“The Merchant’s Tale: Yokohama and the Transformation of Japan” by Simon Partner

“Buying Camlets in  a Shop, Yokohama”, Illustrated London News, 1865 “Buying Camlets in a Shop, Yokohama”, Illustrated London News, 1865

“For sothe he was a worthy man withalle.” Thus Chaucer, perhaps somewhat ironically (when Chaucer says “worthy”, there’s often a catch) describing the Merchant in the “General Prologue” to his Canterbury Tales. This brief description, minus any irony, would certainly fit Shinohara Chūemon (1809-1891), the merchant who is one lynch-pin of Simon Partner’s enjoyable, beautifully-researched and fascinating account of Japan a few years after what Western writers are pleased to call its “opening” in 1853.

The other lynch-pin is Yokohama itself, as it transforms from a relatively unimportant small fishing town to a bustling trade port and a mecca for foreign merchants as well as for Japanese like Chūemon seeking their mercantile fortunes. Yokohama serves, in many ways, as a microcosm for Japan itself, whilst Chūemon functions as one for people like himself, who were, after all, just as responsible for bringing Japan into a new world of globalism and industrialisation as were any of its rulers.

It was their dynamism and sheer determination to succeed which laid the foundations for modern Japan: Chūemon’s story thus becomes both the record of a personal journey and of a “new” nation coming into being, an emergence of a more clearly-defined “Japanese” identity. People were discovering that their own small localities were just part of a much wider and larger world, and, like it or not, that world would be playing a part in their hitherto somewhat circumscribed lives. They could embrace the new or try to suppress it by hanging on to the old; Chūemon willingly chose the former, but at the same time did not simply throw away the latter. In a stiffly-posed photograph taken in 1872, he and his family are dressed in traditional clothing, their hair very much in the old Tokugawa style, and one of the sons proudly carries a sword. The other son, in contrast, displays a very modern-looking silver pocket watch, apparently a common prop employed by the photographer, who wanted to subtly demonstrate that Yokohama was truly a cosmopolitan centre where the old and new freely mingled. “The conspicuous display of the watch,” Partner tells us, “seems to make a statement about the comfort of the photographic subjects with Western technologies and lifestyles.”


The Merchant's Tale: Yokohama and the Transformation of Japan, Simon Partner (Columbia University Press, March 2020)
The Merchant’s Tale: Yokohama and the Transformation of Japan, Simon Partner (Columbia University Press, paperback edition, March 2020)

In case anyone thought that the story of a businessman like Chūemon might be rather mundane or boring, readers may be assured that this isn’t the case here. Simon Partner, a professor of history at Duke University and author of several books on Japan, has avoided both these pitfalls by allowing Chūemon, as much as possible, to speak, or rather write, in his own words, thus rendering his story very personal and human. There are just enough letters from Chūemon extant to give us a three-dimensional figure, a man struggling sometimes to keep himself and his family above water (like Chaucer’s merchant, he was often in debt), and always looking for any new venture which might help him do that. The sheer optimistic determination of this man is admirable—he never gives up and always retains his dignity as well as his honesty. “No matter what happens,” he wrote to his son in 1867, “this year I plan to undertake trade in [silkworm] egg cards,” and a month or so later he reports that “the foreigners are secretly asking me to supply them, so sales are likely to be extremely good.” Chūemon knew that there was a silkworm blight in Europe, and fully intended to take advantage of it. His career gives the lie to any notions that all Japanese at this time were firmly opposed to Japan’s participation in the wider world and that they knew nothing about it. Chūemon shared some of his countrymen’s reservations about foreigners and their strange customs, but he never let that stop him from engaging with them in mercantile matters, and, indeed, seeking them out.

It’s also interesting to see how Chūemon’s career mirrors outside developments; Japan didn’t suddenly transition into an industrial powerhouse overnight, but struggled, even lurched into modernity, with a rearguard fighting all the way. Chūemon witnessed the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, the violence that marred the first years of the Meiji Restoration and the Sonno Joi (Revere the Emperor and Expel the Barbarians) movement egged on by Meji’s father the Emperor Kōmei, who issued An Order to Expel the Barbarians in 1863, which in the end the shogunate, to its ultimate cost, did not carry out, becoming for many just as inimical as the foreigners. Chūemon lived through all this, and for him and his family it had profound consequences, but they somehow managed to survive and eventually prosper in Yokohama, although it’s telling that in his retirement Chūemon decided to return to his home village of Higashi-Aburakawa, west of the shogunate capital Edo (Tokyo) which, at the then-advanced age of fifty, he had bravely left in 1859 to seek his fortune in Yokohama, leaving his son to manage the prosperous family farm, where cotton and rice were grown.


Why Yokohama? Chūemon was doing well; he was respected in his village, where he was a headman, and he had a family to look out for. Partner doesn’t know for sure, as Chūemon never explained his motives for this rather sudden move. He had been to Edo before, and he may have just felt like becoming a businessman as he was “bored with farming”, or he may have felt that it was just time to try something new because he didn’t want to retire, and he had a sense of adventure and wanted to see what the wider world might offer. “Or perhaps,” as Partner suggests, “he went to serve his community” and find a larger market for its produce through his partnerships with other local farmers.

With his principal partner Gorōemon he stated in his application for a license to move to Yokohama and open a shop that “although we are farmers, we have been desiring for some time to become merchants, selling the produce of our farming [in Yokohama].” Again, like Chaucer’s merchant, Chūemon had the entrepreneurial spirit. He likely knew that foreigners would be arriving in increasing numbers (it was six years after Commodore Perry’s visit), which meant a wider market and greater opportunities for him to tap into.

Whatever the motives, Chūemon evidently felt that it was, even at his time of life, worth taking a risk in what looked like the opening of a new world in Japan. Yokohama, because of its growing connections with foreign trade and hence with the wider world, was also a place which, Partner explains, “contributed to profound transformations in Japanese society and culture and extended even as far as global cultural and material flow.” Tracing Chūemon’s life and career during this period puts him at the centre of events and yet allows readers to get to know how it must have felt for him, how much he understood what was happening, as well as why, in the end, he returned to Higashi-Aburakawa, where his grave-marker may be seen, his house still stands and his great-great-grandson still tills the soil.


Simon Partner has given us a sympathetic yet objective portrait of a man who for many readers would have been dismissed by many as at best a very minor player in the political and social upheavals taking place in Japan as he pursued his career.

However individually unimportant Chūemon may have been as an individual, it was really people like him who were at the forefront of Japan’s emergence as a powerful and significant industrial and mercantile power. The ups and downs of his career are reflected in the turmoil of the outside world; a war in Europe, for example, could have disastrous consequences for Japanese exports, as Chūemon discovered when the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870. Partner’s use of Chūemon’s letters fills him out, and he becomes much more than just a pawn. He emerges as a shrewd but honest businessman, “a worthy man” who loved his family (his wife stayed in their village and managed various parts of the business), had some difficulties with one of his sons, carried on in spite of a serious illness which practically killed him, and was often in debt. Nothing kept him down for long.

As Partner writes, “He is a man who, though I might not be friends with him, I would recognize if I met him today. I feel that in a way I have met him.” Thanks to Simon Partner, we can meet Chūemon too, and participate in the hustle and bustle of the emerging city of Yokohama with him.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.