This paper seeks to examine the transformative impact of the Treaty Port system on East Asian port cities. It looks into whether the Treaty Port system was transformative everywhere by deliberately shifting the lens to a peripheral Treaty Port. Located in the northernmost part of the Japanese realm, Hakodate was one of Japan’s first Treaty Ports, having been opened as a supply port for the ships of foreign Treaty Powers in 1855. From 1859 onwards it was open to trade under a regime of low fixed-tariffs and with the merchants of Treaty powers provided with extraterritorial rights.
The paper argues that in Hakodate, Treaty Port status, though not a hindrance, was not crucial in itself to commercial development and the port’s growth. Instead, Hakodate was transformed from what the British minister to Japan described as “a long fishing village” in 1859 into a bustling port of over 50,000 by the mid-1880s, principally as a result of Japanese regional integration and the expansion of intra-Asian trade, as well as greater efforts to colonise/develop Hakodate’s hinterland, the island of Hokkaido (formerly Ezo, or Yesso). The paper examines the case of the short-lived West Pacific Company Limited (WPC), which demonstrates how fragile the foothold of Western enterprise was in peripheral Treaty Ports and how the advantages of extraterritoriality and Japan’s non-tariff autonomy often counted for little in efforts to develop a stable trade. Furthermore, the WPC demonstrates how the survival of Western enterprise, at Hakodate at least, was predicated on whether Western merchants were able to service intra-Asian trade in existing commodity staples rather than foster new ones.
The second aim of the paper is to move away from the numerous studies on the larger or more enduring Treaty Port firms, most notably Jardine Matheson & Co., and give a ‘face’ to Western enterprise in more peripheral ports like Hakodate. All too often foreign merchants resident in Treaty Ports have been dismissed as a kind of motley rabble of sub-imperialists or derided as “the moral refuse of European nations”. Yet despite this image, very few studies have examined their business activities and their interaction with local authority, local merchants and one another. The paper seeks to rectify this oversight, not necessarily so as to rehabilitate their image and save treaty porter face; rather because a closer look at their activities is, aside from providing insight into the role of Western traders in nineteenth century East Asia, also an effective means to understanding the growth of intra-Asian trade and to appreciate local agency in the Treaty Port context.