In April 1859, at age fifty, Shinohara Chuemon left his old life behind. Chuemon, a well-off farmer in his home village, departed for the new port city of Yokohama, where he remained for the next fourteen years. There, as a merchant trading with foreigners in the aftermath of Japan's 1853 "opening" to the West, he witnessed the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate, the civil war that followed, and the Meiji Restoration's reforms. The Merchant's Tale looks through Chuemon's eyes at the upheavals of this period, using the story of an ordinary merchant farmer and its Yokohama setting as a vantage point onto sweeping social transformation and its unwitting agents. In a narrative history rich in colorful detail, Simon Partner focuses on Japan's common people to investigate the relationship between individual motivation and social change. Chuemon, like most newcomers to Yokohama, came in search of economic opportunity.
Partner explores how he and other mundane actors in Yokohama's daily life shed light on vital issues in Japan's modern history, including the legacies of the Meiji Restoration; the nature of the East Asian treaty port system; and the importance of regimes of daily life such as food, clothing, medicine, and hygiene in the negotiation of national identity. Though centered on the experiences of an individual, The Merchant's Tale is also the history of a place. Created under pressure from aggressive foreign powers, Yokohama was the scene of gunboat diplomacy, the birthplace of new lifestyles, a connection to global markets, and the beachhead of Japan's technological modernization. Partner's microhistory of a vibrant meeting place humanizes the story of Japan's revolutionary 1860s and their profound consequences for Japanese society and culture.