civilized Japanese" to the uncouth foreigners (p. 89). The book contains many cloying national stereotypes and at least one racial slur, but mostly it offers amusing or dramatic tales of life in Yokohama.

     His account overlaps with other well-known sources, for example by Ernest Satow 2, Francis Hall 3 and Joseph Heco 4, but it provides fascinating details of the life of Westerners not mentioned in those sources and the value of his account is found in those details. His tale conveys the palpable anxiety caused by repeated anti-foreign violence and the vulnerability foreigners felt when the British, French and American navies—occupied in wars elsewhere—could not send ships to protect them (p. 60). He describes the surreal scene when the first foreign woman arrived in Yokohama late in 1859 and took a stroll with her husband at a pre-arranged time to satisfy the curiosity of a crowd who had gathered to see her (pp. 108-111). To underscore the lawlessness of Yokohama, he describes a disagreement between an Englishman and a Dutchman that escalated into a fistfight and then into public brawl in front of a cheering throng. The combatants challenged each other to a duel that was averted only with the intervention of British merchants who worried that news of a duel would hurt trade (pp. 89-107). The most illuminating part of the book, however, is his description of the illegal trade in gold. He makes light of his own involvement by telling a colorful story about how Japanese ruffians swindled him in a deal gone bad (pp. 80-83), but Chaiklin suggests he was more deeply involved than he lets on (p. xvii). He explains in detail the origins and workings of the gold trade and how it destabilized currency values in Yokohama (pp. 76-80), but he fails to notice the even more devastating effects it had on the local Japanese economy.

     De Coningh's account has its limitations, notably its lack of attention to Japanese society, but it offers a fresh and illuminating description of life in early Yokohama, made accessible by Chaiklin's translation. This is a must-read book for anyone interested in the history of Yokohama, but it will also appeal to readers interested in the history of Japan, Western imperialism or the Netherlands.

Robert Eskildsen is a Senior Associate Professor in the College of Liberal Arts at International Christian University in Tokyo, Japan. He can be reached at



1 Possible introductions include Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan from Tokugawa Times to the Present (2nd ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), and Mitani Hiroshi, Escape from Impasse: The Decision to Open Japan (Tokyo: International House of Japan, 2006).

2 Ernest M. Satow, A Diplomat in Japan: The Inner History of the Critical Years in the Evolution of Japan When the Ports Were Opened and the Monarchy Restored (London: Seeley & Co, 1921).

3 Francis Hall, Japan Through American Eyes: The Journal of Francis Hall, Kanagawa and Yokohama, 1859-1866, ed. F. G. Notehelfer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

4 Joseph Heco, The Narrative of a Japanese: What He Has Seen and the People He Has Met in the Course of the Last Forty Years, ed. James Murdoch (Yokohama: Yokohama Printing & Publishing Co., 1892).



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