What Japanese People Thought Westerners Looked Like in 1860

Japan began the slow process of re-opening its ports

Fortress for centuries
Before the 1850s, Japan had been virtually a fortress for centuries. Few Japanese people were allowed to travel outside the country, and few foreigners were let in. That changed in 1853, when the U.S. sent four battleships to hang out in Edo Bay, near the port city of Yokohama, and essentially forced the Japanese to trade with them. It worked, and Japan began the slow process of re-opening its ports.

But many Japanese people had never seen a Westerner, and were understandably super curious about these foreigners suddenly arriving on their shores. To satisfy the curiosity of people who never got to see foreign travelers, artists created woodblock carvings showing what Westerners and the places they hailed from looked like, as well as portraits of life in Yokohama after foreign ships arrived. Called Yokohama-e (Yokohama pictures), some were sort of like tabloids—a little shoddily sourced. Most artists took inspiration from newspapers and journals of the day to figure out how people in places like England dressed, and what far-off lands like Washington, D.C. looked like. Done in the iconic Japanese illustration style, these ladies and gentlemen—and their Western hometowns—often ended up looking a little different than the typical Westerner might imagine them.

Washington, D.C.

An American woman and her child, 1860.

This one's called Setting Sail from a Port in California in America.

In America, people look at hot air balloons all the time! 1867.

Compare England, above, with America, below. They're basically the same place.

North America in 1866.


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