Yokohama – opening the gates of Japan to the world

Minato Mirai 21, the central business district of Yokohama City, Japan.

Minato Mirai 21, the central business district of Yokohama City, Japan.

By Muizzu Ibrahim

Japan is a country that surely needs no introduction. Boasting a distinctive culture and image, the ground-breaking inventions and technological advances achieved by this nation are admired around the world. However, the story of how Japan rose from a “closed country” to exhibit its creations to the outside world is unique.

It is the story of Yokohama, a city situated to the south of Japan’s capital Tokyo. Travelling through this city now reveals a wide vista of modern-day sights with towering buildings and meandering highways, contemporary parks and neatly arranged roads, subway stations and high-speed bullet trains, lofty shopping malls and five-star hotels; the list is endless.

With a population of 3.7 million residents, Yokohama is the second most populated city in Japan behind Tokyo. Also highly popular among tourists, Yokohama certainly does not lose out to the capital in terms of progress and development. This is the Yokohama of today. For a person viewing the city as it is now, it would be difficult to believe that until a mere century and half ago, Yokohama was but a small fishing village occupied by only 600 people.

Until the mid-1800’s, Yokohama was a small fishing district. Its population was no higher than that of a small island in the Maldives. The “closed country” policy of Japan at that time, termed “Sakoku” in Japanese, completely cut off the nation from the rest of the world. Subsequently, Yokohama had little development to boast. However, Japan finally opened its doors to the outside world with the nation’s first international port developed at Yokohama in 1859. The port, which opens into Tokyo Bay, began the domino effect which garnered Japan the fame it boasts now.

Aerial view of the Port of Yokohama in Yokohama City, Japan.

Aerial view of the Port of Yokohama in Yokohama City, Japan.

The Port of Yokohama was developed under the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, the peace treaty signed between Japan and the United States in 1858. The treaty was the beginning of the end for “Sakoku”, the closed country foreign relations policy that began in the 17th century. Sakoku had placed strict restrictions on the entry of foreigners to Japan and forbidden the Japanese from leaving the country without authorisation. Those who left would face severe punishment should they return.

Following the end of Sakoku, the world turned its gaze to Japan, suddenly presented with a golden opportunity to establish trade relations with the eastern nation. The Port of Yokohama raised Yokohama to become the main international commercial hub of the country. As importation of foreign goods and exportation of raw silk and tea leaves became established, Yokohama went down in history as the gates that invited the world to Japan.

As more and more international traders were gradually drawn to its port, Yokohama soon focussed on a single goal: to rise from the status of a small fishing ward to become a developed city with technological comforts.

Over the course of 150 years, Yokohama has achieved its goal. It is now the second most developed city in Japan after Tokyo, its main rival. The city also draws 800,000 tourists annually, boasting an array of famous landmarks, state-of-the-art transportation systems, cutting edge healthcare, factories and, of course, international port and harbours.

A tourist area in Yokohama City, Japan.

A tourist area in Yokohama City, Japan.

Yokohama is also a rising power in the eyes of major businesses and establishments. A number of renowned corporations, such as Nissan Motor, have left capital Tokyo in favour of establishing their main headquarters in Yokohama City.

The Port of Yokohama continues to thrive and advance to this day. In 2013, APM Terminals, an international container terminal operator, named the Port of Yokohama as the world’s leading terminal in productivity.

Alongside its numerous advancements, Yokohama City also faces its fair share of challenges. One of its most worrying ordeals currently is the one faced by all of Japan – low birth rate and increasing aging population. According to the latest statistics, Japan’s population growth rate has significantly dropped while its aging population ranks among one of the highest in the world.

With the declining population growth rate, Yokohama now faces danger of a future without a generation to carry on its legacy. The main reason behind Japan’s low birth rate is the increase in cost of living that comes with progress. As a result, the number of couples trying for children have dropped, dramatically lowering the country’s birth rate.

According to Yokohama’s Culture and Tourism Bureau’s Director General Kozue Nakayama, the cost of living in Yokohama is relatively lower than in Tokyo but not much compared to other cities. Noting that most married couples work, he explained that parents are often not affluent enough to leave their children in nursing homes or under the care of others, which accounts for the reason most couples do not try for children lately.

A street in Yokohama City, Japan.

A street in Yokohama City, Japan.

Yokohama City is now working to find solutions to the low birth rate problem. One of its main targets is to increase both the population and number of expatriates working in the city. The efforts of the city management are slowly yielding results. Yokohama, which used to be just a place to rest one’s head, now boasts a large number of people who live and work in the city itself. Moreover, the number of foreigners working in Yokohama amount to around 80,000, according to Director General Nakayama.

Yet, Yokohama is no stranger to major tribulations, and it has earned a reputation for overcoming obstacles with stunning efficiency. One such instance is the Great Kantou earthquake that struck Tokyo and Yokohama in 1923. The earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 had destroyed the metropolitan area of Yokohama along with Tokyo and other surrounding cities, but Yokohama was rebuilt again within a short period of only six years.

A second round of devastation followed when the United States bombed Yokohama during air raids in the Second World War. The bombing demolished 42 percent of the city but, again, Yokohama was quick to rise from the ashes. Furthermore, the city was struggling with the challenge of having the United States occupying parts Yokohama for military use in 1945 when another ordeal in the form of an abrupt population boom arose. Yet, Yokohama persevered and the city eventually came through with speed and efficacy.

Buildings along the waterfront of Yokohama City, Japan.

Buildings along the waterfront of Yokohama City, Japan.

Yokohama is also a rather prominent name in the field of sports. The 2002 FIFA World Cup Final was held at the International Stadium, also known as Nissan Stadium, in Yokohama, an event that the city is proud of to this day.

Currently, the city is gearing up to host a historical function, preparing for the 50th Annual Meeting of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) which is to take place coming May. The preparations included extending an invitation to a journalist of each member state of ADB to visit Yokohama City. The objective of the invitation, according to the annual meeting’s Executive Director Naoshi Nagura, is to make known the achievements, challenges and success of Yokohama City to the world.

The staggering accomplishments achieved over such a short time is a source of great pride to the port city of Yokohama. The city’s tale of triumph and development is a paradigm for other nations to follow. Yokohama’s greatest aim now is to seek a solution to Japan’s nationwide problem of the decreasing population growth.

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