The Last Shogun of Japan and Paddington Bear: the story of Hakodate

It is said that we can link anyone in the world through no more than five connections. The link between the last Shogun of Japan and Paddington Bear however is considerably shorter than might be expected. These two unlikely characters are in their own way a part of the history of the city of Hakodate and a look at how they are connected provides an insight into a fascinating period in Japanese history.

Town Hall, Hakodate

The Shogun

Let’s start with the shogun. By 1853 Japan had maintained a policy of international isolation for almost 300 years. In that year the American Commodore Matthew Perry landed his small fleet without permission near the Japanese city of Edo (now Tokyo). After a series of discussions which appear to have been a mix of negotiation and threat, the Shogun eventually agreed to open up a number of treaty ports and trade quickly boomed with the world’s major powers.

Hakodate in its heyday

As a major port Hakodate benefited greatly from this new openness. At the southern tip of the northern island of Hokkaido, the mild summer climate made Hakodate very popular with the Russian, British and American merchant seamen who were keen to escape the tropical heat. Very soon the city became a melting pot of cultures and languages, with churches of all denominations springing up and consulates established to provide support for the many foreigners who visited the city.

Churches of Hakodate

Fire was a constant enemy in Hakodate, with the wind coming in from the sea and fanning the flames of any small fires that broke out in the city’s wooden houses. Churches and government buildings were destroyed and rebuilt time and time again, some were moved to other parts of town but few escaped being burned down at least once in the 19th and early 20th century. But the city thrived and grew quickly in size until the port lost its strategic importance between the two world wars.

Visiting Hakodate today

Fast forward to 2011 and a walk through the Motomachi district of Hakodate provides a wonderful insight into the rich history of this northern port. Visitors can wander into the churches belonging to the Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Episcopal denominations. Grand European style buildings blend uneasily with Japanese architecture while the steep slope on which Motomachi is built provides dramatic views down to the harbour and a constant reminder of what made this city such an important outpost.

Old British Consulate

The British consulate was one of the busiest official buildings in Hakodate’s heyday, serving the needs of the many sailors and traders who came here and found themselves ashore, far from home in what was at that time a largely unknown land. The consulate closed its doors in 1934 by which time the city’s influenced had waned, but the building was restored and re-opened in 1994 as a site of cultural importance.

Visitors to the grand old house can learn about the story of Hakodate and how it welcomed the seamen of the world with a mix of curiosity and suspicion. Exhibits reaveal a little of the lives of the early British consuls and their work, helping not just their countrymen but also supporting the local Japanese community. A giant map covering a whole floor depicts how the city would have looked in the 19th century at the height of its commercial boom.

Original Crest from British Consulate in HakodateThere was no English spoken by any of the staff we encountered at the museum but most exhibits have English translations. There is even a traditional Victorian Tea Room on site where you can enjoy an afternoon tea, complete with scones, jam and cream.

Paddington Bear

At the entrance to the museum is a British gift shop, where you can find all manner of British related trinkets. As a Brit I always find it fascinating to see which items are associated with our country and this shop did not disappoint. All the stereotypes were on full show: Union Jack hats, every variety of tea cosy, dear-stalker hats and even Welsh flags.

And Paddington. He was available as a cuddly toy, on an apron or on the front of a T-shirt; clearly Michael Bond’s character still represents a popular face of Britain in the 21st century.

Paddington Bear in Japan

I wonder if Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last Shogun ruler of Japan, would have guessed that one of the lasting symbols of his decision to open up Japan to the outside world would be a very polite bear in a duffle coat who was rather partial to a marmalade sandwich.

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2 Responses to “The Last Shogun of Japan and Paddington Bear: the story of Hakodate”

  1. Looks like a fascinating place. What style of building is the second pic then? I wonder if the gift shops of darkest Peru are over-run with Paddington merch too…

    October 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm
    • That one is the Episcopal Church – apparently when viewed from above it has the shape of a perfect cross.
      Paddington in Peru.. suspect the most folk haven’t heard of him. He might need to ditch the coat if he wants to make it big in deepest darkest Peru. But then what would Mr Brown say?

      October 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm