YOKOHAMA -- An old photo of this city's Chinatown, south of Tokyo, obtained last year by a 50-year-old collector here, was taken in the early Meiji era (1868-1912) and is likely the oldest extant snapshot of the area, analysis has shown.
It had been believed that another picture of the same spot taken around 1880 was the oldest of its kind, but the man's photo is believed to have been taken in 1874 or before that.
An expert who analyzed the photo says it was likely taken by the late Austrian photographer Raimund Freiherr von Stillfried (1839-1911), who was residing in Yokohama at the time.
The photo's current owner, Hiroshi Yamamoto, who runs a pastry shop in the city, has taken an interest in the history of the Port of Yokohama, which opened in 1859, and over the past dozen years or so he has collected old postcards and pictures of the area. His collection now includes some 700 items.
The photo in question shows a foreign residence with the house number 165 standing in an area that diverges into the current Chukagai Odori and Kaiko Do streets. Yamamoto noticed the photo as something "interesting that didn't look like Chinatown" after finding it in an American antiques shop in May 2019.
The back of the cardboard on which the photo was set shows the date May 27, 1874 written in English. According to 72-year-old Takio Saito, a former researcher at the Yokohama Archives of History, at the time the photo was taken, local businesses that were in operation included a currency exchange corner, the bookbinder "Nam Sing," the shoe store "Wo Hing," construction firm "Chew," and a photo studio, all of which can be seen to the right of the residence. The name "Hung Cheong," provided as an explanation of the product by the antiques shop, was the name of the owner of the photo studio.
It is not known, however, whether the date refers to the time the photo was taken, or when it was obtained by another owner.
A separate photo taken around 1880 shows a residence with the same house number with gaslights. According to Saito, gaslights were introduced at foreign residences in 1874. Yamamoto's photo does not show gaslights, suggesting that it was taken in 1874 or before.
After the Port of Yokohama opened, Chinese people in the area worked in trading and as craftspeople. Chinese residents in Yokohama numbered 2,245 in 1879 -- the year after a Chinese consulate was established there -- accounting for about 60% of foreign residents in Japan at the time. The old photo is an indication of how Chinese society was formed in Yokohama.
Saito speculates that the photo was taken by Raimund Freiherr von Stillfried, as he used to put titles at the bottom of his images ("Yokohama" in the case of this photo) and emphasized the horizon by placing it in the center of his photos.
Stillfried lived in Yokohama for a long time, and is said to have learned much of his techniques from photographer Felice Beato (1832-1909), who influenced many other photographers. Saito asked Luke Gartlan at the British University of St Andrews, who is well acquainted with the history of photography, about the photo. Gartlan replied via email that the photo was very rare, and although he could not say for sure that it was taken by Stillfried, it bore many qualities of his work.
Since April 2019, the Mainichi Shimbun has been publishing articles featuring old photos of Yokohama that Yamatomo collected, with Saito's explanations, in its Kanagawa Prefecture edition. The photo of the foreign residence was recently analyzed by Saito. Yamamoto commented, "If Mr. Saito hadn't noticed it, I never would have known the photo's value. I really want many people to see it." The 50-year-old is considering donating the picture to the Yokohama Archives of History.
House number 165 is in an area near Chinatown's Chaoyang gate, and is now a police box administered by Kanagawa Prefectural Police. The area was crowded with tourists before the spread of the novel coronavirus.
(Japanese original by Takuji Nakata, Yokohama Bureau)