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Antique and art dealer Samurai Shokai at Honcho 1-20 in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture. It sold silk, porcelain, lacquerware, jade, cloisonné, damascene and more.
The company, established by Yozo Nomura (1870-1965) in 1894 (Meiji 27), was one of the most respected dealers in Japan. It even offered financial support to traditional craftsmen, such as silversmiths and lacquer artists, so they could produce high quality products.
Terry’s Guide to the Japanese Empire, published in 1920, features a glowing review:
An old established trustworthy house (highly spoken of) with one of the finest collections (second only in point of interest to the National Museum, at Tokyo) of curios and art objects in Japan. Recognised by antiquarians and art connoisseurs as headquarters for many of the beautiful products for which Japan is celebrated. The showrooms, filled with choice Japanese, Chinese and Korean carved furniture, porcelains, ivories, bronzes, brasses, silver pieces, damascene work, gold lacquer, mother-of-pearl inlays, tea-sets, chests, screens, brocades, silks; diamond, pearl, jade and other jewelry, etc., etc., rank among the city’s most interesting sights. English is spoken in all the departments. Prices are marked in plain figures, and there are no misrepresentations. Purveyors to the Imperial Japanese Household, and to the chief Museums of the world. Wholesale and retail. Manufacturers and exporters. Mail orders a specialty. Recommended.1
Three years after these words were published, this repository of Japanese art was burned to the ground in the Great Kanto Earthquake, but Nomura managed to rebuild his company and thrive.
This postcard of Honcho-dori, shows Samurai Shokai’s location in relation to the Yokohama Kaiko Kinenkan, a building that still stands today.
Nomura, whose wife was a Christian activist (he himself was Buddhist), made it his mission to introduce Japanese art and culture to the world. He was a well-travelled man and for example visited Hawaii annually where he met members of the influential Cooke family, good customers of Samurai Shokai. The Honolulu Academy of Arts to this day owns many pieces supplied to the Cookes by Nomura.
Front view of Samurai Shokai.
Later, Nomura would also become the owner of the New Grand Hotel in Yokohama. When on August 30, 1945, General MacArthur spent his very first night in Japan at the New Grand, he was welcomed by Nomura, then already 75 years old.
In spite of his old age and the many hardships he must have endured during WWII (Yokohama was almost completely destroyed by US air raids), he was still a master at treating an important customer.
In The Fall of Japan, William Craig describes MacArthur’s first meeting with Nomura:
At the door of the New Grand Hotel, Yozo Nomura, an elderly Japanese dressed in a morning coat, waited nervously for the Supreme Allied Commander. When MacArthur arrived, he bowed and welcomed him. The General asked “How long have you been the manager of the hotel?” Nomura hastened to correct him. “I am not a manager. I am the owner. Welcome. I wish to offer my respects to you. During your stay, we’ll do our very best to service you and I hope you’ll like the room I’m going to show you.”2
MacArthur repaid Nomura’s courtesy by showing much trust and insisting that his food was not pre-tasted. As recalled in Maihafer’s Brave decisions, it was a compliment that Nomura took to heart:
That evening at the New Grand Hotel, MacArthur was served a steak dinner. As he started to eat, Whitney put a hand on his arm. “Better have someone taste that food, General. There’s a good chance it may be poisoned.”
MacArthur just laughed. “This is a good steak, and I don’t intend to share it with anyone!”
The hotel staff had also expected MacArthur to request a precautionary tasting. When he did not, Yozo Nomura, the hotel owner, came to the table to express gratitude for this expression of “great trust,” saying he and his employees were “honored beyond belief.”3
The back garden of Samurai Shokai.
