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Dissertation Medal Winner 2012

Oriental Orientalism in Japan – The Case of Yokohama Chinatown

Part 2 Dissertation 2012
Mathew Leung
Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL) | UK
The concept of an innate ‘Japanese spirit’, distinct from those of all other countries and ethnicities, is an idea that appears to fascinate many; both in the West and within Japan itself. This ‘Japan-ness’ is said to be manifest in etiquette, in philosophy, in architecture, and in some versions of the myth, even in race. The prospect of a substantial ‘alien’ population residing in these conditions is intriguing, especially if these Chinese residents are noted for their ability to create communities that appear “separate and apart”, whilst constituting the largest ethnic minority in the country.

Within this context, we might be tempted to think of the presence of Chinatown in Yokohama as an island of ‘Chinese-ness’ in a sea of ‘Japan-ness’. This reading however, fails on a general level to acknowledge the enormous complexity of the relationship between China and Japan, as well as Yokohama’s unique history as the first Japanese port to have opened after 200 years of self-imposed national isolation.
This thesis presents Yokohama Chinatown as a complex case of cultural identity and representation, suggesting that whilst its exuberant modern-day manifestation is estimated to have as many visitors as Tokyo Disneyland, its success represents a narrow and context-specific acceptance of the Chinese people within contemporary Japanese society.

It is argued that the term ‘Chinatown’ describes a social construct as much as physical space, and that the role of each ‘host’ society is intrinsic to this cultural construction. Thus the discussion is located in relation to Japanese national identity and the concepts of ‘authenticity’ and ‘Oriental Orientalism’, that are developed through the examination of other Chinatowns around the world.

Intrinsic to this analysis is the idea that architecture is intimately connected with its wider context, both in a physical and socio-political sense. Thus a detailed exploration of the physical fabric of Yokohama Chinatown is undertaken, not only to make known a fascinating example of urban cultural construction, but also in order to understand, in more general terms, how different groups of people come to occupy different parts of our cities.

Mathew Leung

Professor Murray Fraser
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