- Opening a Window to the West: The Foreign Concession at Kōbe, Japan, 1868–1899 by Peter Ennals
Peter Ennals is emeritus professor of geography and environment at Mount Allison University. His new book, Opening a Window to the West: The Foreign [End Page 380] Concession at Kōbe, Japan, 1868–1899, is the first book-length study in the English language of the treaty port, its urban landscape, its economic activities, and its Euro-American community. That there has not been a thorough scholarly treatment of the port is surprising, given the city’s economic importance in the twentieth century. From 1914 until the devastating earthquake of 1995, Kobe served as Japan’s most important port, in terms of total import and export volume. In the nineteenth century, however, Kobe was not the first of Japan’s ports to be opened to international trade, nor the most important in terms of trade volume; in both ways it followed Yokohama. Kobe’s secondary status notwithstanding, the current study finds merit in analyzing the city as an example of the mature treaty-port system in Asia and Japan’s controlled accommodation to the West.
This work seeks to situate Kobe’s hybridization in the context of a two-century-long process of cultural transformation taking place in port cities across the Asian Pacific sphere. Ennals was twice appointed visiting professor at Kwansei Gakuin University on the outskirts of Kobe—he dedicates the book to this institution—and his interest in its cityscape is both evident and infectious. The book is nevertheless honest about its limitations. Ennals admits that his research relies only on English-language sources and hopes that it will “engage both scholars of Asian economic and social history and geography, and readers with little or no prior knowledge of Japanese treaty port development” (p. xviii). He offers some suggestive conclusions about the role of this foreign concession as a “living laboratory” of Western architecture and urban design (p. 124), the fruits of which Japanese would implement in “Osaka and other growth poles in Japan” (p. 182). The work is a qualified success in this regard but somewhat limited by an outmoded paradigm of Western agency in Japan’s modernization.
The structure of the chapters is roughly chronological. The book begins with the wider context of an emerging global economy and the construction of the foreign concession in Kobe. It concludes with a brief consideration of the ending of the treaty-port system in Japan and its manifold legacies. In between, the book proceeds thematically by examining a host of pertinent issues—municipal governance, trade statistics, infrastructure, architecture, and demography—based on maps, population data, trade statistics, governmental records, as well as the English-language press. Ennals explains how and why the port never rivaled Yokohama in the export of silk but instead developed a booming trade in tea. The discussion on the problematic nature of currency valuation in historical documents is authoritative and precise. Ennals offers a satisfyingly detailed explanation of the foreign administration of this community and how the municipal council succeeded while those of Nagasaki and Yokohama failed. We also discover the origins of Meriken Park and learn that the celebrated and well-preserved foreigner homes in the Kitano district do not in fact date to the nineteenth century. [End Page 381] These buildings were constructed after 1900 and in a style altogether distinct from the edifices built during its treaty-port days.
Several fascinating observations invite further exploration. Quite intriguingly, we learn that some foreigners rented homes on “the Hill” to allow for some “distance from Euro-American social conventions” and thus to “more easily keep a Eurasian or Japanese mistress, or share accommodation with male colleagues and partners” (p. 38). However, one yearns for even a single anecdote to lend concreteness to this suggestive assertion. Likewise, the discussion of the relative valuation of items of Western origin in Meiji Japan contains a...