Japan Today: A Souvenir of the Anglo-Japanese Exhibition Held in London 1910, published in 1910, features a brief introduction to Nomura that sheds some light on his background:
Visitors to Yokohama will find a large fine art and curio shop in the corner of Itchome, Honcho, and will be quite impressed with the splendor of the building. On stepping inside one will observe a huge image of Nio, the guardian god generally found in front of Buddhist temples. This is none other than the Samurai Shokwai which is known otherwise as the Fine Arts Museum of Yokohama. Gold, silver, and copper wares, pictorial lacquered wares, porcelains, ivory, wood carvings bags, and other objects of arts both old and new embellish this shop, so that it is sometimes mistaken for a public fine art museum. Visitors from all parts of the world are attracted to the Samurai Shokwai to make purchases, and the shop is crowded with foreign ladies and gentlemen.
The proprietor of the Samurai Shokwai is Mr. Yozo Nomura. Only a few decades have elapsed since the Samurai Shokwai was established, but owing to the business ability of its proprietor the firm has made wonderful progress. In front of the establishment is a sign board with gilded letters, “the King of Curios,” indicating the high ambition Mr. Nomura’s which has been deservedly realized. The store has grown to be the largest Fine Art Emporium in the Orient.
An observation of the career of this successful man at once shows that all was not smooth sailing for him. Mr. Nomura studied both in Keiogijiku and Waseda Universities, but he had to leave school before completing the regular courses. His ambition was to seek his fortune in foreign countries. He crossed over to America as an interpreter to a commissioner sent from the Central Tea Traders Association, but was separated from his friend there, which caused him many difficulties. It did not take him very long to discover splendid opportunities. It was just at this time that Mr. Charles Parson, one of the Railway Kings of America, sold the railway in his possession, and realized a profit of 3,000,000 dollars. Mr. Nomura urged him to cross over to Japan and make an investment in Japanese enterprises. In company with Mr. Parson, he came back to Japan where he became engaged in making a collection of fine art objects for him. It was at this time that he began to develop a taste for the trade.
He served in the capacity of clerk for a firm after his third return from Europe, where he was well treated but he was far from being satisfied with remaining there in such a limited position. Making up his mind to establish himself at his own cost, he resigned his post in the firm. Not- withstanding all his resolutions, he was handicapped financially, but after repeated efforts, he succeeded in borrowing two military bonds with a face value of one hundred yen each, which he had cashed thus realizing 170 yen. He rented a house in Itchome, Honcho, Yokohama, (which now forms a part of his present establishment) at a rent of 45 yen, and launched his project under the name, “Samurai Shokwai.” This was 15 years ago. When all the equipments were made in the way of electric lighting etc. there was left in his pocket the trifling sum of 7 yen 21 sen.
At first his business had necessarily to be on a small scale. He had to run about among his friends in order to borrow unsalable articles in order to embellish his own shop. At the beginning when the business was started, the proceeds for three days ran up to only ten yen. This deplorable state of affairs lasted for several months, but the saying that necessity is the mother of invention was amply illustrated in his case. Not long after, Mr. Morgan made a purchase of over 3,000 yen, and Mr. Yu, Chinese Minister to Japan, bought 2,000 yen worth of goods, which emboldened Mr. Nomura who was then on the verge of despondency. In connection with the Samurai Shokwai, Mr. Hodgeson, an Englishman who made a purchase of curios amounting to 100,000 yen through the hands of Mr. Nomura, must not be forgotten.
Honesty is the best business policy. Mr. Nomura is so accommodating to foreign visitors that they always feel assured that there will be no trouble arising in connection with transportation etc. if their purchases are taken to the Samurai Shokwai, where all this is attended to. Lastly, we must remember that Mr. Nomura was educated in the West, and that he is indebted for his present success to Mr. Baten Hall.4
1 Terry, T. Philip (1920). Terry’s Guide to the Japanese Empire Including Korea and Formosa. Houghton Mifflin Company, 6.
2 Craig, William(1967). The fall of Japan. Dial Press, 294.
3 Maihafer, Harry J. (1999). Brave decisions: fifteen profiles in courage and character from American military history. Brassey’s, 160. ISBN 1574882074
4 Mochizuki, Kotaro (1910). Japan Today: A Souvenir of the Anglo-Japanese Exhibition Held in London 1910. The Liberal News Agency, 479.