Utagawa (Gountei) Sadahide (歌川 [五雲亭] 貞秀], 1807-1873) was a pupil of the Edo master Utagawa Kunisada (歌川國貞, 1786-1865). Beginning around 1826, he designed ukiyo-e prints and books on diverse subjects, including bijinga (pictures of beautiful women: 美人画), musha-e (warrior or military prints: 武者絵), fûkeiga (landscapes: 風景画) and ôgi-ga (fan prints: 扇画). He is, however, perhaps best known for his more than 100 prints and books of Yokohama-e (pictures of Yokohama: 横浜絵). He was, in fact, one of eleven artists chosen by the Tokugawa shogunate to represent Japan at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867. The consensus opinion among scholars is that Sadahide is arguably the best of the 50 or so artists who designed the more than 800 known Yokohama-e.
The Nichi-bei shûkô tsûshô jôyaku (United States-Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce: 日米修好通商条約 ), signed in 1858, opened the ports of Nagasaki and Kanagawa to western trade, although the Japanese, unilaterally, relocated those functions to Yokohama in 1859. Nevertheless, this pleased the western merchants, who found Yokohama more favorable than Kanagawa. Many Japanese, however, expressed an intense animosity toward trade with the West, particular those in the warrior class who seemed to always be on the verge of confrontation with the foreigners, which they acted upon in a few instances, including the murder of a British merchant named Charles Lennox Richardson in the so-called "Namamugi Incident" (Namamugi-jiken: 生麦事件). At best, there was an uneasy ambivalence coursing through the Japanese population in regard to relations with these Europeans, Americans, Dutch, and Russians.
Nevertheless, there remained an abiding fascination with all things foreign. In the first two years after the opening of Yokohama, there was an explosion of print production, by one count (see Yonemura ref. below) involving thirty-one artists, around fifty publishers, and more than 500 designs about life and foreigners in Yokohama. Sadahide stands out among these artists. His monumental map of the port town from 1859-60 suggests a close observation of the topography of the area, and his portrayals of the fast-changing world of Yokohama suggests many, if not all, of his compositions were based on direct observation.
When westerners began arriving in numbers to the port town of Yokohama in 1859, the Japanese thought they should provide a pleasure quarter or entertainment district on the not unreasonable assumption (to the Japanese way of thinking at the time) that western men would want a place to "play." There were courtesans and geisha, and diversions such as parties, dancing, singing, and feasting. To the surprise of the Japanese, not many westerners took advantage of the prostitutes in the quarter (despite what certain Yokohama-e of the 1860s might suggest). The Japanese brothel owners finally realized that while western men had the same impulses as native Japanese, they preferred to satisfy them secretly, rather than walk openly into the pleasure quarter day or night.
Sadahide's aerial view of the Miyazaki-kaku (pleasure quarter at Miyazaki: 宮崎郭) in Yokohama shows the walled-off area encircled by a moat and accessible only by crossing the small Yoshida Bridge and continuing through a single gate that was always guarded by sentries. Modeled after the most famous of all pleasure quarters, the Yoshiwara (葭原 then later 吉原) in Edo, this akusho ("evil place": 悪所) is shown during the brief period of annual cherry-blossom viewing. This is one of several panoramic aerial views designed by Sadahide around the same time. The leading Edo artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川國芳 1798-1861) created a scene very much like Sadahide's (see Harvard Art Museums, 2007.214.80.1-3). Kuniyoshi's triptych, published in 6/1860, brings up the possibility that he, for a quick turnaround, might have adapted Sadahide's design, which was issued fourth months earlier.
Throngs of pedestrians walk along the main route as they approach or leave the isolated quarter by way of the drum bridge. Cherry trees with their with evanescent pink blossoms were planted for the express purpose of bringing to life the thoroughfare through the open field and the interior streets of the compound. The flowers endow the scene with vibrant color and a sense of youthful joy. Such a visual display was most welcome, particularly given the national angst felt by the Japanese people over the incursion of the West into their country. Their world was coming undone as the Tokugawa shogunate weakened and found itself close to collapse after two and a half centuries of fairly isolated feudal rule. Even so, Sadahide offered an upbeat vision, an expression of Japan maintaining at least some of its traditions at a time of profound change.
Another impression of this triptych is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY (see below)
- Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (no. 2007.49.108a-c; complete triptych).
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (no. #06.2541 and 11.2152; both are left sheets only).
- Yonemura, Anne: Yokohama: Prints from Nineteenth-Century Japan. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1990.