Trade and Conflict at the Japanese Frontier: Hakodate as a Treaty Port, 1854–1884
Sitting in calm and deep waters, neatly tucked away from the sometimes perilous streams of the North Pacific and Japan Sea, Hakodate was in some ways an obvious choice as a port to be opened. It offered a suitable location for American whalers to call for supplies and repairs as they ventured on voyages of plunder in the nearby seas, and a safe anchorage for the naval ships of treaty powers—especially Russia—as they “wintered” or otherwise sought to project their power over East Asia. Despite the blessings of its physical geography, however, Hakodate sat on the southern tip of Ezo (later Hokkaido), an island which constituted the thinly populated fringe, or frontier, of the Japanese realm. This meant that despite its rumoured richness in natural resources, Ezo was by all accounts an economic backwater when Hakodate was opened to international trade, providing exports of various marine products to the main islands of Japan via a network of seasonal fisheries across Ezo. In the decades that followed Hakodate’s opening, the port’s trade and population expanded rapidly, transforming what was previously described as “a long fishing village” into a bustling port of over 50,000 by the mid-1880s. Nonetheless, this paper will argue that this expansion was not primarily a result of the opening of Hakodate to international trade; rather, it was the opening of Hakodate’s hinterland—Ezo, or from 1869, Hokkaido—which allowed Hakodate to prosper, enhancing its existing role as a hub for the marketing and distribution of northern marine products throughout Japan. The fact that foreign traders struggled to make any inroads into Hakodate’s principal trades serves as a warning to scholars not overstate the transformative capacity of western capitalism everywhere in East Asia.
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