American Visitors Depicted by Japanese Artists

The 1860s saw the emergence of 'Yokohama-e', a type of woodblock print dedicated to the representation of foreigners visiting Japan.


WordsClémence Leleu

Yoshikazu Utagawa, “Shosha - Amerikajin”, 1861 © Public domain

A separate genre within the larger ukiyo-e family, those Japanese woodblock prints whose name translates into English as ‘pictures of the floating world’, Yokohama-e do not depict flora and fauna but rather foreigners, particularly North Americans, who were on Japanese soil in the 1860s.

These works were mainly produced by the two artists central to this artistic movement: Yoshitora Utagawa and Yoshizaku Utagawa. For almost twenty years, they captured images of foreigners discovering Japan, which at the time was slowly opening up to the West. 


Documenting new developments

From 1639, Japan entered an isolationist era known as sakoku that would last for over two centuries. It was not until 1854, under the coercion of Commodore Perry, that the country signed a peace treaty re-establishing diplomatic and trading relations with the USA. In 1859, the port of Yokohama became one of the main ports for trade with America. As a result, the North American population was larger there than anywhere else in Japan, giving rise to this new art form of Yokohama-e

The American presence in Japanese territory continues to be documented today, particularly by photographers like Greg Girard in his series Hotel Okinawa.


More information about Yokohama-e can be found on the Library of Congress website.  

Yoshitora Utagawa, 'Bankoku zukushi - Amerikajin', 1860 © Public domain

Yoshitora Utagawa, 'Amerikajin - Bango Wakai', 1863 © Public domain

Yoshikazu Utagawa, 'Yokohama meisho benten: Amerikajin', 1861 © Public domain

Yoshitoyo Utagawa, 'Amerikajin Kodomo O Aisu Zu', 1860 © Public Domain

Yoshitora Utagawa, 'Amerikajin No Zu', 1861 © Public domain

Yoshitora Utagawa, 'Gokakoku no uchi - Amerikajin', 1861 © Public domain

Sadahide Utagawa, 'Yokohama kyujitsu Amerikajin yuko', 1861 © Public domain