A large crowd strolls through Yokohama’s lively Isezaki-cho on a hot summer afternoon. Many people can be seen holding umbrellas. Perhaps to ward off the stinging rays of the sun.
Upon its foundation, Yokohama was divided into a quarter for foreigners popularly called the Kannai and a native town, called the Kangai. Over the years a large number of bridges were built between these two. Yoshidabashi, marked on the map below as Kanenobashi, opened in 1911 (Meiji 44), lead straight into Isezaki-cho, which for many years made it Yokohama’s busiest bridge.2
Isezaki-cho, popularly known as Zaki was built on reclaimed ground in 1874 (Meiji 7). Closely located towards both Kannai and Yokohama’s red light district, it soon became a popular destination itself. The first theater huts were set up here as early as 1877 (Meiji 10). After a disastrous fire destroyed most of Kangai in 1899 (Meiji 32), the area underwent readjustment and became even more popular.
The street was lined with clothing shops, restaurants, gift shops and countless theaters decorated with colorful banners and flags with the names of theaters and actors in bold kanji characters. Later, movie theaters would choose this street as their home as well.
The street was known among foreigners as Theater Street. The authoritative Terry’s Guide to the Japanese Empire (1920) described it as a “kaleidoscopic thoroughfare attractive to tourists because of the seething life and color of the myriad shops and harlequin theaters.”2
Three years after this guide was published, the Great Kanto Earthquake would raze the city and Isezaki-cho to the ground. It was soon rebuilt, but it had forever lost its pre-quake charm and chaotic beauty.
By the 1930s, a stroll down this street came to be known as Ise-bura, a popular way to spend one’s free time in Yokohama. But this bliss would not last long.
During WWII, it was burned to the ground again after hundreds of US bombers bombarded the port city with hundreds of thousands of incendiary bombs. No less than 58% of Yokohama was destroyed, a fate similar to that of nearby Tokyo, which also underwent terrible air-raids.
In the movie The Fog of War, a 2003 documentary about the life and times of Robert S. McNamara, the former US Secretary of Defense comments about the American use of napalm on 67 Japanese cities under the command of General Curtis LeMay.
According to McNamara, LeMay said that “‘If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals.”
“LeMay recognized,” McNamara continues, “that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”3
Isezaki-cho after WWII air-raids
After the war ended, Isezaki-cho was once again rebuilt. It still is a busy shopping street today with fashion boutiques, shoe shops, bookstores, coffee shops, movie theaters and shops selling anything one may desire. On the location where Shintomitei once delighted theatergoers, now stands Excel Isezaki, a huge gambling house operated by JRA where one can place bets on Japan’s popular horse races.
Gambling on horses has actually been a custom here for almost as long as the city exists. Japan’s very first race track was set up by foreigners in Yokohama’s Negishi in 1867 (Keiou 3).
1 Wikipedia, Tokyo Yoshimoto. Retrieved on 2008-04-04.
2 Terry, T. Philip (1920). Terry’s Guide to the Japanese Empire Including Korea and Formosa. Houghton Mifflin Company, 16.
3 Morris, Errol (2003). The Fog of War. Sony Pictures.
4 The complete transcript of The Fog of War is available at The Fog of War: Transcript.
Reference for Citations
Duits, Kjeld (). Yokohama 1910s: Isezaki-cho 2-chome, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on January 17, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/145/isezaki-cho-2-chome
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